“Are you the spirit whose coming was foretold to me?”
The Scoop: PG 1992, directed by Brian Henson and starring Michael Caine, Kermit the Frog and The Great Gonzo.
Summary Capsule: Basically, the Muppets, right? Do A Christmas Carol.
Louise’s rating: 5 out of 5 mistakenly deleted scenes.
Louise review: Charles Dickens did an amazing thing when he wrote his short novel A Christmas Carol. He basically made the modern Christmas. Many people in the English-speaking world have an idea of how the feast day should be celebrated, and that idea can be summed up as ‘Victorian, but with brighter lights outside the houses.’ And what do they mean by Victorian? They mean, ‘like in A Christmas Carol.‘ Everything that is in the popular conception of Christmas is in Dickens’ story, from the big bird to the games, to wanting to ‘do something’ for the homeless. The other thing we all like at Christmas, of course, is something slightly spooky. Something, if you will, to burst the bubble of food and complacency. How about three ghosts, glimpses of a past half-forgotten, an unpleasant future, and a joyful present just waiting to be discovered?
A Christmas Carol has become the secular Christmas story par excellence: filmed and re-filmed for cinema and TV, filmed as a musical, a vehicle for Bill Murray, the basis of a thousand ‘special holiday episodes’ of various other shows, animated with Mickey Mouse cast as Bob Cratchitt, reimagined for the 90s, and, of course, the Muppets have had a go. Of course they have. This cinematic jewel was my first proper introduction to the Muppets, and it remains my favourite Muppet film (pace Great Muppet Caper), my favourite Christmas film (sorry, Miracle on 34th Street), my favourite adaptation of the novel (try and stay calm, George C. Scott version), and jockeying for position in my personal top twenty movies of all time.
Michael Caine plays Ebenezer Scrooge, a miserly Victorian moneylender. In a story narrated enthusiastically by Charles Dickens (The Great Gonzo) with sarcastic commentary from Rizzo the Rat, Scrooge’s cold heart is melted in the course of a single Christmas Eve night, courtesy of a singularly personal haunting. Three spirits show him visions of his own history, how his curmudgeonly and greedy behaviour is currently viewed, and his sad fate if he doesn’t mend his ways. Kermit the Frog embodies all that is kind and peaceable as Scrooge’s employee Mr Bob Cratchitt (with Miss Piggy as Mrs Cratchitt, natch), Fozzie Bear is Scrooge’s former employer Old Fozziwig, Statler and Waldorf cameo as the deceased Marley brothers, and there are small roles for Sam the Eagle, Bunsen and Honeydew and Electric Mayhem.
I think the basis of the story is very, very powerful. I think it must be one of the best ideas every come up with by a novelist. Everyone has their memories, of course, but how would it be to actually view your own history happen, to be a witness to some of the happiest and saddest and most important moments of your life? How would it feel to see your childhood self, and realize from an outsider’s point of view to what extent your treatment then affected the choices you made later, and brought you to the way you are today? To see someone else’s reactions to you, in a way you weren’t able to then. To see yourself in a moment, and realize how crucial that moment was, but also to appreciate how little you understood then. My word, it absolutely blows my mind! Then, to suddenly get a wider perspective than one’s own life. How would I react, if I was really able to see how other people live, the good and the bad? What about if I learnt how others really feel and talk about me when I’m not there? If I was given that chance, would I take it? Finally, what are the consequences of my behaviour now? Can I have that vision, please, no matter how horrifying? I’m sure I could do with a second chance. Of course, it could be argued that what A Christmas Carol comes down to is perspective – Scrooge gains a new perspective on his past, present and future – and now we have therapy and self-help books for that. My response is, who wants therapy, or to watch a movie about someone reading a self-help book and gaining an appreciation of their life while they sit in their living room? Give me supernatural shenanigans in a Christmas setting, and away with all the rest! No wonder the novel is repeatedly mined for new versions. My money is on a Game of Thrones version coming out in 2013.
