Thu
Dec 20 2012 10:00am

Candy Caine: The Sweetness of A Muppet Christmas Carol

Candy Caine: The Sweetness of A Muppet Christmas CarolWhen 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.

Candy Caine: The Sweetness of A Muppet Christmas Carol

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, played 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 though, 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, zanier, and worse 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! 

Candy Caine: The Sweetness of A Muppet Christmas Carol

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]

This post originally appeared on Tor.com on November 17, 2011.


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!)

10 comments
Carl V.
1. Carl V.
Wonderful review of an equally wonderful film. I grew up watching The Muppet Show and have never lost my affection for the magic that Jim Henson and his crew created. Of all the Muppet films this is by far my favorite. It has such spirit, pardon the pun, and such life, as you point out, from a cast mostly made up of wire and cloth. It really is an achievemnt. The film touches deep emotional spots without being cloying and for my money the songs are a must and are very memorable and occasionally very touching. This is one we view every year and I've been putting it off to the last moment this year just to be able to savor it on Christmas Eve night.
Steve Nagy
2. SteveNagy
I prefer the musical with Albert Finney and Alec Guinness.
A.J. Bobo
3. Daedylus
Of all the Muppet movies, this one is my favorite. It's silly when it needs to be and serious when it needs to be.

The first time I saw it I was amazed at how faithful to the book it was. Other adaptations play fast and loose with certain parts of the story, but you can tell that the people that made this movie have respect for the original. The Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come stands out in this respect. It would have been easy to make a more Muppety ghost. But they followed the book's description of an unspeaking thing in a black cloak. Very, very scary. As it should be.

My only complaint about the movie is about a (possible) missed opportunity. There's a short paragraph at a beginning talking about how dead a doornail is and whether a coffin nail would be better in the phrase "dead as a doornail". I think it would have been fun to see Gonzo and Rizzo have that argument. I like to hope that the writers tried it and cut it for pacing reasons. I can support that decision.
Carl V.
4. RobertX
That is one of my favorites. Muppet Treasure Island being first by a little.
Carl V.
5. Lsana
@3,

That was my thought too, this version is incredibly faithful to the book, not only in terms of the plot, but in terms of the spirit of the thing. So many book->movie adaptations, even the ones that claim to be "faithful," I end up thinking, "How could you get almost every event right and yet completely miss the point?"

The thing about A Christmas Carol is that it is a heartwarming story and a scary story (and the Muppets manage both of those), but it's also a wacky story. There's a certain level of just...weirdness in the book. The "dead as a doornail" paragraph is the example I usually cite when I try to explain that to people. I really think that creating a hybrid London where Muppets and humans live side by side is one of the best ways of capturing that wackiness.

I love Muppet Treasure Island, but I imagine if you told Robert Louis Stevenson that the adaptation had given Jim two best friends, one of whom was a rat and the other of whom was a blue...whatever, he'd be horrified. If you told Charles Dickens that the adaptation had made Bob Cratchit into a talking frog who was married to a pig, he'd say, "Brilliant! Why didn't I think of that?"
Robert Evans
6. bobsandiego
I saw this in the theater and it became my favorite adaptation. The muppets are fun but what sold me this film was Caine's performance. In my opinion the absolute finest Scrooge ever. As you noted it is subtle, and underneath you can see the good man who lost his way. This has a couple of major effects.
1) when he changes it is less magical and more naturalistic. He could be the good man the potential was always there.
2) because he coudl be a good man, his life is a product of his choices just as ours are. If he can find the path back then so can we. With Caine's performance, not only can Scrooge be redeemed we all can. Regardless if you follow the regious teaching of the season that is a very heartening message.
Cain Latrani
7. CainS.Latrani
While I figure not many people will get it, Christmas is my least favorite time of year. I all but unplug my tv from Thanksgiving on through New Year to avoid it.

However, this movie, I watch, every year.

It is the only Christmas film that doesn't make me horribly depressed. For that, it will always be one of my all time favorite movies.
Carl V.
8. Brandi87
@6 Bob,

Well said. Michael Caine does, in my opinion as well, the best portrayal of Scrooge. All others do a fine job, but Caine is the one that keeps the sweeter, kinder Scrooge just underneath the surface. It's always been there, but older Scrooge doesn't let it show.

Hands down my favorite Christmas movie. And the novella is in my top 10 favorite books as well.

Fun article. Glad it got re-posted!
Carl V.
9. Sela
I have loved this movie since I watched it the first time when I was in the sixth grade. Not only is A Christmas Carol a great book but it also tells an important story about redemption, forgiveness, kindness and love. For a Muppet movie it is wonderfully done and Michael Caine makes the perfect Scrooge. Some of my DISH co-workers haven’t seen it yet and that surprised me considering how old it is. I recommended that they watch it with their kids over the holidays. I just recently rented it from DISH’s Blockbuster @Home because I was waiting for the copy of the film arrive that I had ordered as a Christmas present. Not only do I have access to 100,000 movies from home but they also come by mail so I don’t have go out and hunt them down at the local kiosk.
JB Segal
10. jbsegal
"Maybe they should consider classic literature again."
It's been done, but not in the movies:
http://muppet.wikia.com/wiki/Muppet_Robin_Hood
http://muppet.wikia.com/wiki/Muppet_Peter_Pan
http://muppet.wikia.com/wiki/Muppet_King_Arthur
http://muppet.wikia.com/wiki/Muppet_Snow_White
http://muppet.wikia.com/wiki/Muppet_Sherlock_Holmes

(Apologies if this is in a queue someplace from earlier and I end up with a dupe comment.)

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