We all have our own rituals at Christmas time; mine tend to revolve mostly around food, drink and doing as little as humanly possible for the two week Christmas period. The other main component, and the element which for me always says that ‘Christmas has arrived’ is when I first settle down to watch The Muppet Christmas Carol. It has been ubiquitous in my life since childhood and I can’t remember when I first saw it.
What I can say is that it has been a tradition for the past seven or so years to watch it at least twice (recently three times) over the festive holidays. Settling down to watch MCC is akin to wrapping myself in warm blanket with a mug of mulled wine and… well, more just like settling down in front of a film which I know near enough word for word and would certainly be the answer the to the “film which I can, or have watched the most” if I ever get invited onto Brett Goldstein’s excellent Films to Be Buried With podcast. I know it like the back of my hand.
The phrase “perfect movie” is one that I use with hesitation but which I feel can be applied to Muppet Christmas Carol. Although I would argue that the VHS version (where they didn’t cut ‘When Love is Gone’) is superior to the version which is currently available in the UK. I should know this as I have spent more a reasonable amount of time looking for a version on DVD which would work on a Region 2 player that has the original version of the movie. The effect of this crime is compounded by the fact that it stunts the closing musical coda ‘When Love is Found’. Still, all of that aside – it’s a flawless masterpiece.
When I was working through the ideas for this article I was trying to figure how to present what it is that makes me feel this way about Christmas Carol (top 5, 12 days of Muppets) ultimately though I landed on something closer to a personal reflection on a film which still feels as fresh as the day I first saw it. Essentially what I’m saying is; please forgive the structure – or lack thereof – of the next few hundred words. Just know that I really love Muppet Christmas Carol. To an almost unhealthy extent.
All of that said, I will at least attempt to approach the individual merits one at a time.
The foundation of the film’s success is; I have come to realise in the years since I read Dicken’s original novel – the source material and more importantly the film’s adherence to both the narrative and tone of the book. There are entire sections of dialogue which are lifted verbatim from the original. Take; for example the scene where Gonzo – sorry, Charles Dickens – and Rizzo are outside of Scrooge’s house and narrate what is going on inside. There are several lines which are taken directly from Dickens. I’ll return to this scene later; as it’s a brilliant microcosm of where much of the film’s brilliance is rooted.
The second layer is that the Muppet’s are by their very nature both surreal and obviously “not real”. This allows them to have an irreverence that simply wouldn’t work if you had human characters in their place. The human characters, with one obvious exception, are largely bit-players in the telling of the story. This is coupled with a whole history of Muppet characterisations and in-jokes that are utilised to their fullest extent – Statler and Waldorf as ‘the Marley Brothers’ being one of the finest examples. Another being the ‘casting’ of Kermit and Miss Piggy as Bob & Mrs Cratchit. Our familiarity with these characters and their established relationships providing a route into the story – without compromising or too heavily ‘adapting’ the original text.
The songs are indestructible. I mentioned earlier how the omission of the movies real moment of sadness is only a detriment to the film as a whole. That aside; there isn’t a single dud – from ‘Scrooge’ to ‘Marley and Marley’, ‘Thankful Heart’ and of course ‘It Feels Like Christmas’. All of which are instantly memorable and if you’ve seen the film I would bet that you’ve hummed or sung a line from at least one of those as you read them. It’s important to not underestimate just how difficult it can be to make original songs work in such an effective means as to both advance the storyline and be absolute bangers in their own right.
It is without a doubt. Michael Caine’s finest performance. In the space of eighty minutes he goes from vindictive, evil and reviled to a man to sings through the streets on Christmas day how happy he is that it is Christmas day. Above all else it is a thoroughly believable journey. As Scrooge changes, we believe in why and how he does so. The genius lies in the subtly and the fact that he undergoes such a radical transformation before our very eyes such that we completely accept his change of heart by the time the credits roll.
My (currently) favourite element – it’s self-awareness that it is indeed the MUPPET Christmas Carol. It is itself a piece of fiction and it acknowledges this from the very opening conversation between Gonzo and Rizzo;
And so on…
This is most acute with the repeated fourth wall breaks by these two characters; and it is does so in a way that is both hilarious and exceptionally written. In the scene I referenced earlier which lifts directly from the novel; Rizzo questions how Gonzo can know what Scrooge is doing to which there is then a joke about the omnipotence of the author. The same when Sam the Eagle (as Scrooge’s teacher) says that he must learn ‘the way of, business. It is the AMERICAN way’ at which point he is swiftly reminded by Gonzo about where the story is set and corrects it to ‘the BRITISH way’.
And finally, it is truly a ‘family’ film. In the old-fashioned sense.
If you’ve watched it already this year, watch it again. If you haven’t watched it in a while, add it to your list and if you haven’t seen it – I envy you so very much. What I wouldn’t give to experience it for the first time all over again.
All together now “It’s in the singing of a street corner choir, it’s going home and getting warm by the fire, it’s true where ever you find love it feels like Christmas”.
Merry Christmas Everyone!
Dir: Brian Henson
Scr: Charles Dickens (Novel), Jerry Juhl
Cast: Michael Caine, Dave Goelz, Frank Oz, Steve Whitmire, Jerry Nelson, David Rudman
Prd: Martin G. Baker, Brian Henson
DoP: John Fenner
Music: Miles Goodman
Country: United States
Run time: 89mins