Revisiting The Muppet Christmas Carol

Too few adaptations of Charles Dickens’ iconic A Christmas Carol are gimmick-free. Though a couple of stellar versions exist that focus squarely on Dickens’ story of redemption during the holidays, focusing on a nasty moneylender, the majority of adaptations are defined by their unique and extra hook. It’s A Christmas Carol — but as a modern comedy starring Bill Murray! It’s A Christmas Carol — but in motion-capture animation with Jim Carrey playing multiple roles! It’s A Christmas Carol — but as a big, splashy musical starring a young Albert Finney! And so on.

This month marks the 25th anniversary of another Christmas Carol adaptation, and one with a pretty obvious gimmick: The Muppet Christmas Carol. Remarkably, though, The Muppet Christmas Carol features one of the best-ever Ebenezer Scrooges on film, often to the point where it feels like a better Christmas Carol adaptation as opposed to being a good Muppet movie.

The reasons why The Muppet Christmas Carol feels a little different from its predecessors, or even the sillier, more anarchic Muppet films to come in the late 1990s and beyond, are not hard to spot. This movie opens with a brief dedication to Jim Henson, the impresario behind the Muppets, who tragically passed away in 1990; and Richard Hunt, another key Muppeteer who passed away during this film’s pre-production phase. Henson and Hunt were among the most vital and recognizable people to work with the Muppets; even if audiences couldn’t tell the difference between how one person or another manipulates the felt creatures’ limbs, we all know how characters like Kermit the Frog, Statler and Waldorf, Rowlf, Scooter, and Sweetums sound. Though Steve Whitmire, the performer who took over as Kermit for 25 years (until his firing earlier in 2017), had been featured in a CBS special commemorating Jim Henson’s life as the heroic amphibian, The Muppet Christmas Carol was the first major reintroduction that audiences had to Kermit and the rest of the Muppets.

Parts of the film work exceptionally well. Michael Caine plays Scrooge with a fierce commitment, even more so considering that it’s not just that he’s threatening other characters in Dickens’ tale. He’s threatening the Muppets. When Scrooge tosses a wreath at a cheerful young caroler, it’s mean; when Caine throws that wreath at the cuddly Bean Bunny, it feels downright evil.

Caine, according to Henson’s son (and the film’s director) Brian, was very clear on what he would bring to the production: “One of the first things he said was: ‘I’m going to play this movie like I’m working with the Royal Shakespeare Company. I will never wink, I will never do anything Muppety.’” Caine lives up to that promise when you watch the movie, even 25 years after the fact. Caine has sometimes made movies just for the paycheck, phoning in the performance (as when he couldn’t accept his Best Supporting Actor Oscar for Hannah and Her Sisters because he was filming Jaws 4, a film whose check he has since glibly stated paid for his house). Remarkably, that’s not the case here. He’s taking the work very, very seriously, and is easily the best part of The Muppet Christmas Carol.

Of course, that’s kind of the problem. A movie called The Muppet Christmas Carol should have, as its best element, something…Muppety. The film, like other Muppet movies, has songs, this time from songwriter Paul Williams, who co-wrote “The Rainbow Connection” for The Muppet Movie in 1979, as well as that film’s other tracks. While The Muppet Christmas Carol is chock full of songs, the best one is a mid-film showstopper called “It Feels Like Christmas.” (I’m not just saying that because it features one of the Greatest Moments in Film History™, in which Caine…dances with the Ghost of Christmas Present. But that does help.) And seeing as this is a Muppet movie, there are flourishes such as the Great Gonzo narrating on-screen as Charles Dickens (with Rizzo the Rat as his sidekick), two, not one, Marleys as played by the always wisecracking Statler and Waldorf, and the Swedish Chef showing up at Fozziwig’s Christmas celebration. (See, because Fozzie Bear plays Fezziwig. Fozziwig.)

But those flourishes feel much less valuable to the film, which is otherwise trying to be a more straightforward adaptation of Charles Dickens’ work than you might expect considering the title. While the Great Gonzo does play the famed author here, most of his dialogue is either straight out of the book or written in such a way as to suggest Dickens’ prose. (Any attempts to suggest that Gonzo might not, y’know, resemble Dickens that much are dismissed quickly: “Dickens was a 19th-century novelist! A genius!” “Oh, you’re too kind.”) Basically, a lot more of Gonzo’s dialogue than you might expect sounds like a non-Muppet could be saying it.

The same goes for the linchpin of the Muppets: Kermit the Frog. Kermit plays the always beset-upon Bob Cratchit in this Christmas Carol, with Miss Piggy as his devoted, fierce wife (the latter only appearing in two brief scenes in the second half). There are aspects of Bob’s story that are different: in an early song, he ice-dances around with some penguins. But much of the adaptation, written by Muppets stalwart Jerry Juhl, treats Bob seriously, even if Bob is played here by a frog. This Bob Cratchit still suffers the loss of his ill son Tiny Tim, he’s still meek in the face of his tyrannical boss, and he’s still plainly goodhearted to the very end without displaying much of a personality.

What makes the choices in The Muppet Christmas Carol so fascinating and slightly frustrating is that the Muppets have been more anarchic when adapting famous stories in other media, as well as in film. Some episodes of The Muppet Show riffed on famous stories, with little hesitation in mocking them instead of wholeheartedly embracing them. But just a few years after The Muppet Christmas Carol, Walt Disney Pictures released another Muppet movie adapting a famous piece of British literature, with another big-name British star, lots of Muppets playing the familiar characters, plenty of song-and-dance sequences. That film managed to be very loose and free with the source material. That film, now over 20 years old, is Muppet Treasure Island.

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