Retro Review – The Muppet Christmas Carol

Muppet Christmas Carol poster

Overview

Synopsis The Muppets retell Charles Dickens’ classic novella, A Christmas Carol; a story about a cruel man who, through extraordinary events, discovers the love of Christmas.

Length 1 hour, 25 minutes

Release Date 6 December, 1992

 

Rating G

Distribution Walt Disney Home Video (DVD), Disney + (VoD), Beuna Vista Pictures (theatrical)

Directing Brian Henson

Writing Jerry Juhl. Based on the book by Charles Dickens.

Composition Miles Goodman

Starring Michael Caine, Steve Whitmire (Kermit the Frog), Frank Oz (Miss Piggy), Dave Goelz (Gonzo).

Christmas is the most popular holiday to be portrayed in Western cinema. So it’s no surprise it’s hard to determine which film is the best in this festive genre. A purist might argue that a true Christmas movie must center around the birth of Christ, although despite being the reason for the holiday, there are surprisingly few films about the Nativity of Jesus (with The Nativity Story and The Star being recent standouts).

Then there are those that widen the category to include any film with any sort of depiction of the holiday. The result is a long list with many movies seeming like an antithesis to the festive spirit, including but not limited to the likes of Jurassic World, Gremlins, Black Christmas, Lethal Weapon, Batman Returns, Iron Man 3, and even the recent movie Fatman (although I think we all know the king of the anti-Christmas films is Die Hard. Long may be its reign).

Yet they’re never considered serious options because they generally feel like visitors of the genre, not owners. Christmas is merely background noise as opposed to being the focus of the action. So for those that look for the epitome of a story that contains all the emotions, beliefs and childlike nostalgia of Christmas, then one can’t really ignore the tale that established it all; Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. As noted in The Man Who Invented Christmas (which is a great film by the way), Dickens’ novella contributed greatly to our modern rendition of the holiday, where it celebrates humanitarian aid and idolizes family gatherings, creating a festive spirit that can be partaken by all. While there have been many film adaptations, the best one is clearly The Muppet Christmas Carol. Why? Because like dragons, muppets always make a story better, that’s why!

Whatever these Muppet critters are, their very presence just makes a film better.

Content Guide

Violence/Scary Images: The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come appears as a large grim reaper (minus scythe). Its appearance will spook the littlies if they aren’t used to seeing scary movie villains. One scene is set in a graveyard. There is a large spider-looking muppet that discusses the division of a deceased’s assets. Gonzo and Rizzo continually fall from a height but are never injured. Rizzo is comically burnt and frozen at one stage. Scrooge continually threatens others in a tone of voice that kids might find shocking and is mean to several cute characters. A crippled young character dies off screen and others mourn his passing. One pair of ghosts appear in chains and wail, though they are quick to lighten the mood.

Language/Crude Humor: There’s still debate as to whether Beaker flips off Scrooge… Bah humbug! There is one “d*mn” and an utterance of “good Lord!” Scrooge talks cruelly about the poor whilst other characters in return speak about him in a disrespectful and derogatory fashion (though it is a crucial part of the plot that fosters a change in personality).

Drug/Alcohol References: None.

Sexual Content: Kermit and Miss Piggy finally succeed in an interspecies relationship.

Spiritual Content: Characters talk about going to church. The entire film is about embodying the spirit of Christmas. Two ghosts talk about their eternal suffering due to the lack of compassion they displayed in life. There is talk about salvation and redemption, though not in a strictly Christian sense—the film is rather secular in its content.

Other Negative Content: Vegetables are stolen and they need our help.

Positive Content: This movie does a wonderful job in advocating the need for kindness, compassion, and generosity for those less fortunate.

That moment of hope when the door reopens, right before Scrooge pegs a scrunched Christmas wreath at this little bunny’s head will always elicit a snortled “Aww” from the audience.

