Part of a festive series of Christmas-themed reviews at Taking The Short View
This series of Christmas-themed reviews has ended up being a little more critical than originally intended. I’d expected to be thoroughly delighted with first visits to a number of the great festive films – all but one of which I hadn’t seen before and therefore couldn’t know my reactions in advance. But for one reason or another they’ve ended up falling short in some area for me and led to slightly more downbeat reviews than I was hoping for. I’d almost started to feel that I was heading into a “Bah, Humbug” slump; in which case, what better post for Christmas Day than one based on Charles Dickens’ seminal Christmas classic novella?
I had quite high hopes for this film going in, not least because I’ve been watching the Muppets for the better part of four decades. Whatever they’ve done, they’ve always been both entertaining and classy at the same time. If anyone could shake me out of my pre-Christmas critical malaise it was surely Kermit and friends; the only real surprise is that I’d never seen their version of Dickens’ story before until now. But would that make it another example of coming to something too late to be able to fall under its charms?
Not in this case. What a delightful film The Muppet Christmas Carol turned out to be once finally I got to watch it. Truly, a seasonal gem of a film that is every bit and more as good as I’d hoped, and a genuinely deserving Christmas classic.
The reason that it’s so good is that it manages to combine the usual Muppet characters, humour and japery and yet also retain alongside it all the wit and drama and pathos and social awareness of the Dickens story at the same time. The story of Scrooge’s ghostly lessons and redemption isn’t undermined one jot by the presence of most of the cast being cloth and felt puppets; quite the reverse, these characters and their pitch-perfect casting into the original tale actually enhance it and give it a brand new freshness and vitality that’s all too easy to lose after so many interminable mediocre adaptations of the story over the years have blunted our appreciation, and makes it feel as alive as it did when Alastair Sim brought the role of Scrooge to life in 1951.
Almost everything I feared might go awry in this film was deftly sidestepped by the confident writing and directing. The Great Gonzo was never my favourite character but here he makes for an unexpectedly excellent narrator (Dickens himself) and his double act with Rizzo the Rat, far from being childishly annoying, is wonderfully warm and funny – and surprisingly intelligent and adult in its ‘meta’ wit and humour. Nor is the core story unbalanced by the need to shoehorn the best known Muppets into roles: Fozzie the Bear, for example, gets pretty much only one scene. Kermit himself fares better as Bob Cratchet, but his part is simply entirely faithful to the book. And all the Muppets get some screen time: even the Swedish chef gets a cameo, while Jacob Marley gets a brother in order to be a ghoulish Statler and Waldorf double act – and the overall effect of the entire familiar Muppet repertory company being present and correct is as warming and delightful as the best Christmas panto.
However, it’s a masterstroke to have a human actor of the calibre of Michael Caine in the central role of Scrooge. Caine went through a period of never turning down work which meant some rather embarrassing efforts such as the disaster movie (in every sense) Swarm, but the upside is that he also said ‘yes’ to this film, which other serious thespians might have scoffed at. He is hugely rewarded for doing so, from his very first scene (an entrance worthy of Darth Vader) though to his wonderfully portrayed redemption and rebirth which will have even the biggest kids finding that their eyes have become oddly encumbered with a speck of dirt that is causing them to water just a touch. In return, the film is infinitely enhanced by his quality presence, which immediately makes the whole endeavour feel so much more than a mere kid’s puppet film.
The film is also unexpectedly classy in many other ways: the set design is just wonderful, meticulously detailed and retaining the proper period feel despite any practical issues regarding how operators get to manipulate the Muppets themselves. The effects are beautifully designed and executed, and there’s some wonderful design of new characters especially with the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future (the latter especially chilling, proving that the film doesn’t pull Dickens’ scariest punches.) The direction is also surprisingly sophisticated and intelligent, making this far more than just a “kid’s film”. The songs, in truth, are for the most part not likely to linger long in the memory – but they do their job in the film itself and are always enjoyable and appropriate to both character and story context.
But it’s the Muppets’ innate public service broadcasting roots that is the main strength of this version, because as much fun as they’re having with the fun and jokes and Muppet-ised world, at the same time they never lose respect for or their love of the Dickens novel. That’s underlined by the final words being an exhortation to “Read the book”! – and the best praise that can be given to the film is that any child who loved the Muppet version and who now follows that advice to read Dickens won’t be at all disappointed by the comparison.
In every respect, then, The Muppet Christmas Carol is a small gem and a real triumph among Christmas movies. Not only thoroughly recommended, this just instantly became a fixture in my own personal Christmas periods of the future, as a way of ensuring that any tendency to “Bah, Humbug”-ery is well and truly dispensed with.