- Year: 1992
- Director: Brian Henson
- Starring: Michael Caine, Kermit the Frog, Miss Piggy
Who doesn’t love the Muppets? They’ve been a pop culture institution for years, and every time you think they’re down, they come back twice as powerful as before. 1992’s The Muppet Christmas Carol was the first Muppet film released after Jim Henson’s death in 1990 and also the first Muppet film under the Disney name. I guess that means technically there are three Disney versions of A Christmas Carol I’ll be watching.
So who do the Muppets cast as Ebenezer Scrooge? Sam Eagle? Statler and Waldorf? Oscar the Grouch? That yellow guy who throws fish?
Sir Michael Caine. The Muppets always had great cameos in their films, but this is the first one where the lead is played by a human actor. Michael Caine is obviously a wonderful actor, so I have to wonder what his agent thought about him doing a Dickens adaptation where he acts alongside puppets for 90 minutes. That said, this is a very faithful Dickens adaptation.
Gonzo narrates the film as Charles Dickens, which allows for many of the great lines usually left out of films to be included. Rizzo the Rat is also along for the ride, playing well… himself, and offering sarcastic commentary on the story.
We start with an overture, mixing songs from the movie with traditional Christmas carols. After meeting Gonzo… err… Charles Dickens and Rizzo, we get our opening song “Scrooge,” sung by everyone and everything on the street. Birds, cats, and even vegetables chime in about their hatred of Scrooge. The camera shows Scrooge walking during the song, but his face is always obscured, and this is a great way of building tension. These first eight minutes of the film are perfect.
Surprisingly, the Scrooge from The Muppet Christmas Carol is not a caricature. Those around him act like he is, but they’re puppets, we expect it. Michael Caine’s Scrooge is cold and cruel, but he doesn’t seem to enjoy being a jerk—it’s just business.
In a scene original to this film, Scrooge kicks out a man named Mr. Applegate, which may or may not be a very subtle reference to what will happen later. Mr. Applegate was also the alias the devil took on in Damn Yankees, so perhaps this scene is meant to symbolize Scrooge literally kicking out the devil later in the story.
Kermit the Frog plays Bob Cratchit, and like Mickey Mouse in Mickey’s Christmas Carol, he is great for the role of a stressed-out employee who tries to stay upbeat. A lot of the Muppet casting is spot-on, with Bunsen and Beaker as the charity workers, Fozzie as Fozziwig, and Statler and Waldorf as the Marleys. That’s right, the Marleys, Jacob and Robert, because what would a 90s comedy be without a Bob Marley joke?
Actually, that is one of the only pop culture jokes in the movie, which for the Muppets is unheard of. Most of the jokes come from Gonzo and Rizzo riffing on the story and getting into hijinks trying to follow the characters. There’s a great running joke where Gonzo and Rizzo keep getting hit by opening windows, which of course culminates in the Christmas morning scene where Scrooge famously throws open his window. Dickens fans will also get a kick out of the scene where the Marleys heckle Scrooge for his “terrible pun” of “There’s more of gravy than of grave about you.” This line is, of course, right out of the original novel.
A lot of laughs also come from the Muppets who are forced to not be themselves. When Sam Eagle as Scrooge’s headmaster tries to talk about hard work and business being the “American way,” Gonzo whispers in his ear, and Sam corrects it to the “British way.” Similarly, when Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem play at Fozziwig’s party, Animal is hilariously bored during a slow dance that’s light on drums.
Arguably, this film appeals even more to Dickens fans than Muppet fans. The jokes are actually downplayed as the film goes on and the story gets darker. Gonzo and Rizzo even leave when the Ghost of Christmas Future enters, not returning until Christmas morning.
Unfortunately, once the jokes wane, so does the level of commitment in Michael Caine’s performance. Don’t get me wrong, Michael Caine is one of my favorite actors, and I’ll watch anything he’s in.
Okay, okay, Michael Caine is one of my favorite actors and I’ll watch 99% of what he’s in.
Hey, he won’t even watch that one! Seriously, though, I’m not sure what happened with Michael Caine’s Scrooge. Maybe it was really hard to act alongside just puppets. At least in the early scenes he had his nephew Fred (Steven Mackintosh) and later his younger self (Ray Coulthard) and Belle (Meredith Braun). In the scenes with the Cratchits in the present and all of the future scenes, he has nobody to play off of.
Like too many Scrooges, his change isn’t believable, but he falls on the Reginald Owen side of the issue as opposed to the Bill Murray one—his change comes too soon. He’s bitter enough in the opening scenes, but it almost immediately drops off when the ghosts start. By the time Christmas Present comes around, he dances with him! I mocked Albert Finney’s Scrooge for donning a Santa suit and parading through the streets of London, but at least that was post-transformation.
The scenes at the Cratchit home in both the present and the future are almost always a highlight, even in films I don’t care for on the whole like Scrooged or Scrooge 1970. While Kermit and Miss Piggy as Bob and Emily Cratchit sounds great on paper, the scenes of their family are just awkward.
