Christmas is a very very geeky time of year. Some of the all-time great Christmas stories are fantasies, dealing with ghosts, angels, elves (thank you, Santa) and other fantasy tropes (Hmm – note to self: there isn’t a Christmas Dragon story yet. Work on that for next year). Whether you go down the religious route of miraculous pregnancies, stellar announcements, angel prophecies and children with grand, death-defeating destinies, or the rather more bitesize fantasies of bankers saved from suicide and made to count their blessings by trainee angels (It’s a Wonderful Life), Christmas is about as geeky a time as you’ll find outside a Comic-Con.
When it comes to the ultimate literary fiction though, you’re looking at an eminent Victorian by the name of Charles Dickens. You’re looking at A Christmas Carol, with its masterful story of an old man, his life twisted out of shape by coldness shown him and a desperate need for self-security and self-reliance that leads him to close his heart to human kindness and the society of the world. The tale of spiritual intervention to save this wretched soul is harrowing and wonderful by degrees and there actually isn’t a version of the story, from the original book on down through the years, through Alistair Sim to Albert Finney to Tim Curry, to Patrick Stewart, even to Jim Carrey, that’s bad. It is, if anything can claim to be, the unruinable story, so perfectly constructed to wring heartache and joy out of an audience as to make the mediocre great, and the great sublime.
But can it survive being rendered into life by the Muppets? Jim Henson’s puppetfest had a reputation for zany comedy when it was announced that they would take on the classic story of Christmas redemption. What could the Muppets possibly bring to such a story?
Two things, chiefly. Three at a push, and all of them help to make The Muppet Christmas Carol not just a worthy addition to the long line of cinematic Scrooge stories, but really rather a special one.
Firstly, there’s actually a respect for the genius of the source material at work in the Muppet version. While the usual joy of the Muppets is about fourth-wall breaking and modern wit, here, none of the Muppet ‘players’ break character for knowing glances to camera. There are occasional cutesy Muppet moments, such as Miss Piggy as Emily Cratchit ‘checking’ the chestnuts to ‘make sure they’re alright’ before Bob comes home, the bookkeeping staff going from shivering and frozen to singing Jamaican songs and sweltering under the threat of unemployment, and Statler and Waldorf appearing as the Marley Brothers, but the emotional landscape of the piece is more or less maintained within the storyline, meaning the Muppets (and what I’m going out on a limb here to call the Muppeteers) know enough to let the genius of the piece shine through. Sure, they’re Muppets, but beyond that, the emotional rollercoaster is that of A Christmas Carol. I promise you, you’ll never get so choked up over the fate of a tiny scrap of green cloth as you will watching Robin the Frog play Tiny Tim.
That leads to both of the other things that make The Muppet Christmas Carol stand out. Michael Caine is undoubtedly one of them. It’s something of a mystery that Caine agreed to the project, but it’s a performance that’s straight down the line of cinematic Scrooges – he plays it absolutely straight, for drama rather than comedy, meaning that again, the emotions we feel are familiar: the contempt for the miser, the pity for the young man and the old, the hope that he really can change his stars and save himself, and the joy when he can and does. By casting an actor of Caine’s stature and allowing him to take it seriously, without demanding he bend the role to the Muppet style of comedy, the movie allows the magic to feel real.
And the third thing that makes The Muppet Christmas Carol special is – somewhat contradictorily, given all this talk about how it plays it straight – the role of Gonzo and Rizzo, as Charles Dickens and…well, Rizzo. If you’re going to have a Muppet take on A Christmas Carol, and you’re going to let the original guide your emotional beats, you’re open to questions of what makes it an especially Muppet movie – and Gonzo and Rizzo are your answer. They provide not only a conduit for that fourth wall-breaking tone of fun that is uniquely Muppet, but also some much needed slapstick that puts what can be quite a frightening story in the hands, and in the emotional realm, of a much younger audience. Helping also to narrate the piece along, and so compress the running time, Gonzo and Rizzo are the outside observers of the ‘play’ that is A Christmas Carol, and they even deliver a warning that what’s coming up might be especially scary – in true Gonzo and Rizzo style, they tell us it’s going to be scary, and then leave us to it, reappearing for the happy ever after ending! What you get from The Muppet Christmas Carol then is the best of both worlds – the genius of the original, interpreted for the most part fairly straight, and with an actor of Michael Caine’s stature in the lead role, but with the sentimental side of Muppetry delivering the emotional punch of a loving family marked by goodness and sadness, and the wisecracking slapstick side of the unique Muppet style removed from the main action, but allowed to operate outside it, to welcome younger viewers in, to make the scary not quite so scary, and to deliver some laughs that the original doesn’t have.
Also – songs! It’s the Muppets, and it really wouldn’t be The Muppet Christmas Carol without some songs. There have been musical versions of Scrooge’s story before, but here, the most notable songs carry the emotion of the piece and the character of the story with them – Kermit and Robin as Bob and Tiny Tim Cratchit, scatting along on their way home, just enjoying the wonder of each other’s company and the pleasure of a Christmas to come; the simple sentiment of Tiny Tim and the Cratchit family singing Bless Us All, used as a real heart-wrenching gotcha-hook to let you feel why Scrooge develops such an interest in Tim – the pure goodness of the boy, irrespective of life’s difficulties; and the joyful, whirling, ever-growing set piece of It Feels Like Christmas at the end to show Scrooge’s enlivened, opened heart (and, admittedly, the fact that Michael Caine is very much an actor, rather than a singer). The whole thing is a surprisingly sensitive blending of the best of Dickens with the best impulses of the Muppets, to create a holiday classic that still, after 23 years, is a fitting tribute to Jim Henson and Muppeteer Richard Hunt, both of whom sadly passed before it was made, and for both of whom it was dedicated. It still carries all the fun you’d expect of a Muppet movie, and all the drama of Dickens, with its plunge to despair, and its whooshing whirlwind of joy at the end. Stick it on this Christmas, and feel the Muppety goodness all over again.
Tony Fyler lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who, Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the 70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By day, he runs an editing house, largely as an excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book. With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk