Thu
Nov 17 2011 3:00pm

Candy Caine: The Sweetness of A Muppet Christmas Carol

When I say A Muppet Christmas Carol is sweet, I don’t only mean the movie is heartwarming and saccharine. It’s those things, too, but it’s also a film that delivers a uniquely badass adaptation of Charles Dickens’ ridiculously famous novella. Darker and less goofy than other Muppet flicks, A Muppet Christmas Carol manages to capture the phantasmagorical texture of the source material while at the same time turning out a bonafide family film, though not necessarily a kid’s movie. While you might read a child A Christmas Carol aloud, you probably wouldn’t give them the original novella for them to read on their own. And it’s the same with this movie. Despite its Hallmark Card exterior, A Muppet Christmas Carol might be the most adult of the Muppet films.

The Muppets themselves are what make a Muppet film great, but with A Muppet Christmas Carol it was as though the metafictional conceit that the Muppets were really just working actors was taken to a new level. The only Muppet who goes by his Muppet name here is Rizzo the Rat. And though Rizzo attempts to break the illusion right at the beginning by asserting that Gonzo is NOT Charles Dickens, few other overt references to the Muppets being Muppets is made. The human characters and the Muppet characters interact with no need for explanation or close examination. Kermit the Frog is playing Bob Cratchit, not Cratchit the Frog. (Though the rats in Scrooge’s office do mumble, “it was the frog’s idea” at one point.)

Overall though, Director Brian Henson and screenwriter Jerry Juhl play the whole Muppets-in-Dickens thing totally straight. At the end when Scrooge calls out to the boy on the street to buy him a turkey, he’s obviously speaking to a bunny rabbit, but Scrooge calls him “boy” anyway. It’s cute as hell, but it’s not cutesy. What this means is that the movie is somewhat subtle. An absurd claim, I know, particularly when we consider we’re talking about a musical! Not only does it have Muppets hanging out with Michael Caine, but also constant singing! How could this be remotely subtle? The writing and direction is part of it, but Caine is a big deal here too.

Like Connery, or other actors famous for their distinctive voices, there’s a tendency to assume someone like Michael Caine isn’t a subtle actor, and that his Scrooge would be over-the-top and ridiculous. He’s in a Muppet movie after all, so everything should be really cartoony, right? Nope! True, Caine’s Scrooge is initially cruel and unfeeling, but he’s not playing some kind of Mr. Hyde-style monster. Even before the jaunts through time with the various spirits, this Scrooge has some doubt and guilt built into Caine’s performance. It’s hard to prove this, but by the end of the film it’s not as though the color of his eyes have changed from red to blue like he’s the Grinch or something. Caine’s portrayal — particularly when he’s pleading with The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come — is more real and more human than most other portrayals of Scrooge. (With the possible exception of maybe Patrick Stewart’s one-man-show.) However, because mostly non-human “actors” surround this Scrooge the isolation of the character from humankind is effectively heightened. If you actually LIVED in a town full of Muppets with squeaky voices, you might turn into Scrooge, too! The point is, when Scrooge is being cruel to Muppets it’s pretty hard to watch, meaning when he starts being nice to them, it’s endlessly satisfying.

The literary mutability of the Muppets is on full display in this movie and the roles filled by our familiar characters are all perfect fits. When you hear the name Fezziwig, you naturally know that Fozzie Bear will be portraying the character Fozziwig in the Muppet version. Jacob Marley becomes two ghosts instead of one in this incarnation of A Christmas Carol, portrayed by those wonderful critics Statler and Waldorf. Gonzo is great as the narrator of the whole story, and various other Muppets like Beeker and Bunsen fill in nice supporting roles.

