In 1992, the Muppet team took a crack at the classic tale. With out a doubt, they did a strong job, making this one of the best of the Muppet films and a nice addition to the collection of films based on Dickens’s great tale.
Obviously, being for children, the themes are greatly simplified, though the song lyrics still reference the core ideas of A Christmas Carol. The story opens with The Great Gonz-uh-Charles Dickens and his friend Rizzo the Rat amid the busy streets of England. It’s a charming and romanticized look that is very effective for the Muppet world. I presume that the central reason for a narrator is to help younger viewers follow the story (plus, they get numerous laughs).
And then we meet Scrooge, played by the talented Michael Caine. Caine actually takes a bit more subtle approach than those who came before him in the role. Oh, he’s mean, but it’s in a more subdued fashion, and his outbursts of anger are limited. This is effective, especially since this version is aimed at families, presumably with young children.
While the scares of the story are toned down, they are certainly hinted at. The film takes obvious liberties you would expect in updating for a family viewing experience with the Muppets. For instance, there is both Jacob and Robert Marley, portrayed by the cantankerous heckling duo that we all love Waldorf and Statler. And they are no less entertaining in chains. There is a nice effect as the door knocker turns into one of the Marleys that is particularly strong. In most versions it is a ghostly apparition, but it’s a physical change here.
In the Muppet version, we see an indication that the Marley Brothers were not good friends to Scrooge when partners, rather they were even a bit unkind. I cringe in the moment when Scrooge whines about how mean they were to him, because it is a rare misstep in Caine’s performance. Scrooge isn’t that kind of whiner. This also creates a problem, they don’t seem to care about Scrooge at all. In the previous incarnations of the story, Marley comes across as wanting to bring Scrooge this opportunity for Redemption, these Marley’s seem rather indifferent to Scrooge’s fate. So as we have seen, he is warned of a visit from three ghosts.
In between, we have visits from “Dickens” and Rizzo the Rat. Much of this is comic relief, and very entertaining. But I will gloss over it, because it is far funnier to actually just watch it.
The first Ghost is a rather interesting and unique take. When the Spirit of Christmas Past appears before Scrooge, she is soft spoken and child like. She floats, with her robes swirling and dancing through shards of light. Ebenezer takes her hand and they fly above the streets. The transitions in time and place are nicely done, though clearly enamored with the early digital technology. We go to the school, where we see young Scrooge. The scene rapidly passes time until we see young Scrooge, around may 13. There the headmaster preaches the greatness of capitalism. Interestingly, this version both glosses over his relationship to both his father and sister, to the point they are never mentioned (in spite of the fact that we have, at this point, met his nephew Fred). They quickly zip to the home of Fozziwig (played by, uh, Fozzie the Bear). There we are briefly introduced to Belle, in which a future relationship is implied. In all previous versions, this is expanded on more, but such is the nature of family films-keep it brief and simple. They jump to the day his relationship with Belle ends.
Soon, Scrooge finds himself visited by the Ghost of Christmas Present. He is portrayed as more absent minded and jovial than other incarnations. The Ghost shows Scrooge the city, all while singing about how wonderful Christmas time is. He brings him to see his nephew’s party. I found myself a bit put off by Fred. In all previous versions, Fred is a kind and loving person, like his mother. He speaks lovingly of his Uncle at all times no matter how Scrooge treats him. But here, Fred is cruel and mocking of his uncle. It generates justified pity for Scrooge. Your pity for Scrooge should never be easily justified. He may deserve the ridicule, but to this extreme? It makes Fred less of the man he is. Then the Ghost brings him to Bob Cratchit’s home. There he witnesses the family’s boisterous celebration. He is, of course moved by the plight of Tiny Tim, and asks that fated question. However, due to his rather forgetful nature, the Ghost’s words lack Oomph. He doesn’t have the passionate anger of Edward Woodward(The Ghost of Christmas Present in the George C. Scott version), and honestly, his harsh throwing back of Scrooge’s words in his own face…falls flat. The Ghost leaves him in a graveyard, all alone.
Suddenly, mist floods the cemetery, and we meet the final Ghost. The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come has arrived. The Ghost walks Scrooge to those familiar haunts…the men laughing and joking about attending a funeral only if a meal is provided. A visit to a pawn shop where people are selling the dead man’s property. And finally, he sees his own demise. Scrooge realizes that the dead man is him. Scrooge begs the spirit for mercy, only to find himself back in his bed. As relief spreads through Ebenezer, he starts to dance and become excited. He looks out the window, calling a young muppet. He asks the young muppet to run and get the prize Turkey. Then he steps out and begins to wish people a Merry Christmas, before he breaks out into song.
He leads the singing crowd that gathers behind him to the Cratchit Home, where he promises a raise to Bob and asks that his family join Scrooge (and the whole town) in a Christmas meal. It’s a very sweet ending featuring a pleasant little song.
It might appear if I don’t like this one as much as other renditions of the tale, but that is not true. The Muppets are full of fun and whimsy, and a Christmas without whimsy is not Christmas at all. It’s a fun film, with clever jokes and images. For instance, before the Ghost of Christmas Present is gone, he is starting to age, or at least his fluffy beard begins to gray. Michael Cain brings us a slightly gentler, more quick to sentimentality Scrooge than other actors, but he still does a terrific job (how often does he not, anyways?). The puppets are grand. The songs are not quite up to par as earlier Muppet efforts, but the closing tracks are great.