The Muppet Christmas Carol (Brain Henson, Walt Disney Pictures, 1992)
Updated: Jan 5, 2021
An unmatched Christmas parable, Brian Henson’s 1992 classic remains the greatest adaptation of Dickens’s soul-stirring story of redemptive power
A Christmas Carol is, at the risk of sounding a little boring and clichéd, timeless. Bound to the public consciousness, Charles Dickens’s novella has entered a pantheon of tales that seem to always prevail and endure. Adaptations are copious. The characters are more than familiar. Everybody recognises the concept of a Scrooge, even if they can’t recount all of the subtleties and narrative specifics. Perhaps it’s the consistency of the story, or the relatability of man’s struggle to shed his flaws and become better. Maybe it’s just the endless stream of adaptations that make the rounds on television every year, reaffirming the importance of Christmas’s most beloved tale. Whatever the reason, we’ve become accustomed to a vast torrent of directors trying their hand at this material. As far back as 1902, the medium has produced innumerable incarnations, each with its own distinctive style and vision. Whether it’s big-budget bucks, 3D animations or the more unfortunate mountings, (Ross Kemp, I’m looking at you) there seems to be a never-ending tradition of rehashing this fable. At heart, its baseline universality seems to speak to a deeper truth, its messages persistently relatable and ever-present. Sifting through this stream, one adaptation has stood the test of time, distinct and unique, positioning itself firmly above the rest. I am, of course, talking about The Muppet Christmas Carol.
Jim Henson, founding father of the Muppet universe, passed away from a rare lung infection in 1990. Following his untimely death, Jim’s son Brian (himself an inexperienced practitioner) elected to take control of the franchise. At the tender age of just 29, The Muppet Christmas Carol became his debut feature. For a first-timer tackling such a treasured, recognisable story, the consequent results would prove astounding.
This is an adroitly pitched piece of work, balancing a multitude of elements with an enchanting sense of place, timing and purposeful messaging. Though A Christmas Carol is steeped in the gothic, urbane realities of Britain’s poorest masses, the otherworldly aspects of the tale lend the story a suspension of disbelief that extends to the puppets themselves. After all, what is the essential energy of A Christmas Carol? Fundamentally, this is a story that combines realism with surrealist flourishes of madcap energy. It is a simple tale of simple themes, told through the lens of the strange and the unhuman. Could there be a more appropriate summary of The Muppet tradition? If Jacob Marley’s sunken face can contort and liquefy the knocker of Ebenezer’s doorway, then why can’t Kermit the frog commit himself to being Scrooge’s loyal assistant? If the ghost of Christmas present can be a chortling giant, why can’t a hook-nosed Gonzo be our trusted narrator? Put simply, situating the story in a world of whacky puppetry makes perfect sense, and those who argue otherwise are frankly missing the whole point of Dickens and his fantastical imagination.
Akin to the self-consciously unaffected ‘family films’ of Steven Spielberg, this commitment to the exploring the unfettered limits of childlike imagination is refreshingly warm and heartfelt, and yet this is a film that never seems to devolve into schmaltz or sentimentality. Henson’s self-awareness prevents the sincere becoming saccharine. It’s also why the musical elements, penned by recovering addict Paul Williams, work so well: songs aren’t passed off as some spontaneous, random opportunity for exposition. This is a film that understands that the musical genre it at its best when songs are foregrounded as fantasy, where music functions as a deliberately theatrical, stagey means of communicating a particular theme or idea. Oh, and they’re damn earworms too.
Now, I readily admit that this is an opinion held by few, and I’m even more certain that it’ll be scoffed at by most. Yes, I am overlooking the much-celebrated 1951 adaptation starring Alistair Sim. Yes, on the surface I’m shunning ‘proper’ acting chops in favour of a cast of puppets and mannequins. And yes, this is bound to draw scowls and sneers from the puritanical gate keepers of ‘true cinema’. I don’t care. I’m not being facetious. I can’t stomach the sniffy, pretentious attitudes of cinephiles dismissing so-called ‘kid’s films’ as worthless. This strange need to view every film as some auteur driven piece of art is, at best, narrow-minded. It overlooks the baseline magic of the movies. This need to constantly assess a film’s commitment to ‘serious’ concerns is a pathetic attempt to intellectually overcompensate. It’s not even a valid critique of the film’s flaws; it’s a pompous way of desperate try-hards trying to appear more cerebral than they actually are. Nobody is claiming that The Muppet Christmas Carol is Fellini or Bergman (in some ways, it’s even better). It is, however, a hilariously enchanting fairy tale that instils me with a childlike wonder every time I revisit it.
The fact we’re watching puppeteers playing characters is a formality that never feels apparent. Much of this is owed to the brilliance of Michael Caine’s straight-laced, solemn depiction of Scrooge; a performance rendered all the more extraordinary when one considers the supporting ‘cast’ he has to contend with. There are no knees-up, wink-of-the-eye moments, and a notable lack of silliness or stupidity. Caine is earnest and intense, and the consequent effects are unironically brilliant. A harsh façade gradually begins to peel away, revealing the pathos of Scrooge’s pain, regrets and sorrows. And with Disney recently announcing the rediscovery of that infamous ‘lost scene’ between Ebenezer and Belle, (foolishly cut by execs for target audience concerns) a former love gone awry is scheduled to instil the film with the same measure of emotion its initial VHS and Laser Disc releases had all those years ago.
The Muppet Christmas Carol is currently available on DVD, Blu-Ray and Disney Plus