On 5th day of #Christmas … I rewatched The Muppet Christmas Carol

(image courtesy IMP Awards)

Can you think of anything better than Christmas with the Muppets?

How about Christmas with the Muppets as they bring quirky but affecting life to Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, his immortal tale of festive redemption and renewal in which cruelly fossilised businessman Ebenezer Scrooge, played in this heartwarming iteration by Michael Caine, comes to realise it is not too late to mend his wickedly thoughtless ways and avoid the fate of his dead, chain-dragging business partner Jacob Marley (played here by Statler and Waldorf as the Marley brothers, performed by Jerry Nelson and Dave Goelz, respectively).

In terms of broad brushstroke narrative beats, The Muppet Christmas Carol, the fourth Muppets movie overall and the first since at the time of its release in 1992 since the untimely passing of creator Jim Henson (who also voiced Kermit among others), doesn’t deviate too much from the much-loved iconic tale.

We see Scrooge forcing Bob Cratchit (Kermit the Frog, performed by Steve Whitmire) to work late on Christmas Eve and coming close to making him and the rats who make up the bookkeeping department (and need more coal to keep them warm) work on Christmas Day, witness him pushing the charity collectors out the door and see him arrive home to a home whose door knocker, among other things, is acting most peculiarly.

The three spirits all visit, and while there is some edge-of-the-scene zaniness at play, courtesy mostly of Gonzo who narrates as THE Charles Dickens to companion Rizzo the Rat’s sceptical mirth, these scenes, which cut to the very heart of the story, are largely left to play as intended.

The producers of the film were wise enough to realise that there are some things you can merrily play around with and some things you cannot, and so, Scrooge’s journey from lost and broken soul to a man reborn follows the same journey it has undertaken since A Christmas Carol was published in 1843, just in time for Christmas that year.

(image via Muppet.famdom)

While Caine doesn’t exactly knock his performance as Scrooge out of the park, he still makes for an arresting Scrooge, one who really makes an impression when on Christmas morning, he realises with unbridled, giddy joy that he is not dead and that there still remains time to remake his life in a generous and heartfelt way.

That particular section of the movie, bolstered by “Thankful Heart” one a slew of playful Paul Williams’s songs that The Muppet Christmas Carol the air of a bright light musical with a serious heart, is as close to exuberant joy as any rendition of A Christmas Carol can get, helped further by cramming in every Muppet imaginable into the Cratchit’s small abode, including Miss Piggy as Mrs. Cratchit and Robin the Frog as Tiny Tim.

While the songs are deliciously and delightfully almost instantly forgettable for the most part, they do lend a lovely atmosphere to the film, especially when they have some fun with proceedings such as opening number, “Scrooge’ which, in the words of Screenrant, “introduces Michael Caine’s Scrooge in a grandiose way with [the song] performed by the townsfolk who educate the audience on the nasty character’s bad reputation.”

As musicals go, the film is slight thing but rich with atmosphere, heart and jollity.

Where The Muppet Christmas Carol really come alive, apart from its Dickens-observant scenes which strike just the right serious but playful mote, is on the margins where the largely reined-in Muppets are allowed to go hilariously and winningly over the top.

Take the moment when the penguins hold their annual Christmas Eve skating festival or when livestock and vegetables, all in Muppet guise of course, start singing along to one of the songs.

There’s a great deal of fun to be had too with characters like Fozzie Bear playing Fozziwig (the renamed Fezziwig of the original who first employed Scrooge and was, as an employer and a person, everything his employee palpably was not) who, while playing things straight for the greater part, still managing to bring an endearing and uniquely Henson quirkiness to their performances.

(image via Muppet.famdom)

It must have been incredibly tempting for Henson’s son Brian and long-time Muppets performers such as frank Oz, Goelz, Whitmire and Jerry Nelson to let manically loose as they had in the previous three films and on The Muppet Show, but throughout The Muppet Christmas Carol they show perfectly-judged restraint leaving much of the welcome tomfoolery to the songs numbers that call for it (some, naturally do not such as “Bless Us All” sung by the Cratchits at their modest but happy table) and Gonzo and Rizzo slapstick falls from ledges into the snow and icy water barrels when windows repeatedly opened on them.

It’s a recurring gag that doesn’t detract one iota from the film’s moving storyline and in keeping with the aforementioned restraint, is removed entirely during the sober scenes involving the Ghost of Christmas Past, who in stark contract to the childlike Ghost of Christmas Past, with her melancholy nostalgia) and the avuncular jolly presence of the Ghost of Christmas Present who shows current joy that might be in danger of ending, is all raw emotion and impending soul-crushing loss.

It’s this ability to move seamlessly between hilarity and seriousness, to be silly and sober as required, that means The Muppet Christmas Carol happily manages to be both warmly irreverent and movingly reverential, a fine balance that allows it to be simultaneously Dickens worthy and Muppet quirky.

It is nigh impossible to walk away from any telling of A Christmas Carol without feeling like your spirit has been well and truly restored, something we all need after two long years of pandemic wear-and-tear, but somehow The Muppet Christmas Carol manages to uplift on multiple levels, giving us both sober illumination and redemption and a manic silliness in the margins that together make this a Christmas classic that restores you in ways you may not have even known you needed.

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