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Blogvent Day 15 – The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992,USA)

15/12/2011

Director: Brian Henson      Starring: Michael Caine, Dave Goelz, Steve Whitmire, Frank Oz

“If you liked this, you should read the book.” The parting shot from Muppet Gonzo (in the role of Charles Dickens) as the credits begin to roll on this, the second adaptation of A Christmas Carol I have included in Blogvent. The Muppet’s take on the classic story, starring Michael Caine as the hardened Mr. Scrooge, is an all singing, all dancing affair that has rightfully earned it’s popularity with the masses. At the heart of this, in my opinion, is their respect for the original text, something this parting sentiment reflects wonderfully.

I know what you’re thinking. “How can a musical version of A Christmas Carol with an all star cast of puppets (anthrapomorphic animal puppets at that) remain faithful to the text?” It’s a fair question but a quick viewing of the film is all you need to have such fears put to rest. Yes, there are musical numbers (including one slightly painful one where a post redemption Caine as Scrooge joins in) but these have been employed in a sympathetic way to the story making it far more accessible to children. Great pains have been taken to merge Dickens’ world with that of the Muppets and characters have been seamlessly merged with Muppet equivalents. Mr. Fezziwig for example becomes Mr. Fozziwig (wacka wacka wacka!), Jacob Marley becomes Marley and Marley as portrayed by the curmudgeonly Staedler and Waldorf whose mean spirited cynicism seems hugely appropriate for the equally mean Marley(s). This allows for a lot of fun and games around Dickens’ original work, none of which become too distracting from the main points of the tale. Granted, there are some incidental details I could do without (singing vegetables? I’m really not fussed…) but which are clearly there for the kiddies, to keep their attention in some of the slower moments.

The film is held together by narration provided by Gonzo Dickens and his comedy rat sidekick Rizzo who, unusually for a comedy sidekick in family entertainment, gets up to some genuinely amusing antics. Gonzo’s narration is derived in the main from the book with very little in the way of changes, comic asides not withstanding, a fact which brings me great joy every time I watch the film. At every turn, the evidence points to a writer (Muppets regular Jerry Juhl) who not only knows the source material but clearly reveres it and wants other people to fall in love with it too.

As far as Scrooges go, Michael Caine is a little bit weak. Competition in this area is admittedly extremely tough (Alastair Sim, George C. Scott and Patrick Stewart among others have all donned the frock coat and top hat in their time) and being in the company of such great actors is going to take the shine off most people’s performances. I fear perhaps that Caine has fallen foul of the family friendly angle that the film is going for. He just seems a little too jolly pre-redemption and almost not jolly enough afterwards for my liking. Or maybe not relieved enough. It’s difficult to pin down.

The visiting spirits are realised well enough. If anything the Marleys aren’t scary enough (again I sense some toning down for the kiddies) and this softening of the darker moments seems to have been applied to the other spectral visitors. I can appreciate the desire to soften the blow for young minds, the Muppets after all are all about fun but I’m not sure that kids need to be protected that much from the scarier aspects of the story. It is, after all, a ghost story as well as a Christmas story and the fear, torment and grief Scrooge is exposed to is pivotal to the recovery of his humanity. The main message is still there though and that is what is important, that selfishness, avarice and mean spiritedness forge heavy chains for people to carry, whereas generosity and love release us from our torment. You can’t help but wonder if maybe Dickens wasn’t a wee bit of a Buddhist in his spare time.

It’s not a perfect film by any means but The Muppet Christmas Carol is great fun and a decent adaptation of the story. It gets extra respect from me for the efforts it makes to steer viewers towards the book which are unobtrusive enough not to interfere with the story. Warm, funny and with oodles of Christmas spirit it even manages to make me forget that I really don’t like musicals (apart from a few choice exceptions) which is a challenge in itself. It’s the sort of film that kids and adults can both enjoy and always deserves a look at this time of year.

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