Off the Shelf…'The Muppet Christmas Carol'

Who doesn’t just love the Muppets? With delivery and material geared for kids and adults they have such universal appeal exemplified by they fact that they’re so honest direct and friendly. The Muppet movies are known for their original humor and lovable characters but The Muppet Christmas Carol treads new ground though a lot of the tones and structure here just seem an odd fit. The film is an important distinctive film in the Henson legacy for reasons outside of the on-screen antics. First off, it is the company’s first outright adaptation. Second, and more importantly, it’s the first Muppet film following the passing if the legendary Muppet founder Jim Henson. As such this adaptation, very much about life, was a bittersweet production for everyone involved.

Michael Caine hops on board as the lovably grumpy Ebenezer Scrooge. A seasoned and capable actor, the well-cast Caine easily embodies the character and is perfect as Scrooge. Yet, as the film is a series of firsts, we find it breaking from the norm as Caine shares the screen with characters who are almost entirely Muppets. Further, those precious few who do in fact have a pulse are not cameos from famous or even recognizable actors. That’s quite a departure from the likes of The Muppet Show and Muppet films of the past. Odd and different yes but with regards to the Dickens story this adaptation doesn’t lend itself to very many interpretations (Bill Murray’s Scrooged not withstanding) or additions of superfluous characters or it likely could quickly become like a variety act.

The artistry of the Muppets is put on full display as are the extensive sets and props. A veritable city (scaled appropriately and for use in concealing the puppeteers) was constructed to fully immerse us in this Dickens story. With Gonzo and Rizzo playing narrators they bring the warmth of the story through their comical delivery and add the yucks and near slapstick to keep things moving. Yet it’s very rare that we see Kermit, Fozzy or even Ms. Piggy since Caine gets a majority of the screen time. Kids expecting to see their favorites may get antsy watching Caine get so much time on screen.

This classic story stands well enough on its own and with the added glee and one-of-a-kind humor that Henson’s foam and felt creations bring to the screen the story would have benefited from fully breaking their own tradition and do something entirely Muppet driven. The half dozen or so songs by Paul Williams are fine enough by themselves (though still hit and miss for me) but their placement in Dickens’ non musical story seem shoe-horned and none of the scenes where they’re placed feel organic. Obvious they were written for the film but still feel tacked on (and forced) not to mention they’re kind of schmaltzy and hokey. Arguably they’re fine for the real young ones but adolescents and adults will likely find it difficult not rolling their eyes.

Usually these films follow and focus on the headlining Muppets but being held to such a humanistic narrative (not to mention classical piece of literary history) really limits the creative latitude. The film finds most of the focus falling on Michael Caine and an obligation to contain those above mentioned musical numbers. Perhaps if this was the film to truly shake up the formula, the songs could have been omitted. Maybe it’s the spectral-based material or maybe the shock and gloom felt by Jim’s departure went beyond the sets and crew but this film has an odd feeling to it. Still, it must have been tough making another Muppet picture without Jim Henson looking on but Brian Henson and all the usual Muppet alumni (Frank Oz, et al) were on hand to make this a show that would make  Jim very happy and in keeping with his legacy.

G-S-T RULING:

The Blu-Ray release offers a video presentation that had been cleaned up quite a bit from the DVD version but still is nothing remarkable. There are a handful of features including one comical profile on The Great Gonzo that, as always, cast the lovable Muppet as a living, breathing character, not a puppet. Also, in keeping with that idea, Kermit, Gonzo and Rizzo lend their voices and opinions to one commentary while Brian Henson shares his experiences on the second commentary. It was arguably very tough for Brian Henson and crew to make this film without Jim but as they say in the business, the show must go on. There’s warmth, wit and heart in every frame but the somberness of Jim’s passing just two years earlier still wore heavily on the crew. Not the finest Muppet movie in their catalog but one that still gets the job done. Probably tough to laugh and smile though tears but the team did their best and this really will be remembered as one of the most faithful and fun re-tellings of this classic story.

  • Andrew Crump

    Watching this is one of my favorite Christmas traditions. We almost watched it twice yesterday but the second time around, audience vote went in favor of last year’s Muppets movie, which, you know, can’t complain about that either.