It is notable however, that with the exception of Statler and Waldorft, the spirits which guide Scrooge on his journey are all creatures/Muppets unique to this movie. In fact, the only one of the three that looks remotely like a Muppet is the Ghost of Christmas Present, and even there, it’s clear this is a guy in suit with a Muppet head on top. These were good decisions though, because if overly familiar Muppets had been cast in these pivotal roles, it would have made the movie way too cheesy. One could almost see a version of this movie with Sam the Eagle as the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, but it would have been a different, funnier, zanier film.

I can’t say I’m someone who necessarily likes a lot of singing in their films. Real musicals are one thing, but an adaptation of a famous book into a musical with Muppets sort of sounds horrible on paper to me. And yet the songs are corny little earworms that don’t detract from the movie one bit. Could I have done without them? Sure. But the movie isn’t made just for me. It’s not as though this was an interpretation of A Christmas Carol with puppets from The Dark Crystal. It wasn’t that dark. It’s still the Muppets, so let them sing! 

This film was one of the first Muppet projects to be released after Jim Henson’s death, and in many ways, to me, feels the closest to what he would have intended. Many of the Muppet movies preceding this one are on par in terms of wit and fun, but few that followed it can hold a candle to this. The source material helped, but if Michael Caine and Kermit the Frog ever decided to be in a movie again, I would bet all my shillings that it would be a huge hit. Maybe they should consider classic literature again. Muppet Moby Dick anyone?

[images via The Muppet Wiki]


Ryan Britt is the staff writer for Tor.com. He seems to write about A Christmas Carol on this website a lot. (Batman-Dickens! Doctor Who-Dicknes! Dickens in SF!)

This article is part of Muppet Week: ‹ previous | index | next ›
16 comments
Mike Conley
1. NomadUK
Real musicals are one thing, but an adaptation of a famous book into a musical with Muppets sort of sounds horrible on paper to me.

I actually haven't seen this film, but I can't imagine they'd've gone horribly wrong just using the songs from Scrooge!, which I've always thought was the second-best adaptation of A Christmas Carol (Alastair Sim's 1951 version is, of course, the best.)
KitCampbell
2. KitCampbell
I love Muppet Christmas Carol. My family still gets together every year, even now that we're adults, and watches it. We probably know all the songs by heart by now.
James Whitehead
3. KatoCrossesTheCourtyard
Have to agree with NomadUK on the Scrooge! musical. It's my favourite version.

I do love, however, the Muppets version no end. It might be a little dark for the very small but don't forget that Rizzo & Gonzo, I mean Mr. Dickens, warn us to turn away at the scary bits. ;-)

I read an interview with Michael Caine in which he stated how much fun he had doing this movie and how quickly he started regarding the muppets as actual actors to play his scenes off of.

Plus Victorian penguins & Jacob & Robert (only The Muppets could get away with that joke) Marley are too funny for words. It's a must watch for our family every Christmas.

Kato
andrew smith
4. sillyslovene
I love this film. It is one of a very few films that I absolutely have to watch every year.
KitCampbell
5. Puff the Magic Commenter
I'm a huge Henson fan but have never seen this version of ACC. I am determined to make up for that omission this year (but not yet -- NO Xmas until next Friday, yes?)

I'm sure this will become my second favorite version behind the George C. Scott, which, in actual FACT, is of course the best.
KitCampbell
6. Nightsky
I remember wondering how they'd handle the problem posed by a pig/frog interspecies marriage: what do the kids look like?

Their solution was stunningly elegant: the boys are frogs, and the girls are pigs. Of course.
KitCampbell
7. Scavenger
I never saw Patrick Stewarts one man show, but if his portrayal was anything like it was in the TNT movie he starred in, he doesn't hold a candle to Caine's performance.

Muppet Christmas Carol is the best adaptation of the book, with the best acted Scrooge, and the most acurate depection of the book.

In the book, Scrooge is redeemed rather early. In most movies, they have him redeem in reaction to the visions of the future. Muppets get it right.

