“A blue, furry Charles Dickens who hangs out with a rat?” “Absolutely.”
That’s not how A Christmas Carol begins, no matter what version you read, but that’s exactly what makes The Muppet Christmas Carol such a special adaptation of Charles Dickens’ classic. It’s not how it begins – but you could almost believe it is.
Taking the familiar story and adding songs, Michael Caine and, erm, talking cabbages, Jim Henson and co’s version of events is a surprisingly faithful take on the text.
There are endless playful touches, such as Marley being turned into twins (one called “Bob Marley”, both played by Statler and Waldorf), but that silliness only accentuates the serious side of the seasonal drama: it’s no coincidence that the Marleys get perhaps the catchiest musical number of the lot, even as they talk of hell and eternal damnation. Because yes, Ebenezer Scrooge’s tale is one of hell and damnation, of spirits and spooks, of death and mortality. And The Muppets barely sugar-coat the story at all, embracing the darkness of the text.
In the opening number, which immediately makes Scrooge an intimidating figure, as he stalks London’s streets with a walking stick, the film takes time out from singing the scorn for the glowering Mr. Humbug to show us the struggling mice in the walls of the capital’s houses, who just want some cheese. This a poverty-stricken world that could be taken right out of the pages of Dickens’ work, let alone modern Britain. (“He charges folks a fortune for his dark and drafty houses,” the Londoners sing in unison. “Us poor folk live in misery” / “It’s even worse for mouses.”)
At the heart of it, Michael Caine delivers a masterclass in understated acting, freaking out at the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come – a genuinely scary robed figure – but never once flinching at the fact that his co-worker, Bob Cratchitt (Kermit the Frog), is a talking frog. His deadpan presence makes the transformation of cold heart to gentle spirit believable and moving. If anything, it’s even more so, simply because it involves talking frogs.
But Dickens isn’t just doom and gloom: the author excelled at humour, not least humour driven by eccentric, colourful, strange characters. His descriptions are a highlight of his writing, and it’s not hard to imagine Charles penning paragraphs about the bulging, furry faces of each of Scrooge’s furry companions. In a way, he was writing Muppets way before Jim Henson came along.
The rest of the production is equally perfect, from the set designs and puppetry to the period costumes and quick pacing – Room In Your Heart, a sub-par song from Beaker and Dr. Bunsen is smartly axed from the playlist. The more modern cut also sadly skips When Love Is Gone, a heartbreaking ballad performed by Meredith Braun’s Belle, lamenting Scrooge’s break-up with her, but it’s still present in the original theatrical and VHS cut – and, providing a neat counterpoint to The Love We’ve Found at the end, is just one instance of the score’s elegant balance. Throughout, the music by Miles Goodman is flawlessly festive, working in Christmas carols in between Paul Williams’ delightful ditties, with the overture alone proving a highlight.
The result is funny, warm-hearted and, crucially, still manages to unsettle – a quality that elevates this above other Christmas flicks. Narrated with a wry sophistication by Gonzo and Rizzo the Rat, it’s a movie that never talks down to children. If anything, it talks up to adults, reminding them of the simple joys that can be found in ice-skating penguins, classic literature and boomerang fish. This, you feel, is the way A Christmas Carol was meant to be enjoyed. A blue, furry Charles Dickens who hangs out with a rat? Absolutely.