"The greatest story of all time is A Christmas Carol. And there is only one way to make that better, and that is The Muppet Christmas Carol." — Ricky Gervais
Of the four or five versions of Dickens' classic that I enjoy each year come Yuletide, my favorite by far is The Muppet Christmas Carol. Better than any other adaptation of the story, and perhaps any other Dickens story, is the understanding on behalf of Jim Henson Productions that what makes Dickens such a powerful and serious writer is the degree to which he capture childlike joy. What better fit could there be, then, than Muppets, those agents of eternal elation, capable of putting a smile on my face long after I have outgrown so many other relics of childhood.
The film has fun with the mash-up from the start, using The Great Gonzo to play a narrating Charles Dickens, only for his companion, Rizzo the Rat, to instantly call foul on some blue, fuzzy thing posing as the author. The two hang around for the rest of the film, offering half-narration, half-reflexive commentary. "Why are you whispering?" Rizzo interjects as Gonzo intones quietly to the audience. Exasperated, Gonzo replies, "It's for dramatic emphasis."
Remarkably, for all the vibrancy of the Muppets jumping about in their greens and blues and browns, the sets themselves capture the grim, sooty look of industrializing London. The filmmakers understand that if Dickens could make his delightful tales without sparing detail of his surroundings, they should be able to do so too. Besides, of the author's best stories, A Christmas Carol contains the least amount of social misery, its conditions of poverty and urban malaise something that happens around Ebenezer, not to him. In fact, Scrooge is the kind of man who inflicts that kind of despair on others.
Michael Caine proves one of the finest Scrooges put on screen, and he must deal with the added strain of maintaining his dour mood around puppets. So good is he at tapping into Scrooge's bile that he never lets the Muppet aspect of the film derail the power of the story. He's playing straight man, but not to let jokes bounce off him. The merriment and glee that occurs all around him stops cold when it slams into the brick wall of Scrooge's unfeeling aura. The decision to use a human for the villain is a sly move on the creative team's part: as with Tim Curry's Long John Silver in the Muppet version of Treasure Island, Caine brings a menace that just could not have existed if they'd used a fuzzy, wee thing to spit out his bile. I mean, has anyone ever truly feared Oscar the Grouch?
There's no need to go into the story, which everyone knows and is unchanged for the Muppet version. But there's just something wonderful about watching Kermit the Frog play Bob Cratchit, and even more heartbreaking to watch Tiny Tim when he's a sickly puppet frog. I love that Robert Marley is invented as a brother to Jacob so that Scrooge can be haunted, well, heckled at least, by Statler and Waldorf. My only quibble is that the Ghost of Christmas Past looks creepy, with its porcelain doll face and digital alterations, but that's atoned for with my favorite view of Christmas Present, which is not only a masterfully designed puppet but also displays the traits of the character better than most other versions, capturing his rapid aging and his mercurial, in-the-moment nature. And I never fail to smile when Christmas Past shows Scrooge his first job, now altered so Fozzy Bear can replace Fezziwig as Fozziwog and Michael Caine bursts into glee when he breathlessly utters the words "rubber chicken factory."
The great thing about this movie is that, as ever, no one set out to just make a trifling puppet movie but a legitimate version of a classic. Scrooge's story loses none of its emotion, and the design is impeccable -- be on the lookout for nightmarish, even Expressionist skewing of houses in the Christmas Future segment. Paul Williams' songs are fantastic, especially his "Marley and Marley," which uses the haunting as an excuse to return to full-on rock opera mode even as he injects some of his most poignant lyrics, such as "Freedom comes from giving love as prison comes with hate." Yet even it cannot compare to the brilliance of "It Feels Like Christmas," one of my all-time favorite Christmas tunes, capturing the joy of the season better than nearly all of the treacly, overplayed sap on the radio.
The Muppet Christmas Carol has become something of a cult item over the years, but that's only because it so deftly mixes Muppet-style comedy with the lingering power of what is certainly not Dickens' finest literary achievement but perhaps the most immediately visceral. It somehow manages to wink at the audience throughout without bringing the whole thing down with lazy irony. The Muppet Christmas Carol acknowledges that it is following in the footsteps of countless adaptations before it, then it tries to argue that there is still something left to say. It succeeds.