Review

Right from the start it’s clear that The Muppet Christmas Carol takes the word “carol” in its title quite seriously. Spending over two minutes tracking over the snow-covered rooftops of a quaint, stylized British town during its opening credit scrawl, it blasts the audiences with an overture bursting with as much Christmas nostalgia an audio track can muster. Using a traditional orchestra, there are the classic taps of a tambourine, the royal pomps of tubas and French horns, the regaling of trumpets, the deep booms of the percussion, held together by a light, catchy melody that enraptures the ears and harkens the mind back to every single Christmas carol you’ve ever heard in your life. The Muppet Christmas Carol easily contains the best music of all the muppet movies.

Similar to the original Beauty and the Beast’s “Bonjour” and Aladdin’s “Arabian Nights”, the film uses a strong score and a catchy song to introduce the audience right away to its unique setting and characters, immediately establishing its whimsical tone. There’s no rhyme or reason in this cinematic world as to why there are muppets – sometimes a real horse is used while other times it’s a puppet. Ultimately the audience has no time to ponder the deeper mechanics of this odd society as we quickly become distracted and concerned there’s “no cheeses for us meeces”.

They just want some cheese.

It’s a world full of colourful characters each with their own little personality quirks. Having studied puppetry as a subject in college (it’s a thing), one of the main takeaways was that a puppetry routine is not complete without a little bit of “magic”. It can be a turn of events in an interaction, or a surprise reveal of a puppet’s abilities. The Muppet Christmas Carol offers plenty of examples of this, some subtler than others. Vegetables break out into song, cats suddenly appear to sing alongside pigeons, and rats discover a heatwave after a particularly amusing bout of dialogue, to name a few. It’s these little moments that breathe life into an old tale that many in the audience will already be familiar.

The hardest part in adapting A Christmas Carol for cinema is finding a way to endear the audience towards such an unlikeable protagonist, Ebenezer Scrooge. As the muppet carollers proclaim, “He goes to extremes to convince us he’s bad.” The narrative structure for books is considerably looser than screenplays, and Blake Snyder fans will understand the importance of the “save the cat” beat for movies – a moment in the first act that demonstrates the good morals or upstanding nature of the lead character as a way to win over the audience’s interest. As Tenet disappointingly demonstrated earlier this year, if the film fails and viewers are not convinced to invest in the main character’s journey, then no matter how intriguing the plot and mind-blowing the action, if there’s no emotional connection then the movie will feel soulless.

While some might debate this narrative beat is covered in Scrooge’s begrudged granting of Bob Cratchit’s (Kermit the Frog) wish for a day off work, it would be egregious to not also recognize the power of The Muppet Christmas Carol’s supporting cast. It’s the distinct advantage this film adaptation has over the others. It’s surreal how much these animated bindings of felt and cloth can energize a scene. Even though veteran actor Michael Caine offers a fabulous performance as the crotchety Ebenezer Scrooge, in the opening act the role is presented as a caricature; the very embodiment of a person with a cold heart. He kicks out charity organizers, attacks a caroller, and admits in seeing the benefits to society if the poor simply died. If the supporting cast didn’t balance out and meet Caine’s level of performance, then the film would be one drearily cynical meeting after another, bankrupting the movie’s tone and audience’s interest before it even gets the chance to get going, which is a common flaw seen in other adaptations.

Is it just me, or is it getting cold in here?

Instead we’re offered a delightful parade of whimsical characters both muppet and human. Scrooge’s cruelty is offset with comedy from the supporting cast, brightening the tone and emphasizing the outrageousness of the cold-hearted man’s actions to the point of making them funny and somewhat remotely relatable. Of course, the greatest support is seen in the film’s usage of a narrator. Gonzo the Great stands in to portray the author Charles Dickens, who delivers excerpts from the book to further set the scene, all while performing a double act with Rizzo the Rat, playing himself, who is only there for the food (oh, how we relate!).

What’s marvellous is despite The Muppet Christmas Carol’s young demographic, it doesn’t dumb down the script. A lot of the dialogue still remains reminiscent of the era, and Gonzo’s language isn’t simplified to the point that the style of the novella is lost. This narrative role doesn’t only contextualize Scrooge’s unacceptable behavior, it also helps to educate young audiences of the literary culture that surrounds this moralistic fable, whilst also being a tribute to Dickens’ own part in bringing forth the spirit of Christmas. Meanwhile Rizzo is there to balance out Gonzo’s Dickens, and the interactions between the two help to push the otherwise threadbare plot along. While the practice of bookkeeping and mentions of doornails may not be fully understood by children, the film still manages to convey the general gist whilst still engaging older audiences.