Let’s talk about this version, shall we? It’s the Muppets, so it follows that the film is humorous. It’s Disney, so it follows that it is clean and gentle, with melancholy balanced by the warm fuzzies. What’s new? I think it’s the songs that make this film so special, because they are excellent: tuneful, witty or heartstrings-tugging, evocative of time and season, and most importantly, memorable. Shall I go into them in detail? Yes, I think I shall. We begin with a number introducing Scrooge and unpalatable personality – the music is alternately menacing and bouncy. We also have two of the most wonderful songs about the excitement of Christmas ever – one is about *that* Christmas Eve feeling, and the other is about the joys of the winter and festive season – “It’s in the singing of a street corner choir, it’s going home and getting warm by the fire… a sweet reunion with a friend or a brother, a pair of mittens that were made by your mother, a part of childhood you always remember, the summer of the soul in December.” Oh man, just typing I’m getting choked up! The Cratchitts lead us in a prayerful song about peace in our lives, the Marleys eat the scenery and rattle chains in ‘Marley and Marley’ (“Our hearts were painted black!”), and there is a charming ballad sung by young Scrooge’s fiancee Belle about how they have missed their chance to be happy together. This last number is absolutely crucial to Scrooge’s character arc, as it’s from that point that he really opens himself to the lessons the subsequent spirits have to teach him. It’s called ‘When Love Is Gone’ and its theme is largely summed up in its title.(Unfortunately, this song only appears in certain releases. Studios, you really don’t do yourselves any favours sometimes.) Anyway, Muppet Christmas Carol is fantastic as a musical, and getting a copy of the soundtrack album is to be recommended.
Some credit for the joy to be found in the film must also be given to Michael Caine, for being one of the best comedic foils with which the Muppets have had the privilege of working. He never looks uncomfortable with his felt and fibreglass co-stars and he lets them steal the scenes with grace. Nevertheless, I enjoy his work here in its own right. Caine’s Scrooge is gruff and fierce, low-key yet emotionally driven. I could be seeing his performance through rose-tinted spectacles – it’s not as dynamic/repellent as Jim Carrey‘s, or as dynamic/stylish as Bill Murray, or as dynamic/violent as a modern-day version I saw once which showed Scrooge himself throwing debtors out of their homes and callously destroying their possessions. Compared to these Scrooges, he’s not very interesting. In fact, the more I think about it, maybe the reason I like Caine here is because he provides a focus for calm in the midst of the Muppet mania, seriousness amidst all the surreal and fast-paced comedy. That said, I think he is very effective in the scenes set in Christmas Past, where Scrooge views his past happiness and sadness, realizing where he sinned and where he was sinned against, and his sobs as he wipes the snow off his own tombstone still raise the hairs on the back of my neck.
I do love this Muppet Christmas Carol beast. It works on many levels. At first glance, it’s a fun comedic caper with sight-gags, inappropriately modern fourth-wall-breaking and songs. That level is entertaining and uplifting. Then we have the Christmas setting, and the ‘true meaning of Christmas’ layer (but I don’t want to go into what the true meaning of Christmas is – to each his own). In my opinion, a viewing is guaranteed to make you feel Christmassy. Finally, there’s the meditation on life. One of Scrooge’s last lines is “I will live in the past, the present and the future.” The more I think about that – call me naive – but the more I think that the past, present and future is where we all live, but the trick to doing it successfully (i.e. for happiness) is to do it consciously, acknowledging the power of each but without being imprisoned by any. Dickens’ story is a portal to that attitude, and therein lies its lasting appeal. The Muppets are just what you get for being good this year. Enjoy.
- Songs for Muppet Christmas Carol were composed by Paul Williams, of ‘Rainbow Connection’, Bugsy Malone and Phantom of the Paradise fame. He also appeared in a series one episode of The Muppet Show.
Charles Dickens: I am here to tell the story.
Rizzo: And I am here for the food.
Charles Dickens: Hello, London!
Rizzo: Goodbye, lunch!
Jacob Marley: What a terrible pun. Where do you get those jokes?
Robert Marley: Leave comedy to the bears, Ebenezer!
Rizzo: God save my little broken body!
Rizzo: Boy, that’s scary stuff. Shouldn’t we be worried about the kids in the audience?
Charles Dickens: Nah, this is culture.
Rizzo: Why are you whispering?
Charles Dickens: It’s for dramatic emphasis.
Scrooge: Let us deal with the eviction notices for tomorrow, Mr Cratchitt.
Bob Cratchitt: Tomorrow’s Christmas, sir.
Scrooge: Very well, you may gift-wrap them.
Scrooge: Christmas is a very busy time for us, Mr Cratchitt. People preparing feasts, giving parties, spending the mortagage money on frivolities. One might say that December is the foreclosure season. Harvest time for the money lenders.
If you liked this movie, try:
- Other versions of A Christmas Carol. I’d recommend an 80s TV version starring George C. Scott as Scrooge, Edward Woodward as the Ghost of Christmas Present, and a young Joanne Whalley as Scrooge’s baby sister.
- Muppet Treasure Island
- It’s A Wonderful Life