Extended Thoughts on The Muppet Christmas Carol
Directed by Brian Henson
Written by Jerry Juhl
Is it right for us to see the Muppets out of their natural habitat? That question was posed to audiences in the 1990s, as Walt Disney Pictures brought us The Muppet Christmas Carol in 1992 and Muppet Treasure Island in 1996, two adaptations of famous novels with Muppets inserted into key roles. There were humans present in both films, but humans play second fiddle to the Muppets. Simply by being Kermit the Frog, Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear, the Great Gonzo, and more, the Muppets take the spotlight away from the humans beside them. There have been different ways of saying it, but the biggest flaw in The Muppets is that Jason Segel and Amy Adams aren’t as compelling as the felt creatures standing next to them. But the problem in The Muppets isn’t nearly as frustrating as what happens in The Muppet Christmas Carol.
By making Ebenezer Scrooge a human character, director Brian Henson and screenwriter Jerry Juhl put themselves into a corner. The Muppets are the focus of any Muppet movie. But what if a Muppet movie becomes a movie with Muppets on the side? We get the Walt Disney Pictures’ version of Muppet movies, something akin to Classics Illustrated adaptations with brighter colors and friendlier twists and turns. It’s almost like a form of fan fiction: “If the Muppets were starring in a version of A Christmas Carol, who would play Bob Cratchit?” The problem, really, is that the creative team here boxes themselves in. A human plays Scrooge. Three of the ghosts–the ones with the most screen time–aren’t played by Muppet characters we’re familiar with. Some of the most famous Muppets are given small roles, simply because the movie chooses to be somewhat more faithful than we might expect to Charles Dickens’ classic tale.
No matter how faithful Juhl and Henson are, though, we must remember something fairly important: this movie isn’t that faithful, because of THE MUPPETS. Dickens didn’t plan for felt versions of frogs, pigs, bears, and more to interpret his story, nor for them to sing about it. Good or bad, The Muppet Christmas Carol isn’t that faithful an adaptation. It’s more faithful than people assume, but that’s because when you think of the Muppets, you don’t think of honoring the author’s intent or the source material. They may not have been as anarchic as, say, the cast of Saturday Night Live, but the Muppets have always broken the fourth wall, commented on the stories they’re in or the jokes they’re telling. In that way, The Muppet Christmas Carol is pretty toothless.
And yet, I enjoy The Muppet Christmas Carol, as do many of you, I imagine. Part of it’s simple: I like the Muppets. I really like them, and since there are so many of them, whether or not you know their names, it’s easy to latch onto a favorite. When I was a youngster, my favorite Muppet was probably Gonzo. Lo and behold, he’s the onscreen narrator for The Muppet Christmas Carol, so I wasn’t complaining about not having Kermit, Piggy, or Fozzie to kick around. Now, I’m also a much more appreciative and aware fan of Michael Caine. (Seeing this when I was 8 meant that I’d probably never seen a movie with him in it before.) Caine is arguably the best Scrooge of the age of cinema and television. You can keep your Alistair Sims, Patrick Stewarts, and George C. Scotts, friends. They’re all fine Scrooges, in slightly different ways. But none of them had to say, “Why, it’s old Fozziwig’s rubber chicken factory!” with a straight face. None of them had to say that kind of silly dialogue and mean it. That Caine does say those lines, does bring the proper amount of emotion to the character, and make the audience believe in Scrooge’s life-altering transformation speaks to his power as an actor.
But therein lies the key issue with The Muppet Christmas Carol: the highest praise I have for one of its performers should not go to a human. Humans don’t deserve zero praise for their work in Muppet movies; for example, I quite like Charles Durning and Austin Pendleton as the baddies in The Muppet Movie. But they’re the villains, not the leads. In The Muppet Christmas Carol, at least, the lead character isn’t played by a human. The same goes for Muppet Treasure Island, of course, but the problem doesn’t seem as sharply in focus. Maybe it’s that there are more Muppets with dialogue, maybe it’s that the movie doesn’t feel the need to be as faithful to its source material, but there’s something a little wilder and bolder about that film.
I mentioned above that I was a huge Gonzo fan as a kid, and he’s still one of my favorite Muppets. But as a critic and audience member who’s not 8 anymore, I was surprised at exactly how long I had to wait to see Miss Piggy in this movie. (Note: I am aware that the same thing happens in Muppet Treasure Island.) With her being absent in the first half of this movie, and Fozzie Bear relegated to a five-minute part, I have to wonder if Frank Oz’s heart really hasn’t been in the Muppets ever since Jim Henson passed away in 1990. Oz spoke out against the new Muppet movie, because he felt that the characters weren’t being honored or treated correctly. Certainly, that’s not an issue here, but while the characters don’t get denigrated, they also don’t have much of the anarchic spirit we know them so well for. The closest the movie gets to acknowledging the Muppets themselves, outside of the characters they’re playing here, is a slight in-joke regarding Sam the Eagle and his uber-patriotism.
Oz seems nearly as absent from this film as Henson; Miss Piggy gets the most material, playing Bob Cratchit’s wife, but even she’s toned down. Fozzie’s in those aforementioned five minutes, and Sam the Eagle gets a joke about how he has to pretend to be a British patriot in this movie, not an American one. Such is the problem with being faithful to a story when you’re also inserting characters who don’t fit. Kermit is an OK Bob Cratchit, but it’s not the same as Gary Oldman in motion-capture playing the character, from the 2009 version. First, there’s Steve Whitmire, who has the unfortunate task of stepping in as the famed icon after Henson died. Then, there’s Kermit. Then, there’s Bob Cratchit. The extra level just adds a distance between us and the story.
Perhaps the most intriguing thing to consider about the Muppets and their movies is that adapting famous stories to include these characters isn’t as outrageous as it seems; it’s all about doing it correctly. The Muppet Movie is a road movie and an origin story. The Great Muppet Caper is an adventure where the leads are constantly winking at the audience, making us aware that they know they’re in a movie. The Muppets Take Manhattan is a movie about putting on a show, just like Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney did long ago. The point is this: adapting familiar cliches and tropes into new Muppet movies is fine. Adapting pre-existing stories and inserting Muppets into them is more problematic. We know where A Christmas Carol is going; we know the same about the old put-on-a-show cliche, but that cliche can change. A Christmas Carol can’t, as soon as you decide to set it in London in the 1840s.
Michael Caine is the strongest aspect of this movie; the music is OK, if unmemorable, and the jokes are few and far between. That’s another problem; this movie’s not funny. I’m not saying I didn’t find the jokes funny. I’m saying there aren’t a lot of jokes. Aren’t Muppet movies supposed to be funny? Even if you find it corny, Muppet Treasure Island has a lot more jokes than this does. Being faithful to this most classic of stories would seem like the right way to make a movie. But once you add in pre-existing characters, characters who I know and love, characters who have specific ways of acting and being, you have a problem on your hands. Again, I like The Muppet Christmas Carol, and it’s the first movie of the holiday season I’ve reviewed for the show and enjoyed. But it’s not the right adaptation, even if it features the best Ebenezer Scrooge.