As much as you may want to fight it—OK, as much as I may want to fight it—the Christmas season continues to start earlier and earlier each year. This year, it’s safe to say that Disney assumes Christmas begins right after Halloween ends, as evidenced by their newest catalog release on Blu-ray, the 1992 family film The Muppet Christmas Carol. This Muppetized adaptation of the famous Charles Dickens story has its 20th anniversary this year, so it’s perfectly fitting for the film to finally get a high-definition transfer. On that count alone, this disc is worth picking up.
Though The Muppet Christmas Carol isn’t the best Muppet movie—plenty of people have affection for the 2011 revival, but for me, nothing will top The Muppet Movie, the one that started it all—it’s a likable, fun, and surprisingly faithful retelling of Dickens’ story of Ebenezer Scrooge (Michael Caine, in one of his more underrated performances; yes, really). Scrooge is, of course, a tight-fisted money-lender who learns not only the value of the holiday but of the redeeming value of humanity thanks to three spirits who show him how Christmas affected him and others in the past, present, and future. And don’t get me wrong, The Muppet Christmas Carol, two decades after its release, is an enjoyable piece of family entertainment. The odd thing is, though, it doesn’t feel much like a Muppet movie; the felt creatures are supporting, for the most part. The closest we have to Muppet leads are The Great Gonzo (playing Charles Dickens as narrator) and Rizzo the Rat; they’re fine, but were always Rosencrantz-and-Guildenstern-esque comic relief in the past. But, thanks in no small part to the tragic passing of Jim Henson, who had performed as Kermit the Frog for decades, the big-name characters are pushed to the side or don’t even appear. As such, The Muppet Christmas Carol is fun, if somewhat slight.
That said, compared to most of Disney’s recent Blu-ray releases of older films, The Muppet Christmas Carol is very near the top. Not only does the high-definition transfer look quite sparkling and impressive, but there are actual features here, special features that either mock the cookie-cutter aspect of such supplements or embrace them wholeheartedly and cleverly. The transfer is, perhaps, not always perfect; the colors shine even more in an otherwise appropriately drab London facsimile, despite the set design looking a lot more ramshackle and cheap than when it was on DVD or VHS. Still, this is a very clear upgrade.
The features themselves, even the ones that have clearly been ported over from prior DVD releases, are witty enough. Even the standard behind-the-scenes featurette, full of interviews with Caine, director Brian Henson, and songwriter Paul Williams, plays around with our expectations. Gonzo and Rizzo—and if you like these two characters, this Blu-ray will put you in Muppet heaven—pose the questions to Henson. They also introduce a blooper reel and host a tiny featurette about how Christmas is celebrated around the world. In the piece de resistance, they even appear in a cute, somewhat satiric and still somewhat dull commentary. On the one hand, their comments are a perfect skewer of the bland tones many directors and actors bring to DVD commentaries. On the other hand, it often veers into…well, just being a bit bland. The same goes for the director’s commentary, but that, at least, is a bit more fascinating because Henson gets into the technical challenges of filming a movie where humans have to interact with Muppets being controlled by people feet below them. I do want to make special mention of the absolute strangest feature, a so-called “intermission,” wherein, if you pause the movie, you can see various Muppet characters like the Swedish Chef sing Christmas carols in character. You have likely heard more tuneful versions of “O Tannenbaum,” but you have not lived until you’ve seen the Swedish Chef sing it with chickens.
The Muppet Christmas Carol is a fine entry in the burgeoning genre of Dickens adaptations, not the most faithful or best filmed, but certainly very enjoyable. I don’t think it’s the best Muppet movie—the 2011 revival and even Muppet Treasure Island are funnier and maintain the anarchic spirit of Jim Henson’s creations better. At this time of year, though, it’s a pleasant and welcome diversion. What’s more, the Blu-ray, though not as stacked as other catalog releases (and the version I’m reviewing only had a Blu-ray and digital copy, not a DVD, too), is worth springing for if you have the DVD. It’s rare that a double-dip attempt is worth your money, but The Muppet Christmas Carol absolutely is.
– Josh Spiegel