Christmas Classics: “The Muppet Christmas Carol”

As most of you no doubt already know, Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol has been, to put it mildly, one of the most frequently adapted Christmas stories in the history of Christmas stories.  Some of these, admittedly, are quite terrible, but there a some that truly stand apart as worthy entries in any Christmas Classics List.  One of these, and one of my three favourite versions of the story (the others being Mickey’s Christmas Carol and the version starring the American actor George C. Scott as Ebenezer Scrooge), is The Muppet Christmas Carol.

To begin with, the casting is truly exemplary, both in terms of human actors and in terms of their Muppet counterparts.  I would not necessarily have pegged Michael Caine as being an ideal choice to play one of the most iconic Christmas characters, but to this day his characterization stands as one of the best.  He manages to convey just the right amount of the various emotions that comprise Scrooge as he develops from a man with a heart of flint to a lively spirit who acknowledges and embraces the beauty of humanity.  Gonzo and Rizzo, of course, threaten to steal the show, with their witty repartee, but they are also a key part of the film’s optimistic charm.  And who else could possibly play Bob Cratchit in this version but the loveable and relatable Kermit?  Who, I ask you, doesn’t tear up when he returns from the church to say to his wife that he has found a place on the hill in which to bury Tiny Tim, because he liked to look at the ducks?  And that tiny little frog that plays Tiny Tim?  I’m tearing up just thinking about it.

While this version of the tale is more upbeat than some (it renders the Ghost of Christmas Present as much more of a gentle and jovial giant than the spirit of mingled joy and terror that emerges in other variants of the story), it does have its darker moments.  The lead-up to the appearance of the Marley Brothers, for example, is actually quite spooky, as is the appearance of the dementor-like Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come (and it is worth pointing out that this film precedes any entry in the film franchise by quite some time).

Even more importantly, however, The Muppet Christmas Carol manages to capture a great deal of the sadness that characterizes Scrooge’s early life and that in large part explains his actions.  The brief montage that shows him slowly growing older, each Christmas spent alone, supported by Michael Caine’s pained and anguished expressions, provides us a glimpse into the pain and agony produced by years of crushing loneliness and solitude.  How can one not feel sorry for a man who has clearly feels so strongly that he had to invent, as a child, the rationalization that being one provided time for reflection and study?

Most poignant, is the scene in which Belle, convinced at last that Scrooge no longer has any place for her in his life, sings the truly heart-breaking song “When Love is Gone.”  This song perfectly captures the bone-deep sadness that can only emerge from that most tragic and despairing of words, “almost.”  Ebenezer and Belle almost spent their lives together in happiness; they almost found completeness.  The fact that this is so clearly in the past, so completely unalterable, imbues the already-melancholy lyrics with an even deeper layer of sadness.  When it is over and Belle walks sadly away, we in the audience weep along with Rizzo.  (Unfortunately, most newer releases of the film have excised this song, which is unfathomable to me, since it is integral to the plot and to Scrooge’s development as a character).  It is only through sadness that we truly come to appreciate the joys of life.

All in all, The Muppet Christmas Carol is a film that is remarkably faithful to the original novel, while also possessing charms of its own.  While it didn’t make that big of a splash when it originally premiered, it seems to have gained something of a devoted cult following (at least, if my English colleagues and I are any indication).  I would definitely advise procuring the earlier DVD release, however, if you want to experience the film as it should be viewed.

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