Saturday, December 24, 2022

The Muppet Christmas Carol at 30 Years Old: A 90s Christmas Classic

 1992 must have been the year in which I developed an awareness of popular culture on some level, because The Muppet Christmas Carol--which came out in December of that year--was the first movie I remember seeing a trailer for (likely in the previews on one of our Disney Home Videos; maybe Beauty and the Beast?), and looking forward to.  

I was six years old at the time, and I couldn't have told you that it was a future classic.  All I knew is that it featured the Muppets, and that Gonzo and Rizzo seemed pretty funny.  

I couldn't help but recall this as I watched the movie this week--30 years later--with my own kids.  Today, The Muppet Christmas Carol is a bona fide classic, and arguably the best adaptation of A Christmas Carol on film.  

It was a bit strange for me to recognize that a film made within my lifetime, and in fact, within my active memory, could have become a Christmas classic, a designation which usually brings to mind George Bailey running down the snowy streets of Bedford Falls, a claymation Rudolph, a slinking, scheming animated Grinch, or Linus telling his friends about the true meaning of Christmas.

So why has The Muppet Christmas Carol stood the test of time, and joined the likes of these much older Christmas films?  Or perhaps asked another way, what sets the Muppets' telling of this story apart from the dozens of others?

I believe the movie's enduring appeal has to do with the music, the acting, and the Muppets themselves, and what they do with Dickens' timeless tale. 

It wouldn't be the Muppets if it weren't a musical--particularly at that time in the Muppets' history--and so it is unsurprising that the Muppet take on A Christmas Carol would be filled with memorable songs.  Paul Williams--who wrote the songs in The Muppet Movie, most notably "The Rainbow Connection"--returned to pen the lyrics, and delivers some of his finest work.  Fans of "The Rainbow Connection", and in my opinion, to a greater extent, Gonzo's "I'm Going to Go Back There Someday" from The Muppet Movie know that Williams can be every bit as plaintive and poignant as he can be catchy and irreverent.  

"Scrooge" ("There goes Mr. Humbug!") and "Marley and Marley" are jaunty ear-worms, but one would be remiss to overlook the wistful "One More Sleep Till Christmas", which Kermit's Bob Cratchit sings as he closes up the office for the holiday, or the heartwarming "Bless Us All", which Robin's Tiny Tim and the rest of the Cratchits sing as a prayer before they eat their Christmas dinner.  William's greatest work, tragically, has been cut from most rereleases of the film.  "When Love is Gone", sung by Belle to a young Scrooge as she calls off their engagement, was cut from the theatrical release (as well as the AppleTV and Disney+ releases), as Disney executives at the time felt that it was too slow-paced and sad for children to sit through.  It did, however, make its way onto the VHS release, and that is what I grew up watching each year, so as far as I am concerned, cutting the song from the film was an unequivocal mistake.  Not only is it possible for young children to sit through this song, as my children demonstrated when I paused the movie and pulled up the song on YouTube, the song itself is beautiful, albeit gutting, as Belle outlines how Scrooge and she have grown apart from one another.  Particularly heart-breaking is the moment when the older Scrooge stands next to Belle on the footbridge and tearfully sings the final lines of the song along with her.  This suggests that Scrooge could remember, word-for-word, how Belle had broken up with him even decades later, and provides depth to his character not present in the rereleases that simply cut the song.  Of course, this is to say nothing of the fact that the final song of the film is a reprise of this song, "When Love is Found", the beautiful symmetry of which is lost with "When Love is Gone" absent.  

I mentioned how Scrooge sings the final lines of the break-up song while holding back sobs.  Michael Caine absolutely sells this moment.  His performance in the role of Scrooge gives the film a gravitas that might seem unexpected in a movie for children.  For those in my generation, Michael Caine is likely most familiar for his supporting roles in a wide variety of blockbuster movies, maybe most memorably as Alfred the butler in Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy.  Here, Caine takes on the lead, and demonstrates a remarkable range.  Evidently, Caine only took the role on the condition that he could "play it like bloody Shakespeare" and that seriousness comes through from start to finish. 

But this is a Muppet movie, after all, and seriousness is not ultimately what defines the movie.  The juxtaposition of Michael Caine dramatically yelling at Kermit and a bunch of talking rats balances the gravity with levity.  In fact, the whole notion that Kermit and co. are acting their hearts out in the roles of these Dickens characters opposite Michael Caine is an entirely charming and amusing thought.  The opening number properly introduces Ebenezer Scrooge as a character while at the same time allowing room for singing vegetables and the rhyme "no cheeses for us meeces".  Gonzo's role as Charles Dickens opens up some clever meta-humor and in-jokes that cut the tension in what could otherwise be intense or scary moments for young children.  And true to form, the Muppets infuse the film with a sense of joy.  This was the first Muppet film produced after Jim Henson's death, and it proved that his legacy and vision for the Muppets would outlive him.  

That it remains a classic, and a must-watch-yearly holiday film is perhaps the greatest tribute possible.

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