Gonzo takes on the role of Charles Dickens and narrates the story, while Rizzo takes on the role of eating the food.

Various long-standing members of the Muppets make appearances throughout the film, such as but not limited to Miss Piggy, Animal, and my personal favorites, Statler and Waldorf (gotta love those critics!). If they’re not standing in for an actual role in the story—which operates as a blend between the muppet’s personality and the Christmas Carol character they’re portraying—then it’s a quick cameo. Thankfully the muppets prove to always be an asset to the progression of the narrative, either furthering the plot or providing a needed sight gag to generate some Christmas cheer, with the movie never falling into the trap of unnecessary fanservice. Make no mistake, the muppets perform the heavy lifting in the film’s first act, until the point Caine’s Scrooge is haunted by his past which forces his psychological walls to crumble. From the second act, he becomes more humanized in the audience’s eyes the more he actively tries to wrestle with his personality flaws.

The Muppet Christmas Carol has been in the news lately due to its differing film edits. In the VHS version—which is the one I grew up with—there is a ballad, “When Love is Gone”, sung by Belle, Scrooge’s ex-fiancé. In this song she laments her fizzling relationship, where the couple’s nuptials are forever postponed due to Scrooge’s adamant belief they don’t possess enough money yet to forge an idealistic future together. The song was excluded from some versions despite director Brian Henson’s wishes as Jeffrey Katzenberg from Walt Disney Studios believed it slowed the pace and didn’t appeal to children. Unfortunately the original film negative of the song was lost in the editing process up until just recently when a Disney archivist rediscovered the footage. It will now be included in all future 4K releases, though there is no set date as to when that might occur.

Let’s hope it’s not too long till we see this clip in 4K.

To be fair, Jeffrey Katzenberg wasn’t wrong. When I was a kid, I remember always fast-forwarding through the song as I thought it was boring. Now as an adult, just like Scrooge I wish I could revisit my past and shake myself for ever thinking such a thing. In many ways, “When Love is Gone” is the crux of Scrooge’s emotional journey. He begins the film as a man hardened by his ways, with the visit from the Marley brothers only shaking his mind enough to warrant further introspection but not necessarily change.

What’s interesting about Scrooge’s character is that he possesses qualities that are normally seen as good traits. He’s studious, has a strong work ethic, and he’s frugal with his money, not spending his wealth on frivolous items, which is currently counter-cultural in today’s Instagram-inspired world. His relationship with Belle is the turning point of his life, where he ultimately chooses to let those normally positive traits define his identity and to take over his life in a toxic direction. He begs the Ghost of Christmas Past to not revisit the memory, as it’s the greatest regret of his life. During the course of “When Love is Gone,” we witness Scrooge break down as he recalls the words Belle mournfully sings. It’s been decades and yet he still remembers, as though it’s seared into the back of his mind. It’s obvious this moment haunts him more than the three spirits combined. Watching it as an adult, it’s heartbreaking. It stabs you right in the heart and twists the knife.

Without the inclusion of the song, Scrooge’s character arc makes less sense. We go from seeing a brief scene of the couple breaking up, to Rizzo crying despite the little amount of emotional impact the relationship had with what was displayed on screen, to Scrooge suddenly becoming more open to learning about Christmas. The musical refrain in the film’s finale also no longer makes sense, whereas the song’s presence in the end credits has lost all place of reference. What Scrooge realizes during the ballad is that the personality traits he revered so much throughout his life were the catalyst for his greatest mistake. Since he knows where that path led him, he therefore becomes more open to the possibility of exploring another. With Belle, he failed to live in the moment, which explains why Scrooge endears himself to the Ghost of Christmas Present in the following sequence as he realizes he has much to learn should he hope to never make the same mistake again. Without the song, Scrooge undergoes a massive personality change which feels undeserved.

