Movie Review: The Muppet Christmas Carol

Posted: December 3, 2009 in Holiday, Movie Review, Reviews
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The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992 Dir. Brian Henson)



Dude, how long have those people been there?

This is the only live action version of The Christmas Carol that I don’t refer to by the actor playing Scrooge. I refer to it by its title, because Michael Caine just isn’t as memorable as the Muppets are. There’s nothing wrong with his performance, but Caine is just nothing special compared to a lot of the puppets on display here. I would be willing to see him play the part again against an all human cast but, here he greatly gets lost in the shuffle against all the felt and effects. If I have a problem with this version, it’s that it feels like we’ve been here before. That’s not much of a problem though, as this is a family version and to some extent you sort of don’t really want surprises. Even though this movie contains what is possibly my favorite innovation as far as a movie based on A Christmas Carol is concerned.


You put your right foot in, you take your right foot out…

Disney had already done a version of the tale, recasting their stock of characters to fit into the story nine years before. That caused me problems when the movie first came out and I must be honest and tell you I didn’t see this in the theaters because of that. It was the first movie to come after Jim Henson’s death and it was being released by Disney of all places. Disney and respect for legacy didn’t exactly go hand in hand in my mind at the time. Even now I don’t really associate them. It just felt like it was all kinds of wrong. I think even now I can be forgiven for thinking this thing had train wreck written all over it. It’s not a train wreck though. Actually, it’s pretty good. In fact, it’s really good. Is it the best version? No. Is it the most accurate version? Not exactly. Is it the version I would want to watch with a child? Absolutely.


We just want to be in the movie, just for a minute

Like all the best versions, this version contains a lot of the actual lines from the book, including several parts of the narration that don’t normally end up in the movies. That is because of what I must say is the most ingenious devices used in one of these movies. It’s often said you shouldn’t try to remake a classic unless you’re going to bring something new to the table. Now one might think that bringing state of the art puppets and effects that hadn’t been done before would be enough, but the scriptwriter here didn’t think so. The really great device used is that they include Gonzo playing Charles Dickens with Rizo the Rat to act as foil. Instead of being a distraction, they really help to engage you into the story. I’m not sure how kids feel about it, but most the adults I know like the addition. I think because everything else was so wacky, they had to ground the script into the book as much as they could. It’s a risky idea, but they made it work.


It rubs the lotion on its skin or else it gets the hose again.

The credits are shown over a really great model of Victorian London that will be used through out the production. A lot of love and care when into trying to make this movie look bigger than it is, since it was made on a fairly small scale really, and for the most part it works. After the credits, we get Gonzo and Rizo introducing us the story and giving us the gist of what’s going on and how this is going to go. There are a lot of Muppet cameos from all over the Muppet cannon and there is a pretty good integration between Muppet and humans. Not perfect of course, because there is only so much you can do with the two groups and performing on a set that has holes that lead to a six foot drop has got to play merry hell on actor’s nerves. Yeah, the stage was raised six feet so the Muppet performers could perform under the stage, creating big holes in the floor that the human actors had to try and avoid while looking like they were just walking normally.


Sooo cold.

This is a musical version, like all Muppet movies, and the first song starts almost immediately. The song is just an introduction to the character of Scrooge, nice but nothing special. Strangely, I don’t hate the songs here, which is a minor miracle in itself if the pope is counting up Paul Williams’ tally any time soon. Almost all the singers in this movie are Muppets, although Scrooge jumps in on one or two songs and in the longer version (more on that later) there is a young woman who sings. The Muppets are being done by a lot of people at the top of their game and I think there are more Muppets in this movie than there have been in any other movie. It’s the best technical work I’ve seen done by any of the previous Muppet productions.


Oh no, I forgot the safeword!

Kermit plays Bob Cratchit here, which always left me seeing shades of Mickey, but he’s not the sole clark in this version. The rats from Muppets take Manhattan are here helping out. The rats encourage Bob to ask for more coal and will encourage him to do other things later. Fred shows up, and he’s a person! I would have liked to see Fred be a Muppet, but that’s probably wishing for miscegenation. Fortunately, this is not the kind of Fred that I want to hit with a shovel, in fact I have no feelings about him at all. Check points are taken care of with a fairly swift hand. The Charitable gentlemen, played by Bunsen and Beaker come and go. Bean Bunny shows up as a begging caroler who gets beaned by a wreath.


I’m cute… but creepy

We then get the whole day conversation, and then a very nice song about Christmas Eve. I like the song, it’s a really good song. Yeah, that’s all I’ve got to say about it. The song starts with them cleaning up the office and then walking through the street of London. It also manages to end on a sad and character building moment. After the song, when everyone goes to their respective homes, we’re given a final shot of poor Bean shivering in a box on the street. I never fail to notice that bit.


DUDE! It’s working! I’m like huge man!

We get a lot of business trying to get Gonzo and Rizo into the house so they can tell the story. This will go on for a while, but it’s always amusing. While they do that the Marleys (yes two of them) show up. Jacob and Robert Marley are played by Statler and Waldorf, basically acting like themselves. They’re presented as transparent ghosts like they should be. I love that the call Scrooge for the lousiness of the “more gravy than grave” pun before they sing their song. The section is actually somewhat creepy, with the singing cashboxes floating with them and then drag the Marleys away into the darkness. Not too much for kids, but creepy enough. Besides as they say in the movie it’s okay because this is culture. I love the conceit of that that line. It’s okay to scare the living crap out of kids if you can tell them it’s a cultural thing. That is so awesome!


