The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992) [Revisited]

We've seen this before, of course - Lindsay did a brief write-up back in 2010. But we were overdue for a reexamination of this even before I set out to watch every significant version of A Christmas Carol ever made.

I realize this isn't a popular opinion, but I'm not a huge fan of this movie. There are elements I really like, and I admire what they're trying to pull off here. But as a whole, I think it fails more than it succeeds. It tries to be too many things and doesn't manage to pull its disparate parts together.

First, let's try and break down what this is trying to do. The Muppet Christmas Carol represents a surprisingly high-concept approach to the material - this really isn't just the Muppets doing Dickens. The best description I can offer is it's a relatively straightforward adaptation of the story (aided by musical numbers), paying homage to previous adaptations, with a Muppet narrator and supporting cast accompanying Michael Caine as he encounters Henson Workshop ghosts reminiscent of fantasy creatures from The Storyteller.

Tonally, it's primarily comedic aside from Caine's performance, which is more in line with dramatic and even scarier adaptations. Caine famously resolved to play the part seriously despite the presence of the Muppets, and it shows, particularly in the last third. I think this is a fascinating idea with a great deal of potential. I assume the goal was for the resulting movie to work as both a comedic contrast in styles and as a sort of big-budget experimental film exploring the audience's ability to suspend disbelief and accept a cinematic reality. In essence, I think the point was at least partially supposed to be an extension of an aspect of puppetry long known: that sustained interaction with puppets (and Muppets in particular) feels like interacting with actual people. People who regularly perform opposite the Muppets often describe how they forget the puppeteers exist, despite being in their presence.

I really like this conceptually, but I think a few unfortunate choices sabotage what Caine is doing. First, the Muppets are uncharacteristically reserved throughout this movie. It's a comedy but not a farce: everyone - Muppets included - takes the material seriously (with the possible exception of Gonzo and Rizzo). This probably seemed like the right approach to complement Caine's performance, but I think it backfires, in no small part because it weakens the juxtaposition between the styles. A movie in which a serious actor displays his craft opposite a bunch of absurd puppets makes for a humorous meta-joke, but if the puppets aren't all that funny, it just makes for a weird disconnect.

I don't want to imply there's no comedy here or even that it's bad: it isn't. The Muppets still get some good moments, and Gonzo and Rizzo get to wink at the camera. But aside from them, the Muppets are treated differently here than in most appearances. They don't feel like the characters we saw on The Muppet Show: as absurd as it'll sound, they feel more like actors who previously played the characters on The Muppet Show but are taking on very different roles. I'm not sure it makes sense to use them if you're going to tone them back.

Even with that, I still think this could have worked, if not for the song and dance numbers. These are where the movie unravels for me. Part of the reason is simply that I don't think the songs are all that good, which is shocking, given they're written by Paul Williams, who wrote Rainbow Connection and the songs from Emmet Otter's Jug Band Christmas. [Editor's note: This is incorrect. The songs are overall charming, joyful, and addictive. - Lindsay]

Even if the songs had been better, I think they'd still have created a major issue. In his own words, Caine resolved never to do anything "Muppety" himself, but rather to play the role completely straight. Having to participate in the musical numbers forces him to break this rule, effectively blending styles which are meant to contrast.

After that, I think this falls like a row of dominoes, largely because the differences between Caine and the Muppets is just one of several contrasts. While the movie casts Muppets in a majority of roles, it uses human actors for Fred and Belle. Then, rather than use existing Muppets for the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future, new Henson creatures are designed (more on these later). Confusing matters more, Statler and Waldorf play the Marleys, now reimagined as brothers.

I don't think any of these choices are bad in isolation, but together there are simply too many separate realities. We're not given room to appreciate the way the different time periods look and feel distinct, because we're jumping back and forth between Muppets and live action, dialogue pulled from the source material and musical numbers, the story and the narration...

The ideas driving this are kind of lost in the shuffle. And it's a shame, particularly because there are some things in this that aren't merely good; they're astonishingly good. Beginning with Michael Caine's Scrooge.

This is easily one of the two best film performances of Scrooge I've seen to date, the other being Seymour Hicks in the 1935 film. Like Hicks, Caine imbues Scrooge with depth and complexity. More than that, he manages to convey the story of Scrooge's gradual rehabilitation. Rather than reduce the character's journey to a single epiphany, we see the emotional impact the lessons have, one at a time, deconstructing his past and building him into a better person. It's an absolutely amazing performance that's easy to overlook because the movie's focused on too many other disjointed elements.   

On top of that, the set work is really special. I won't say it's the best-looking adaptation I've come across - both the 1970 and 1984 versions are as good or better - but it's definitely in competition. And the Spirits of Past and Future are really incredible.

There are a lot of ways they could have taken this film and had it work; the problem is they tried to do too many simultaneously. They could have let the Muppets be Muppets, and had fun with the chaos. Alternatively, I can imagine a version of this produced by Henson workshops without any recognizable Muppet characters, a version using puppets for the three spirits and Marley but retaining Caine's Scrooge. I can't fault them for not going that route - I sincerely doubt it would have been anywhere near as financially successful - but it might have had the potential to be the definitive adaptation of Dickens's classic.

That's how good Caine is in this, how good the sets are, and how good the Ghosts of Yet to Come and Past are (Present was fine, but could probably have used a redesign).

I realize I'm describing a version of this that's just an extended episode of The Storyteller, but that's a pretty good description of some of the design elements. More than that, it's a good description of the end of Scrooge's journey. After he meets the third spirit and travels into his future, we enter a section without additional musical numbers. Everything is even more stylized than before, and Caine's able to emote without being undercut by constant distractions. Even Gonzo and Rizzo duck out for a while. In short, for a few minutes, this becomes the movie it should be. And those minutes are fantastic.

It doesn't last, of course. Soon, we're back to the present, back to singing and dancing and all that. And it's fine. This movie is never less than fine - how could it be, with the talent involved? But there are hints of true greatness here the movie could have grasped if it hadn't gotten in its own way.