In the time since it was originally published in 1843, Dickens’ A Christmas Carol has been done to death in countless films and television specials, to the extent that another rote movie adaptation would be entirely superfluous without a unique spin. Thus, it was only customary for Jim Henson’s Muppets to take a crack at it in their own quirky style. But instead of just mocking the story, The Muppet Christmas Carol is a straight-faced version of the source material that’s peppered with witty one-liners and full of Muppet characters, faithfully retelling a timeless tale armed with classic Muppet charm.
Everyone knows the story of A Christmas Carol by now (and if you don’t, shame on you), so here’s a brief summary: miserable old curmudgeon Ebenezer Scrooge (Caine) lives his life without a thought towards kindness, and hates the jolly generosity that Christmas represents. Scrooge’s selfishness and lack of compassion literally haunts him on the evening of Christmas Eve, when he’s visited by the ghosts of his late business partners (portrayed by the inimitable balcony hecklers Statler and Waldorf) who warn Scrooge about the errors of his ways and advise him what’s in store. Not long afterwards, Scrooge is taken on a journey by the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future who aim to change Scrooge’s cantankerous character.
The likes of Kermit the Frog (Whitmire), Miss Piggy (Oz), Fozzie Bear (also Oz), the Swedish Chef (Rudman) and many other Muppets show up throughout The Muppet Christmas Carol, portraying characters from Dickens’ story in their own unique way. Indeed, allowing Jim Henson’s glorious creations to roam free here is what makes this version stand out from trillions of other Christmas Carol adaptations.
Constantly on the sidelines during the proceedings is the narrator, Charles Dickens, who’s played here by Gonzo (Goelz) and is assisted by Rizzo the Rat (Whitmire). The two beloved characters act as a guide through the story, injecting commentary, discussions and even comic relief. The device isn’t overused, though, as the characters step aside at key points in the narrative (most notably for the grim scenes involving the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come). Consequently, the film does get dark at times, but that’s because this is a sincere retelling of the story rather than a brain-dead parody of it. The inclusion of Muppets, therefore, renders the tale and its messages digestible to children who’ll likely be introduced to A Christmas Carol via this film. The Muppets provide fun humour and serve to lighten up the proceedings which would otherwise be dismally boring and hard to comprehend for children.
The Muppet Christmas Carol was the first theatrical appearance of the Muppets since their creator, Jim Henson, died in 1990. It was also the first silver screen appearance of these lovable creatures in eight years (they were last seen in 1984’s Muppets Take Manhattan), and the film marked the directorial debut for Jim’s son, Brian. These factors admittedly worked against The Muppet Christmas Carol, but the resulting picture is tremendously assured and agreeably-paced, not to mention well-made. And on top of being a comedy, The Muppet Christmas Carol is a musical containing several predictably delightful song & dance numbers (and the extended edition of the film contains even more). Written by Muppets veteran Paul Williams, at least two or three songs here are true keepers. It Feels Like Christmas is especially good, as it encapsulates the spirit of the festive season and effortlessly makes you smile. Also worth noting is Miles Goodman’s accompanying score, which is joyously Yuletide-soaked when it needs to be and suitably intense in other scenes.
As the iconic Ebenezer Scrooge, Michael Caine took the role as seriously as he would have if he was surrounded by Shakespearean performers. Due to this, Caine brings a sense of emotion and earnestness to the piece that’s not often seen in Muppet films (or Christmas comedies in general). It’s refreshing to witness a dramatic actor of such calibre in what would otherwise be a throwaway comedy. Commendably, the film doesn’t depict Scrooge as a shallow caricature of senseless greed and evil; he’s just an embittered man who has endured a hard life. Meanwhile, the voice cast is just as good as Caine (in their own way, that is). Interestingly, this was the first Muppet movie not to feature Kermit the Frog as voiced by Jim Henson. Steve Whitmire took over the role of Kermit after Jim’s death, and the transition is commendably seamless.
For lovers of Christmas movies or Muppet movies, or admirers of Dickens’ writing, you cannot go wrong with The Muppet Christmas Carol. It’s fit viewing for the whole family due to its surplus of heart, humour, charm and wonderful songs. It’s a welcome Christmas treat which deserves to enjoy continued prominence as one of the most beloved festive movies of all time.