Oh man, now I’m tiny like a mouse.

The Ghost of Christmas Past is a floating child of a rod puppet. She was suspended in oil to give the ethereal floating effect she has in the movie. She’s more like a floating sheet than anything from the book, but I think it’s forgivable because it’s such gorgeous work. Most the past is represented as it should be. We see Scrooge as a child at school, we see Scrooge being lonely, and the room falling apart. We get Sam the Eagle plays his schoolmaster sending him off to his first job. Another song is on the soundtrack but was cut from the movie. Fan isn’t in this version at all, and it’s up to you to decide if that’s a good thing or a bad thing. If we agree that this is primarily a kid’s movie, I think it can be forgiven. The idea that Scrooge’s coldness to his nephew being blamed on the death of his sister might be a little complex for kids. I’m not a big fan of dumbing things down for kids, I rather take them head on and let them fight it out. However, it’s not REALLY needed here is it? This one time? Yeah, that’s what I thought.


Um… I got nothing.

Fezziwig is made into Fozzywig, and see if you can guess who was cast in the part. Yeah, it’s Fozzy Bear, you get a cookie. The party scene has a lot of random Muppets walking around, and some from older shows, including Dr. Teeth and The Electric Mayhem and even The Swedish Chef. It’s here that we meet Belle, and right after we meet, she walks out of his life. In the fullscreen version of the movie she sings a fairly nice song before she goes. It wasn’t in the theatrical version so she just walks off without ceremony in the widescreen version after telling Scrooge that he’s turned into a greedy miser to be type. Shades of the song Belle sang are in the movie, but it’s only a few notes. Also, Rizo cries.


A singing frog? I bet you could use him to sell frog’s legs.

Christmas Present is a large suit muppet and possibly the most cheerful version of that ghost. Even when forced to be cranky, he’s still cheery and playful. Christmas Present is one of those suit puppets that I seem to remember uses camera’s in the eyes. The actor’s eyes are actually about seven inches down so they put a camera in the puppet’s eye socket and then pout tiny monitors right in front of the performer’s eyes so that the puppet’s eyeline always matches properly. They started it on Fraggle Rock. The spirit sings a song that sort of explains his entire thesis about how great Christmas is. This song is delivered while they walk around the London set. Using green screen, they manage to put the Spirit into every celebration, including tiny mouse puppets. I like my Christmas Present to be half happy and half ready to slap Scrooge into the mid 1950s, but this one is so jolly and happy I give him a pass.


Seriously, you have got to try this stuff.

We go to Fred’s house first and they play a quick game where Scrooge gets insulted. Then we’re taken to the Cratchit house, and pretty much all that this entails, which includes another song. I don’t love this song, but I can deal with it. Miss Piggy is cast as Emily Cratchit and Robin is set as Tiny Tim. The Spirit then becomes old and snowy haired and vanishes in sparkles and thus comes the ghost of the future. The music changes, mist rolls in, creep factor goes to eleven. So scared are Rizo and Gonzo that they abandon us and hide out until the end. Can you believe that? They actually ditch us!


Next week he’ll be playing a Nazgul

The Christmas Future is a large robed figure, fitting the book mostly. I really like that in this future it rains instead of snows. The gentlemen talking about the dead man are played by pigs huddled under umbrellas. Old Joe is played by a spider that I think I’ve seen elsewhere but can’t place and we’ve got the full set of players for the parts. I like that they have Scrooge explicitly say that he doesn’t understand that it’s him their talking about. We then get to the Cratchit house, and learn of Tim’s death. Then we see the gravestone and the break down, which doesn’t come off as well as it might have.


Wait, hold the horror, I’ve gotta sneeze.

Then we’re given another song which more or less replaces the Scrooge transformation scene. Instead of him going to each person and having a vignette, the song does all the work in montage form. Bean Bunny gets to be the boy who gets the turkey for Scrooge. Scrooge sings his song, walks in, hugs Fred, walks out again. Instead of waiting for the next morning, Scrooge shows up at Bob Cratchit’s house and gives him the raised salary speech. We then get the last bit of narration and then another song. And for some reason, Fred and the entire Muppet cast shows up in Bob Cratchit’s house, and then crowd outside of it. It’s a nice final moment for everyone, I guess. I don’t know why Fred shows up, maybe he just wanted to sing with Muppets. Fred always bugs me anyway.


Let’s just assume I put a cocaine joke here okay?

As I said before, this is the best version of the story for kids. Some adults might have a problem here or there, but I think there is enough charm in the movie to forgive those moments. Now I’ve got two DVDs of this movie. One is the fullscreen version with some specials and a commentary. The other has both full and widescreen versions with different specials but the same commentary on the fullscreen version.


Who loves ya baby?

There are a lot of things I forgive in this version that I wouldn’t normally forgive. It’s not so much because it’s the Muppets, but rather because the things that are changed are played with such charm that I can’t help but smile. If you like A Christmas Carol, you could do a lot worse than watching this version. Believe me, I did 7 reviews last year so I can name at least two places where you could do much, much worse than this. Actually, I can name four but as two of those didn’t get reviewed I’ll spare the mud. Besides, I might need to sling it later.

Official Score:
69 Degrees on the Graffiti Bridge Scale.

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