Thu
Dec 19 2013 10:00am

Candy Caine: The Sweetness of A Muppet Christmas Carol

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.

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 Waldorf, 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?

 

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


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

15 comments
Gruud
1. Gruud
A bit off topic, but if you've not seen a Muppet Treasure island, you really must. Tim Curry is just fabulous in it. Meanwhile, I'll be looking for this one.
Robert H. Bedford
2. RobB
I was watching this the a couple of days ago on (I think) either ABC Family or Disney channel. I realized that Michael Caine is aweseme because he worked with BOTH Kermit the Frog and BATMAN.
Gruud
3. mirana
This is my fav holiday movie of all time (though YES the Patrick Stewart one is so good too). We watched this while decorating this year, and then again on the big screen in a food drive for charity at the local historic theatre. When we got to the theatre with another adult friend we were all, "Wow, so many kids! Oh...right....this is a "kids" movie. Forgot that."

Rizzo also calls out Gonzo after he falls and is seemingly "unconscience" saying, "Gonzo! I mean MR. DICKENS! Are you okay? Are you hurt?!" I love the Muppets being not-Muppets in this.
Gruud
4. Lsana
This movie and Muppet Treasure Island are the two movies where they succeeded in perfectly blending the muppet and human worlds. Yes, Bob Cratchit is a frog. Yes, he's married to a pig. No, no one thinks this is worth commenting on. This particular London is one where it's perfectly natural for women in bonnets and bunnies in raggedy coats to greet each other without any comment on species.

You say Henson would have liked this version, and I like to think that Charles Dickens would have too. I like to think he would have gotten a kick out of being played by Gonzo the Great. There's a wackiness to Dickens' work that the Muppets captured perfectly.
Gruud
5. RobG
"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."

Not sure if I can get behind this sentiment, given that most "real" musicals were based on previous source material, many of them famous books, plays, and films. Why is this any less real a musical than West Side Story or other famous Dickens-based musicals like Oliver! or The Mystery of Edwin Drood?

This is one of my favorite films, and one of the reasons it captures the Muppets so well is Jerry Juhl's script. He was also head writer of The Muppet Show, Fraggle Rock, two previous Muppet films, and many other Muppet projects.
Gruud
6. TheStrider
Best Christmas Movie Ever.

Yes, I capitalized every word. :)
Bridget Smith
7. BridgetSmith
I haven't seen this movie since I was a child, but I remember loving it. I always liked the Muppets reinterpretations of classics - their fairy tales were the perfect combo of smart and silly. I should rewatch!

But I need to object to the idea that actors famous for their voices aren't known for subtlety. Alan Rickman? Morgan Freeman? Benedict Cumberbatch? Even Liam Neeson can do subtle, when he's not shouting death threats. Not all distinctive voices are only good for bombast - and I'd argue that Michael Caine's other roles bear that out!
Gruud
8. kent archie42
This is the top of a short list of movies we watch every Christmas. The rest are "It's A Wonderful Life", "Holiday Inn", the Alastair Sim "Christmas Carol" (not a favorite of the kids), sometimes "The Bishops Wife (the Cary Grant version) and for some reason, "Philadelphia Story"
Gruud
9. Blake Harrison
This film is undoubtedly my favorite Christmas movie. I watch it at least once a year, thrice so far this season.

Unfortunately, my wife doesn't like The Muppets and refuses to watch it with me. She can be depressingly practical at times.
James Goetsch
10. Jedikalos
My children's favorite Christmas tradition (now they are all grown up, but the tradition lives): Watching this lovely film, calling out favorite phrases, singing along with favorite songs ("Its Marley and Marely . . . ohhhhhhhhh"). And Michael Caine is just perfect.
JB Segal
12. 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
Gruud
13. Library Girl
One of my all-time favorite Christmas movies, which must be watched every year. Just watched it a couple of evenings ago, and was specifically thinking how one of the things that make it work so well is that Michael Caine plays it totally straight- he has multiple scenes where every other "actor" is a Muppet, but there is no camp in his performance. Love. It. And now I have "It Feels Like Christmas" stuck in my head. Again.
Cain Latrani
14. CainS.Latrani
Hands down, my favorite version of A Christmas Carol, bar none.

Sorry, George C. Scott.
Gruud
15. AO
It's beautifully intelligent and wise and sublimally mixes humor and drama pefectly. As great an adaptation as one could hope for.
Gruud
16. ViewerBen
Also my favorite Christmas movie. The only shame about the DVD and TV versions is that Disney cut Belle's song to Ebeneezer, 'When Love is Gone', because they felt the kids would get bored. It was one of my favorite parts of the movie, and the final song, 'When Love is Found' is a direct counterpoint to it and now makes no sense! I shake my fist at you, Disney!

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