Thursday, 13 December 2012

The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992)

In mid-November I had a dream. It was a crazy, na├»ve dream that came out of my guilt surrounding my failure to update this thing very often: I told myself that for every day of advent I would write something Christmas related for this blog. These ranged from the mundane (and lazy) top 10 lists to the more ambitious reviews and general musings. Considering this is my first Christmas themed post and we’re already in mid-December I think it’s safe to say I failed to live up to my expectations but better late than never I say. Oh and quick warning, I’m about to write about a film that is probably my all-time favourite Christmas film so be prepared for it to get a bit sentimental.

Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol has become a favourite and reliable yuletide tale. Without meaning to sound like an awful literary hipster, I would suggest that, whilst everyone knows the narrative, fewer people have experienced the novella itself. This is perfectly understandable (I’m actually all for people ignoring Dickens as I feel his fifteen minutes of fame should have ended long ago) but it is unfortunate. The tale is one of the only works by Dickens that I genuinely enjoyed reading and the only one I have wanted to read multiple times. The book is a much more Gothic and disgusting tale than many adaptations have made it out to be. It is well worth a look and, unlike most of his literature, ends up being both a quick and easy read.

Of course if you can’t be bothered with all of that reading you could always check out one of the many features that have adapted it or, at the very least, taken inspiration from the novella. For their 1992 adaptation, and in a shrewd attempt to make the dark tale more child friendly, Disney placed the tale into the expert hands of the Muppets. For some unknown reason, I find that I am friends with quite a few people who, in their own words, “don’t get the Muppets”. Every time I got overexcited after seeing the trailer for the most recent film they would just ask me what the point was. The point? To paraphrase my old buddy Charlie Bucket, ‘the Muppets don’t have a point. That’s why they’re the Muppets.’ I can’t think of anyone better to tell this chilling tale.

With a little help from Michael Caine that is. Caine steps into the role of Ebenezer Scrooge, a miserly old man who benefits from other people’s hardship. When faced with a supporting cast of colourful animal puppets, Caine doesn’t make the mistake of trying to play the role for laughs. He plays it as straight as he would do if this were a traditional adaptation of Dickens’ work. He is an astounding performer and he always hits the right dramatic and emotional notes. I also find it odd that, in a film where rats can get turned into icicles and frogs and pigs can mate, I can still be found tearing up as Scrooge is forced to remember his past.

At a recent screening at the BFI, producer Martin Baker suggested that Caine often found the technical side of working with a bunch of puppets fairly tedious. Whilst I can imagine that being the case, the finished article doesn’t show any negative of handing over the majority of the novella’s characters to the Muppets themselves. They fit into their respective roles incredibly easily and, thanks to a fantastic group of puppeteers, there are no glaring signs of their limited field of movement. Everything fits together and ends up looking great, even 10 years on.

We are lead on our journey by the blue alien Gonzo who takes the role of Charles Dickens’ himself. His narrative remains faithful to the original story and much of his dialogue is taken straight from the novel itself (although with a few necessary changes here and there). It is a tale that most will be fairly familiar with: a bitter and hateful man is visited by the ghosts of his ex-partners who urge him to change his ways before promising three more spirits will turn up to guide him on his journey of redemption. Add into that a poor and desperate set of employees and we have a happy look at a traditional Victorian Christmas. Yes the story has been plumped out with humorous Muppet specific sections to keep the children interested but I don’t think the screenplay fails to get the message across. Scrooge’s change may happen quickly but, despite the fact we are dealing with the suffering of Muppets rather than people, I think there is enough emotional resonance there. Many of the reviews that were written when the film came out suggested that it was only suitable for its child audience. As a 24 year old myself I’d have to disagree. At the screening I mentioned earlier, the audience mainly consisted of people over the age of 18 and most of the kids in the audience had clearly been dragged along by their overly keen parents.

As with the majority of their feature films, The Muppet Christmas Carol is, in part, a musical and we are treated to a few original songs written by Paul Williams. The soundtrack is fairly hit and miss but there are some great pieces in the mix. In keeping with the tale they are of a more classical bearing rather than attempting to reflect a more modern sound. The opening track ‘Scrooge’ is a truly amazing composition that perfectly fits into the Victorian environment that is being recreated. Hearing it on the big screen genuinely sent shivers down my spine. With its use of brass and harpsichord, it sounds exactly like the kind of piece that Bach could have written… well on one of his off days maybe. Not all of Williams’ efforts stand up though. I personally find Tiny Tim’s ‘Bless Us All’ to be annoyingly schmaltzy and the Marley brothers’ ghostly introduction is fairly forgettable. Unfortunately, the lyrics are at times questionable but I don’t think that really matters. I defy anyone to watch the gigantic Ghost of Christmas Present and Michael Caine bopping along to ‘It Feels Like Christmas’ (my favourite Christmas anthem) and not feeling warmth spreading from their soul. This film isn’t about being perfect and it is not pretending to be the best film ever created. It’s about the heart and fun that is so easily associated with the studio and well-known characters. It’s even easy to forgive Michael Caine’s fairly abysmal singing towards the end because at Christmas who the hell cares.

The Muppet Christmas Carol was the first film produced by the studio after the deaths of the Muppets' creator Jim Henson. Brian Henson stepped into the director’s chair and created an admirable homage to his father’s legacy. It certainly carries on the good work that the studio produced during his father’s days and the creature workshop continued to get better in bringing everything to life. If I’m honest, I can understand why people are so quick to criticise this film. It is not a masterpiece. It doesn’t break new ground as far as the material is concerned and it is a very basic children’s film. To see it in those terms is missing a major factor. It’s got heart and passion. The people involved with this film loved what they were doing and it shows. It’s an entertaining and colourful look at a story that had arguable already become stale. If nothing else The Muppet Christmas Carol is fun and, let’s be honest, if the Muppets have to have a point then I’d say that was probably it.

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