The Muppet Christmas Carol marked a key transition in the life of its parent company, Jim Henson Productions. It was the first movie released after Henson’s untimely death, and represents a radical departure from previous Muppet films. They based it on previously existing material, for starters, and the Muppets played specific characters rather than versions of themselves. It also featured a live performer (Michael Caine) front and center: a risky move since his costars have a tendency to upstage everyone. Despite those changes, the film itself holds up quite well, and its release on Blu-ray aptly demonstrates why. Hit the jump for my full review.
The film is dedicated to Henson and the late Richard Hunt, who provided the voice of Scooter for many years. Henson’s son Brian handled directing duties, and immediately gravitated away from his father’s more subversive brand of humor. Instead, The Muppet Christmas Carol emphasizes the characters’ cuddlier traits, with a focus on friendship, affection and the story’s famous moral lesson. It also plays Dickens fairly straight, with a few digs at the text’s stodgier moments but otherwise remaining respectful and reverent. They even developed new puppets to play the three Christmas ghosts, cleaving to Dickens’ writing rather than inserting Fozzie or Gonzo. (All three have their scarier elements filed down so as not to rile the kiddies.)
The remainder of the cast is well-suited to their roles, with Kermit as Bob Cratchit, Robin as Tiny Tim, and Statler and Waldorf playing a dual version of Jacob Marley. Caine, as Scrooge, has the good sense not to get in their way, instead content to play it straight and let his costars do their stuff. He doesn’t make a particularly memorable Scrooge, but his onscreen presence sets the tone quite well, and he holds the story firmly in his experienced hands.
The rest of the film plays out as a gentle variation of the famous tale, with the heartless Scrooge learning the error of his ways one magical Christmas Eve. Henson does an apt job of melding the Muppets’ personalities with the figures they play, allowing both sides of the equation get equal attention. (Kermit, for example, plays up his meekness while keeping his determination under wraps to better channel Cratchit.) The Paul Williams songs also help keep the tone, and though they lack the breeziness of his Muppet Movie compilations, they still make a charming punctuation to the well-loved storyline.
The only big concession to general Muppet-dom is a winner: casting Gonzo the Great as Charles Dickens and sticking him with Rizzo the Rat as his foil. The two wander amiably through the proceedings, goosing the story along but also wondering idly about their place in the whole thing. It’s quite funny and keeps Henson’s mischievous streak alive at just the right points.
All told, the package works. Though certainly a minor entry in the Muppets canon, it carries itself with pride and succeeds at the difficult task of integrating two distinct creative visions. More importantly, it proved that the Muppets hadn’t vanished with the passing of their paterfamilias and that the devotion he infused into their wacky felt shapes would persist long after him. The Muppet Christmas Carol proved that they could tell new stories (or even old ones) without losing the magic that made us love them in the first place. It’s a great place to start kids on that love, or even introduce them to Dickens if other versions of the story prove too intense.
And the new Blu-ray makes a decent way to do it. Crisp image quality and good sound mark a big step up from previous DVD editions. Special features include a fun “intermission” that delivers new songs when you pause the film, audio commentaries with the Muppets themselves (and Brian Henson on a second track), Pepe the King Prawn’s in-depth look at Gonzo, a behind-the-scenes doc on the film, and an amusing look at Christmas around the world featuring Gonzo and Rizzo. The only black mark was the unconscionable decision to leave out “When Love Is Gone,” a beautiful song that was cut from many previous home video versions. This would have been an ideal time to place it back in the film; Disney flat-out dropped the ball.
Beyond that, however, the Blu-ray delivers a solid package. And the film itself makes for easy holiday viewing: charming, unpretentious and upbeat enough to pop in anytime. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself returning to it every Christmas: even the Muppets’ lesser efforts hold more magic than 90% of their competition. The Muppet Christmas Carol has survived for 20 years on that power, and it’s not hard to see why.