Sure, Miss Piggy and Kermit are an item all throughout the Muppets canon, but it’s always played for laughs. Here, not one joke is made about it, which is odd, since Kermit and Piggy having children could open up an entirely new set of jokes.
Maybe it’s a blended family and they have this hanging on the wall.
Just please, make a joke somewhere! I mean, at least we don’t get some weird frog-pig abominations for the children, but what we get is distracting.
Michael Caine’s Scrooge watches this scene with as much investment as he gave to the charity workers earlier… wow I reached for that one.
The future scene with the Cratchits is mostly done alright, except for one really bad line delivery. It sounds like I’m nitpicking here, but it completely ruins the mood of the whole scene. Kermit says “I’m sure we will never forget Tiny Tim” like a question, as if he has forgotten his own son’s name.
This is either the funniest joke in the whole movie, or a really poor line read. Seeing as how the Cratchit family has not made one joke this whole film, I am afraid that it’s the latter.
Now for something that is done really well—the ghosts. Surprisingly, they are not played by existing Muppets, but are instead designed to resemble the book’s description of them.
Well, Christmas Past still doesn’t really resemble the book’s description of both an old man and a child, but at this point I’m convinced we’re never going to get an accurate depiction. The ghost still has a really cool beam of light design and it’s still one of the better portrayals. Christmas Present is an enormous jolly puppet who actually ages as the day goes on, which is also right out of the book. Christmas Future is always scarier when it doesn’t look like there’s an actor in the cloak, and since that is probably the case here, it does the job wonderfully.
Like most Muppet movies (and I’m learning a surprising number of Christmas Carols), this is a musical, so I guess I need to talk about the songs. Well, sort of like Michael Caine’s performance, they start out great and are half-asleep by the end.
As I said above, the opening number “Scrooge” is a terrific song in a terrific scene. “One More Sleep Til Christmas,” sung by Kermit and the rat bookkeepers is pretty good too. The Marley Brothers sing the aptly titled “Marley and Marley,” which is both catchy and somewhat haunting, although it should have been a reggae song.
What about “When Love is Gone?” Don’t know what I’m talking about? Perhaps you have the edition where “When Love is Gone” is gone. Let’s just say it’s a long story, but there was a whole thing over whether not to leave it in the movie, and it ended up cut from the theatrical version. Some home releases have it and others don’t. I understand the complaints that it slows down the pacing, but who cares? It’s a great song, and without it, there would be only a few seconds of Belle on screen. It at least explains her motivations. Plus, we get Michael Caine singing with the shadow of his former love, which is one of the most memorable parts of the whole film.
Excuse me a second while I go look at the track listing, because I can’t remember one more song in the film. Alright, well Christmas Present sings “It Feels Like Christmas,” which falls into the annoying “Here’s some stuff that happens at Christmas” genre. There are some songs and reprises at the end, but they’re just entirely forgettable. I guess overall the songs are better than the ones from Scrooge 1970—it never sinks as low as “I Like Life,” but then again no song here is as great as “Thank You Very Much.”
I know I’ve picked apart a lot of aspects that don’t work, but overall this is a good movie. The story is told faithfully, and the ghosts are all great. If you want a lesson in how to do a good Christmas Carol adaptation, watch the first eight minutes of this film. Gonzo and Rizzo are hilarious throughout, and the humor they do bring to the story never fails to make me laugh. Let’s check out the final score.
Story (26/30 Points)
There are problems with this movie, but most of them are not with the way the story is told. Christmas Future is a bit rushed, but I feel the studio was trying to keep the movie fairly short, which is especially tough for a musical. The creators of the film obviously loved the source material, and boy does it show.
Scrooge (17/30 Points)
It’s hard for me to be so critical of Michael Caine. I’ll give him some credit for being very good in the opening scenes and the Christmas Past scenes, but it goes downhill fast. By the time it gets to Christmas morning, he’s just reading lines to be done with it. It’s a big disappointment.
Ghosts (10/10 Points)
While none of them are my number one favorite incarnation, these designs are so creative that I give it the perfect score. It was really gutsy to not use existing Muppets for Past, Present, and Future, but it paid off.
Bob Cratchit (7/10 Points)
Like Mickey Mouse, Kermit the Frog is the obvious choice. Unlike Mickey, Kermit doesn’t really bring anything surprising to the role.
Supporting Characters (8/10 Points)
Gonzo and Rizzo steal the show with their narration and humor. Plenty of other Muppets make enjoyable cameo appearances as well.
Experience (8/10 Points)
The atmosphere is wonderful from the get-go, and a lot of the special effects still hold up. The flying scene in particular looks great. There are songs that don’t work, but the ones that do stick with you.
Final Score: 76%
Yeah, it’s a bit inconsistent, and there are some scenes that feel rushed and underwhelming, but the good stuff is just so good. If Michael Caine had kept the performance he had going at the beginning, it could honestly be one of the greats. As it is, it’s still a very entertaining film.
On Monday, we’ll be looking at 1999’s A Christmas Carol starring Patrick Stewart.