...shining light on the media, one review at a time
The history of Muppet movies tells a story of the good, the bad, and the ugly (or, more accurately, the great, the fading fast, and the dismal thud). When Jim Henson, the creative genius behind the Muppets, passed away, the brilliant wit and ineffable charm that made the wild concept of talking animal puppets actually work onscreen seemed to die with him. Most of the Muppet movies made after that time limped along on weak stories and copycat humor.
The exception to the Muppets’ post-Jim Henson plummet is a tremendous one, a movie that earns a place alongside the best of the Muppet franchise. If the title alone, The Muppet Christmas Carol, isn’t enough to make you laugh, the film itself will take care of that in minutes, as it contains the original, wildly entertaining humor that is painfully absent in the other Muppet attempts by director Brian Henson (Jim Henson’s son).
More importantly, The Muppet Christmas Carol offers something that none of the previous Muppet movies, even from the Muppet glory days, ever dared. For amid all the comedy of this take on Charles Dickens’ classic tale, love, God, and even Christ are clearly present, allowing the true meaning of Christmas to burst through Hollywood’s usual barricade to cast an unexpectedly powerful light.
Other than replacing some of the well-known characters from Dickens’ A Christmas Carol with Muppet “actors,” this Muppet version honors and closely follows the original classic story. Even so, there’s no chance of boredom with this telling of the familiar tale, as the Muppets deliver A Christmas Carol like you’ve never seen it before. In the style of the Muppets of old, this film features the rare brand of comedy that gets laughs from viewers of all ages. Remarkably, the writers and actors manage to achieve this level of entertainment without once using crudity or other rude and juvenile humor.
None of the integrity of Dickens’ creation is lost or disrespected by this comedic reinterpretation. Rather, close adherence to the essence of the original plot is likely part of the reason why this movie is so much stronger than other, more recent Muppet films. With The Muppet Christmas Carol, Dickens’ strong story, which has stood the test of time like few others, provides the unshakable foundation on which it’s a fairly simple matter to build a great movie.
Even so, The Muppet Christmas Carol filmmakers deserve credit for the smart adjustments and additions they make. These changes include making the movie more kid-friendly by softening the darkness of certain scenes that could otherwise be frightening for children. The old, formal British language is also modernized a bit, but many of the actors still have British accents, creating an enchanting blend of accessibility and authenticity.
Among these actors is a familiar face to most modern moviegoers—Michael Caine. As the crotchety Ebenezer Scrooge, Caine is a brilliant casting choice. Only a handful of actors would be able to so convincingly play opposite puppets of frogs, rats, and other unidentifiable creatures. Through Caine’s rich and emotionally moving performance, viewers never have a moment’s doubt that those Muppet characters are as real as the humans.
Caine’s portrayal does not reach the pinnacle of power-packed, dramatic acting as with a George C. Scott or other more “adult” version of A Christmas Carol, but that type of performance and character interpretation would not be appropriate in this intentionally lighter retelling. Caine brings an appeal and layer of vulnerability under the irascible façade that makes his Scrooge easier to connect with, especially for young audiences, than other actors’ more fierce portrayals.
Caine is supported by powerful performances from an impressive line-up of famous actors. Kermit the Frog brings his trademark sweetness to his role as Bob Cratchit, while the always-stunning Miss Piggy is unforgettable as his wife, Emily. In a surprising, but perspicacious casting choice, The Great Gonzo plays Charles Dickens, giving humorous insights and narration to the story. (The acting voices of Steve Whitmire, Frank Oz, and Dave Goelz may have also had something to do with these performances.)
Muppet movies are never known for their cinematography, and The Muppet Christmas Carol is no exception from that norm. Given the logistical limitations of working with puppets, what the filmmakers do manage to achieve in range of camera movement, sets, blocking, etc., is amazing. Considering the special complications and compared to other Muppet movies, The Muppet Christmas Carol stands out as achieving more realism, variety, and freedom in cinematography than most of its predecessors.
The strength of this film, however, begins with the story and the script. To reinvent or adapt such an incomparably familiar and well-known classic is no easy task, but these writers manage to pull it off, creating a story that is fresh and entertaining for a broad audience.
One might think that more comedy and less terrifying bleakness would result in a meaningless film that would no longer convict or have the potential to transform a viewer’s heart, in the way that the original tale and other film versions do. Yet The Muppet Christmas Carol still carries the poignancy of Dickens’ story, mixing but not weakening it with a satirical humor that the trenchantly witty Dickens would have been apt to approve.
Yes, this movie is hilarious, but in the end, The Muppet Christmas Carol is still the ageless tale of redemption—of a life changed and a hard heart softened with repentance, forgiveness, and love.
Check out these similar titles:
A Charlie Brown Christmas (Lee Mendelson Film Productions, 1965)
A Garfield Christmas (Film Roman Productions, 1987)
A Christmas Carol (Entertainment Partners Ltd., 1984)