Thanks to the internet, “When Love is Gone” has been uploaded online. For those that wish to include it in their viewing experience, here it is for your convenience:

The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come is easily the most terrifying aspect of the film, where even Gonzo’s Dickens confesses it may be too scary for the kids. Admittedly, when I was a child I always shook with fear whenever the grim reaper-like costume appeared on screen, though I was proud every time I managed to sit through till the end. The scene is meant to invoke fear, as it’s the final hard truth Scrooge needs to hear to complete his character journey. Most kids will be fine as there’s no violence portrayed — just some creepy characters and gravestones.

It’s hard to fault the film’s message. Even as a Christian I find I struggle with all the hullabaloo surrounding Christmas. Sometimes in popular culture the wrong aspects of the holiday’s traditions are amplified (for instance, the seemingly obligatory materialistic presents, and the romanticisation that promotes perfectionism). It’s also strange there’s such an emphasis on one particular “special” day a year, when really a Christian should be embodying those behaviors as part of their normal walk with Christ. The Muppet Christmas Carol also feeds into this idea that Christmas is a day more worthy than others, though there are suggestions throughout the lyrics and dialogue that parents can easily utilize to remind their children that being generous and kind-hearted in general is not a seasonal thing. “Wherever you find love it feels like Christmas” is certainly an interesting lyric to ponder. Meanwhile Gonzo informs viewers that Scrooge becomes charitable throughout the entire year, suggesting this “Christmas spirit” can be embodied permanently.

The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come can be terrifying for the youngest of viewers.

For parents looking to teach their children more about how Christmas is celebrated in different countries, the DVD contains a short “Christmas Around the World” segment narrated by Gonzo and Rizzo. The other special features—“Outtakes & Bloopers” and “Pepe Profiles Presents – Gonzo: A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Weirdo”—operate as short skits. God’s name is used once in vain, “heck” is said, and interspecies relationships are discussed, but apart from those moments, these special features will elicit a giggle or two even from adults.

Even now with Pixar as a behemoth in children’s entertainment, a good family flick that appeals to all age groups is hard to find. Some kid’s films feature dialogue that’s too banal for adults, whilst others include questionable amounts of violence and sexual references. The Muppet Christmas Carol delivers the right mix of simpleness and complexity and is therefore a timeless piece of cinema. When speaking about this film with my sister the other day, she was able to quote several lines from the movie despite not having watched it in over two decades. This isn’t your average film that entertains for a day then disappears from the mind forever, but rather it’s a contribution to art and culture that has the ability to last through the years. It’s such a joyous work that it nestles in one’s soul and warms the memory. The act of criticizing this movie would be Scrooge-like in itself. To me, a film scores a ten when I genuinely cannot think of a single thing I would change or improve. In its original form, The Muppet Christmas Carol is one such rare film. It’s a magnificent achievement given it’s the first production from the company following the deaths of Richard Hunt and Jim Henson; both of which are honoured in the film’s opening titles. I think we can all agree that Brian Henson and the rest of the cast and crew have made them proud and carried on their legacy. Well done.

Merry Christmas, everyone!

Positives

+ Michael Caine acts up a storm despite being surrounded by puppeteers in awkward positions.
+ Best supporting cast anyone can hope for.
+ Gonzo pulls off carrying the legacy of Charles Dickens.
+ Best score and music in a Muppets production.
+ That glorious time a puppet uses puppets… Puppetception.
+ Additional skits on the DVD.
+ That moment when the meeces get their cheeses.
+ That cute widdle toad-like critter that sits next to the street puddle.
+ Kids will learn to light the lamp and not the rat.
+ Heat waves.

Negatives

- Some versions will not include a song which is crucial to Scrooge’s character arc.

The Bottom Line

Practically flawless in its full glory, The Muppet Christmas Carol not only challenges the title of being the ultimate Christmas flick, it’s also one of the best family friendly films in cinematic existence.

 

10

Juliana Purnell

After obtaining a Bachelor of Dramatic Arts, Juliana Purnell has enjoyed a successful acting career, working within theme parks, businesses, and on film sets. She has also taken on crew roles, both in film and theatrical productions. When Juliana isn't working, she enjoys watching movies of all genres at the cinema, writing, and playing with Samson, her pomeranian.

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