Only wrong notes the movie hits is in the present scenes with Nephew Fred, in which the muppet version has him beeing a bit cruel towards the absent Scrooge, something absent from the book.
Aaron Dick
8. disturbed_kiwi
I adore this movie to bits, its one of my favourite movies of all time, let alone favourite muppet movies.

When I coupled this with Muppet Treasure Island (also fantastic) I thought they should just make a whole bunch of literary adaptations, because they were doing them so well!

But then I saw Muppet Wizard of Oz and was very unamused. And then I saw the Muppets in Space (Which got one thing right. Having the Muppets as a huge house of room mates was a perfcect dynamic.) and the Christmas Special and I cringed.

I am so hopeful for the new movie, because it looks like it could actually be really funny, family friendly and clever again!
KitCampbell
9. AO
One of the greatest movies ever!
Mike Conley
10. NomadUK
Puff the Magic Commenter@5: I'm sure this will become my second favorite version behind the George C. Scott, which, in actual FACT, is of course the best.

Hmm. I will allow this to pass unchallenged for now, as I have not yet seen the George C Scott version, and I do really like George, so it's possible -- only possible, mind you -- that I may have to revise my rankings. But only with great reluctance.
KitCampbell
11. dav
This is my second favorite Muppet movie (behind Great Muppet Caper)... would be number one if the reason I loved it wasn't the human lead rather than the muppet performances. Alastair Sim's 1951 version may be the best overall adaptation of A Christmas Carol, but Caine is the best Scrooge... just like the review says, perfectly subtle, comes to the realization slowly, plays it completely straight. No human actor in any Muppet movie ever seems as comfortable or seems to take it as seriously as he does. I love the performance and I love pairing this with Sim's version and Mickey's Christmas Carol (still a soft spot for this since it's the first one I ever saw) on back-to-back-to-back nights in December.
KitCampbell
12. Lsana
Like many others here, this is my favorite Muppets movie and also my favorite adaptation of the Christmas Carol. I actually didn't read the book until last year, and when I did, I was struck by how many subtly wacky things that there were in the book (the opening discussion about why a doornail should be considered deader than anything else being a prime example). I can't help but think that if Dickens could see this version, he'd approve. And I think he might be flattered that Gonzo the Great was portraying him.

I heard the Muppet saga described this way by someone: in the Muppet Show, much of the comedy came from the fact that a human actor entered the Muppet world. In Muppet Movie and Great Muppet Caper, the comedy came from the Muppets going into the human world. In Muppet Christmas Carol, they managed to create a world from Dickens' London which Muppets and humans can share. And it's even better than either of the other two.

Muppet Treasure Island was good too, but Stevenson's world lacked the same subtle wackiness that Dickens' had, so the Muppets kind of had to invent it, and it just didn't work as well. And nothing after thant worked for me.
James Goetsch
13. Jedikalos
The favorite Christmas movie in my house. Watched it every year with my kids growing up, and now that they are grown, we still all watch it together. We have basically memorized every song.
A.J. Bobo
14. Daedylus
This is, without question, my favorite Muppet movie. It's also far, far closer to the book than most other adaptations. That impressed me.

The only complaint I've ever had about this movie is about a missed opportunity. On the first page of the book there's a little bit of text where the narrator wonders about the phrase "dead as a doornail". This would have made a fantastic bit of back-and-forth between Gonzo and Rizzo.
KitCampbell
15. AerinRose
My childhood was based on the assumed truth that Jim Henson (by which my 5-yr-old self meant "Kermit") could do no wrong. I shuddered to find out this was being released after his death - how could the Muppets continue, how could they possibly go on without him?

Since its release, however, this has been my hands-down favorite Christmas movie, with another Henson film in second: Emmett Otter's JugBand Christmas.
KitCampbell
16. NicoleS
I'll join in the chorus here - this is one of our family's favorite Christmas movies and probably our favorite of the Muppet movies - although we enjoy many of them. I like the music, I think it enhances the storyline and fits well with the Muppet/human combination.

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