There have been many Christmas movies made about A Christmas Carol. Like, a lot: Charles Dickens’s classic ghost story is one of the most adapted books of all time. Among all of them, the many myriad period pieces, dramas, and spooky horror movies, one stands as the best: The Muppet Christmas Carol.
Made in the early ’90s, the kids movie has Michael Caine as the cantankerous Ebenezer Scrooge, a ruthless moneylender who finds no joy holiday period. To be fair, it’s 19th century England, and even if he’s surrounded by puppets, that’s a rough period. Still, he’s as miserable as Dickens could want and more.
As I’m sure you know, over the course of one night, he’s visited by three ghosts that teach him to reject his angry ways and become a nicer, more charitable man. It’s all very wholesome, and through the power of the Muppets, the comedy, darkness, and absurdity of the text are highlighted, commented on, and heightened, in an adaptation that’s as timeless as the source material.
Much of why this is stems from the framing: Gonzo the Great is Dickens, a stand-in narrator who guides us through the novella. This role was invented to keep Dickens’s prose part of the script, immediately marrying modern interpretation with the story’s roots. Gonzo dryly sets each scene using exact portions of the book, before Rizzo the Rat pipes up with some comment or other and the two bounce off one another.
It’s genius, because it highlights the gothic beauty in Dickens’s writing, his ability to capture the greyed-out winter of Victorian England, then packages it with light-hearted humour so we’re enthralled without dampening our mood any. At points Rizzo even ponders how Gonzo – sorry, Charles – knows so much, expressly poking at this leftfield way of going about a literary standard.
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A great many sight gags follow, none revealing whether anyone, Muppet or otherwise, can see or hear Charles or Rizzo. Scrooge definitely can’t, fading through them at one point. Good thing, too, because they form two halves of a delicate balance. Rizzo and Gonzo are here to joyously give us a festive bedtime story, a pantomime through filmmaking, puppetry, and expert set design. Ebenezer’s having a much different time, visited by phantoms to hear he must change his ways or suffer in hell for eternity.
A Christmas Carol is a grim tale. Ebenezer Scrooge, a miser stricken by loneliness and grief, is taught to love by ethereal manifestations of his own failings. His old business partner, Bob Marley, visits him in chains, bound by his own regret as if he’d gotten on the wrong side some Cenobites. As if one supernatural visit isn’t enough, Bob tells Ebenezer three spectral entities will follow, each from a different era of Christmas.
Ebenezer achieves redemption through a profound psychological episode where he’s faced with all the ways his penny-pinching and financial drive hurt people and limit his own experience, before standing on his own grave. He’s not a good guy, and I’m not suggesting he doesn’t deserve what he gets, I’m merely illustrating the light is found at the end of a pretty dark tunnel. The Muppet Christmas Carol knows this, with the Ghost of Christmas Future wordlessly guiding Ebenezer through nobody attending his funeral, and his unattended gravestone.
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That scene, in particular, tends to stick out because of its reliance on Caine’s emotive, committed reaction. Caine understands the assignment and plays the movie totally straight; as if he’s on Broadway or this is some BBC mini-series airing after the watershed. He yells, cries, sneers, smiles, struggles to find words. Jerry Juhl’s screenplay relies on him as the only human lead surrounded by puppets, and Caine gives everything to each scene to make sure we’re always with him.
All the while, we get Gonzo and Rizzo, who maintain the festive cheer. They provide postmodern commentary, satirists who also believe in the message, complemented by a rich soundtrack of, frankly, absolute bangers, performed by the likes of Kermit the Frog and Statler and Waldorf. This a story over 200 years old, it’s a staple of our holiday diet because the rich and heartless seeing the error of their ways is a timeless fantasy, and we know the ending will provide good cheer. Let’s have a song and dance if we’re going to do it again!
This isn’t just a cinematic version of some historic literature, it’s a guided tour through someone’s harrowing realisation of damage done, and what they can do now to be better. Other interpretations, like the Jim Carrey-led animated movie from 2009, or Patrick Stewart’s one-man rewrite in 1999, or 1988’s Scrooged, relish in the darkness too much – though these are all strong features in their own right.
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Looney Tunes, Mister Magoo, and The Flintstones are all too plain in their versions. The Muppet Christmas Carol is in conversation with the Dickens original. It wants us to understand why this story stands the test of time so much that there have been umpteen different spins from umpteen different filmmakers. The only problem is it’s too good because whenever I’m tempted to read the book, I just end up watching this again instead.