Program Notes: The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992)
Let’s admit up front that two of the coolest things in the world are Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol and the Muppets. So it is humanly impossible to dislike The Muppet Christmas Carol, the 1992 big-screen melding of these two cultural linchpins.
Still, who knew this unlikely marriage would work so well? The movie is absolutely faithful to Dickens while reveling in the off-center humor that has always been the hallmark of the Muppet empire.
You'll cry, you'll laugh. Then you’ll be ready to watch it again.
In fact, I consider it a key element – along with Bob Clark's 1983 A Christmas Story and the 1950 Alastair Sim version of A Christmas Carol – of the ultimate Christmas movie triumvirate. (I’m tempted to add Bad Santa to this exalted list, but can already hear the howls of protest.)
What you have here is the traditional story of Scrooge and the Christmas ghosts enacted by a few human performers and a whole lot of puppets. The trick is that the humans don't for a minute let on that there's anything unusual about a Victorian street populated by mice in waistcoats, chickens in mufflers, and some guy throwing a fish that returns to him boomerang-style.
For example, who but Kermit, that eternally decent Everyfrog, could portray Scrooge's clerk Bob Cratchit? And that, of course, means Miss Piggy had to be cast as Mrs. Cratchit, kvetching that her husband's employer is "odious, wicked, stingy, and badly dressed."
The aged curmudgeons Statler & Waldorf materialize as not one but two Marleys, deceased brothers whose spirits return to cackle at the perplexed Ebenezer Scrooge. Fozzie Bear pops up as that original party animal Fozziwig. In a modest stroke of genius, the Great Gonzo narrates the film in the guise of Charles Dickens, a move that allows him to quote Dickens' prose directly.
But the filmmakers' greatest coup was signing Michael Caine to play that old miser Scrooge. Caine deserved an Oscar nomination for his performance, which is as powerful as anything he's done.
This Scrooge is a nasty old skinflint who is impervious to the Muppets' delicious irreverence. ("Our assets are frozen," complains one of his chilly counting-house employees.)
But rarely has Scrooge's transformation from misanthrope to caring individual been so powerfully rendered. Caine's expressive eyes speak volumes; it's simply a great performance, even if he is playing off co-stars who are all felt and foam rubber.
Add to this several delightful new songs by Paul Williams, some imaginative special effects and more bad puns than the mind can absorb in one sitting, and you have a show that will be delighting audiences as long as we celebrate Christmas.
One cannot watch the film without sensing that it is a tribute to and a celebration of the values of Jim Henson. The film was made just two years after his sudden death, and many fans wondered whether his passage would mean an end to the magic.
The Muppet Christmas Carol put all those fears to rest.
Other films in the series “A Very Dickens Christmas”
Saturdays at 1:30 p.m.:
- December 1: A Christmas Carol (1951) Not Rated
- December 8: The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992) Rated G
- December 15: A Christmas Carol (2009) Rated PG
- December 22: Scrooged (1988) Rated PG-13
- December 29: Scrooge (1970) Rated G
Admission to these films is free.
About the Author
Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com. He joined the Library's Public Affairs team in 2012.