A Chradvent Carolendar #14: The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992)

Happy now?

One of the reasons I did Chradvent was because I kept on hearing people say “the Muppets’ version of Christmas Carol is the best version”. That seems like quite a bold claim considering it’s been adapted literally thousands of times for virtually every medium and performance genre. How can you be sure of your claim unless you’ve seen them all? I used to joke.

But you’re not laughing now, are you?

I’ll be upfront; I’ve seen The Muppet Christmas Carol more times than I’ve seen the Blackadder one. I watched it endlessly on VHS as a child and it’s always repeated on Christmas Eve. Cinemas all over the country host sing-along screenings every week of last third of the year.

Why do people like it so much? It received moderate praise when it came out but didn’t smash any records. I think I’ve broken down the reasons why so many people consider it the definitive Christmas Carol:

  1. It’s a recent mainstream Hollywood release
    (It’s easily accessible, it’s well publicised, a lot of people have watched it)
  2. It’s family friendly
    (All the dark stuff is balanced out by lighthearted Muppet stuff)
  3. It’s a musical
    (The songs are good & catchy. It’s easier to go back to musicals.)
  4. It’s a comedy
    (Who wants to take their kids to see a depressing, didactic, grown up film at Christmas? This will probably be the version most people grew up with)
  5. It’s adapted by an existing, well known franchise
    (Brand recognition. Muppet-lovers.)

The film is more than just these though. It’s a good film in its own right (but it’s not… incredible). I will go into depth here and will probably drop 2000 words but my summary is that while it is the most fun I’ve had so far this month, it’s a better general Christmas film than an ACC adaptation. Michael Caine’s Scrooge is a very good Scrooge. So then the balance is: how do you measure what is Superior? Star Wars might be more fun to watch than Citizen Kane but that doesn’t necessarily make it better. Hm.

1992a.png

This is one of those cast-characters-as-other-characters deal like Mickey Mouse or… Rich Little. The main muppet guy – Kermit – is Bob. Same as how Mickey – who I believe is the main Disney guy – was also Bob. We see more of Bob in Muppets than we do in most versions and he even gets his own song where we see his legs. And not in a weird way like in the George C. Scott version.

We start on a nice long take where we’re showed that muppets and white people coexist and are then introduced to Gonzo (a self-aware Charles Dickens, also the narrator) and Rizzo (who is a sort of comic relief Greek chorus). We establish pretty quickly that the fourth wall is going to be broken a lot. This is a really inventive way of side stepping the narrator issue I’ve been waiting for someone to address. The story works best with narration, especially at the start, but no film yet has fully committed to it, either using it at the very end and beginning or not at all. Having Gonzo there to contextualise Scrooge’s thoughts and actions is really nice touch. It adds texture and… the Dickens is really good writing. It’s nice to listen to.

Scrooge is introduced in shadow and we kick into a song.

1992b.png

Gonzo’s narration interspersed between lyrics makes it all feel very ominous.

Michael Caine’s face isn’t revealed until the very last beat of the song and it’s very effective at setting Scrooge up as an antagonistic presence.

turn.gif

We sail quickly through the chuggers (Bunsen & Honeydew), an orphan caroler (Bean Bunny) and Fred (some man) and Scrooge begrudgingly gives Bob and his army of rodent bookkeepers the day off.

1992c.png

We can assume from the fact that Scrooge is employing about 8 extra people that this is the most successful branch of Scrooge and Marley across the Christmas Carol Multiverse.

At this point we usually get a few crucial lines that tell us how Scrooge is going to be played. Surplus population is one, boiled in his own pudding another, let me keep it in my way a third. Michael Caine Scrooge delivers them at face value but it is quite possible that an Alastair Sim or a George C. Scott delivery would not work here. There’s not room for an ironic twist on the original story that isn’t already covered by the inclusion of muppets. This Scrooge needs to be faithful and static anchor in order for the rest of wacky stuff around him to work. In the man’s own words:

“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. I am going to play Scrooge as if it is an utterly dramatic role and there are no puppets around me.”

You probably couldn’t get away with a 1951-style deep dive into Scrooge’s character because that version relies on subplots about domestic abuse and maternal death which might conflict with peoples expectations for a muppet movie. Outside of the first scene, Michael Caine plays a very emotionally available Scrooge who is humbled by his visions.

There’s a nice moment as Kermit and the rats try to convince Scrooge to give them the day off beyond social protocol- it will cost to burn coal, no-one else will be open.

First live action knocker morph. Scrooge’s reaction also very good.

knocker.gif

Scrooge wanders around the house for a while with a candle and poker. The incidental music is really creepy. After a bit, we settle in for the arrival of Jacob Marley and his brother Bob Marley.

Scrooge seems genuinely distressed by their appearance, like he’s about to burst into tears.

1992d.png

He takes his poker to bed and sleeps above the covers, cute touch.

1992e.png

I really like their depiction of the Ghost of Christmas Past; it’s not literal, interpretive, muppet or human. It’s weird and ethereal and I don’t know quite what it is apart from its own thing.

1992f.png

They fly out of the window as Gonzo throws a grappling hook around Scrooge’s ankle to follow them. It’s a bit silly but it doesn’t really matter.

We’re in Scrooge’s old schoolroom now and he gets really nostalgic and sad. When he sees his younger self alone on Christmas he looks like he’s about to burst into tears.

1992g.png

Scrooged could’ve done with some of the gravitas Michael Caine brings to the table here. This scene has almost no impact because of how much they preempt the crying by talking about it. Like the film was almost ashamed for having a bit of drama.

In contrast, Rizzo and Gonzo are good at keeping the comedy and drama together but separate. They often interject with gags or a fourth wall break but during the more emotionally tense scenes, like the one above, they largely steer clear. There’s loads of crazy muppet stuff at the beginning but this slowly fades as the story escalates. This is taken to its conclusion when Rizzo and Gonzo completely vacate the Ghost of Christmas Future stave, saying to the audience that they’ll meet again at the finale.

We then cut to Fezziwig played by Fozzie Bear and renamed Fozziwig. Rizzo and Gonzo are present but did not travel with Scrooge and the spirit so we can only assume that they waited out the intermediate 10 years in real time.

Young Scrooge really looks like Michael Caine, wow.

1992h.png

I checked and it’s not an Albert Finney situation – that’s a different actor. He’s in Emmerdale now. I hope he’s still playing young Scrooge.

He is introduced to Belle who is, reassuringly, confirmed as just a friend of Fozziwig and not his daughter. During this scene, Scrooge looks like he’s about to burst into tears.

1992i.png

The Ghost of Christmas Present is one of the jolly types. This has a number of immediate advantages. It lightens up the middle of the film, gives Scrooge a more varied range of experiences and makes the “boy will die/ then let him do it” line even more effective. They also made him very forgetful, which is good twist on his nature as a literal embodiment of the Present.

1992j.png

A song is an extremely efficient way to show Present taking Scrooge to see people from all walks of life celebrating Christmas. It’s also a good song.

Scrooge and Present are almost friends. They joke around, Scrooge seems to be having fun and tries to engage with the spirit. He wants to see family. The spirit takes him to Fred’s house where we get the parlour game in which he’s the punchline. Scrooge looks like he’s about to burst into tears.

1992k.png

Tiny Tim is played by this frog. Presumably he couldn’t get all the way down those stairs because of neglectful Victorian doctors.

He gets his own song which is a little bit too cloyingly sweet for me but I suppose it’s right for the film.

It’s just not quite God Rest Ye Merry Mr Blackadder.

You really get a sense that Scrooge believes that Tiny Tim is remarkable. After that song, he looks like he’s about to burst into tears.

1992l.png

He asks if Tiny Tim will live and the spirit delivers a line which I’d missed from other versions:

“That is the future. My realm is the present. However, I see a” etc

The spirit turns into early 90s CGI stars and we meet the Future Ghost with a dramatic musical sting, a dutch angle and yaoi hands.

1992m.png

The Future ghost is one reason why I’m happy they didn’t do a total Mickey Mouse and have every character represented by an existing one. Originally Animal was going to be Christmas Future. Can you imagine?

Gonzo and Rizzo turn up briefly, again implying they have been living through the visions in real time for decades. Gonzo’s narratorial omnipotence is all over the place and deserves a film of its own.

Future time now. I like that Scrooge remains perfectly dry while standing in the rain.

1992n.png

I won’t bore you with the Old Joe segment again but we are given a line of clarification from Scrooge that suggests he at least isn’t a total moron.

“I understand spirit; he case of this unhappy man might be my own. My life tends that way now. Merciful heavens.”

At this point Scrooge looks like he’s about to burst into tears.

1992o.png

Then we go to the Cratchit house, find Tiny Tim dead and Scrooge looks like he’s about to burst into tears.

1992p.png

We cut straight to the graveyard scene, where Scrooge

finally bursts into tears.

1992q.png

And so his character arc is completed. For a few moments there I thought he wasn’ going to do it. What was this movie about again?

That’s basically it. It ends as you’d think. We’re reintroduced to the characters we met earlier and we go to dinner at Bob Cratchit’s house. The prank Scrooge plays on Bob is the strongest here yet. Everyone’s at the Cratchit’s for dinner, even Fred! Not his wife though…

1992r.png

At least this time Scrooge brought some food.

It’s a solid film, this. Scrooge’s character transformation is consistent and it doesn’t feel like a total 180 by the end! This is entirely down to performance (with a couple of helpful lines thrown in here and there). This version, muppets aside, is actually incredibly faithful. It hits the story beats effortlessly. It’s highly probable that the writers did their own Chradvent leading up to this, as it takes lots of small cues from 1951, 1970 and 1984. I still believe it’s a better Christmas film than it is an ACC adaptation – it’s sanitised and mostly depoliticised – but you don’t have to be grimdark to be good. It’s definitely the most fun adaptation and one that you can easily come back to again and again.

8 “I love you, Mr Batman”s out of 10


I did it. I watched it and I can say equivocally it’s not the best, just very good. Cue a thousand facebook comments. It’s all downhill from here…

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s