Continuing from Sesame Street Presents Follow Thar Bird and The Muppets Take Manhattan is The Muppet Christmas Carol, which was dedicated to the now-deceased Muppet creator, Jim Henson. The film notably features Michael Caine (Nolan’s The Dark Knight Trilogy, Children of Men, Miss Congeniality, Inception).
According to The Telegraph review:
The Muppet Christmas Carol was the first Muppet film made after the death of creator Jim Henson in 1990. His absence was clearly felt by all involved, and though there’s a lightness of touch running throughout, this is probably the darkest Muppet film yet. But, somehow, it’s also the one most filled with love.
The plot follows Charles Dickens’s original 1843 novel closely, complete with the omniscient narrator Dickens himself (played by The Great Gonzo, aided by Rizzo the Rat), and stars Sir Michael Caine – in, frankly, a brilliant performance – as Ebenezer Scrooge. Caine tears into the role and is, unlike plenty of Muppet movie guest stars, never upstaged by Kermit the Frog or Miss Piggy (as Bob and Emily Cratchit respectively). As you would expect from a Muppet production, Caine at no point acknowledges that the Muppets are anything other than human, and the result is a true ensemble piece.
You already know the story. Scrooge is a bitter, miserly old moneylender who shoos away charity collectors, sneers at his happy-go-lucky nephew and rages at the prospect of giving his clerks a day off for Christmas. Christmas, of course, is nothing but humbug to Scrooge. But he’s forced to reconsider his attitude to the world – and to his employee Bob Cratchit’s struggling family in particular – when visited by a procession of ghosts on Christmas Eve. They show him the events in his past that hardened his heart, and reveal the chilling consequences if he doesn’t find a way to soften it before it’s too late.
Surprisingly, this is probably the most faithful film adaptation of the novel to date. Many pivotal lines are lifted straight from Dickens. When told that many of the poor would rather die than go into a workhouse, Caine’s Scrooge replies, perfectly seriously: “If they would rather die, they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population”. That sentiment becomes another ghost to haunt him later on, when confronted with the very real possibility of the death of Tiny Tim (credited as Robin the Frog, a mini, too-cute-for-words version of Kermit).
These are the moments where you forget it’s supposed to be a children’s film. You even forget it’s supposed to be a Muppet film. It’s just a wonderful festive story, enchantingly told.
The addition of a rollicking soundtrack helps to embolden some of the subtler messages, helping them speak to younger children. “Doomed, Scrooge, you’re doomed for all time,” sing the apparitions of the deceased Marley brothers (Dickens’s Marley becomes two characters here, played by The Muppet Show’s heckling stalwarts Statler and Waldorf) in a catchy exposition number. “Your future is a horror story, written by your crimes.”
There’s a robust approach to the darker depths of the story, too. The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come is a silent, faceless figure straight from mid-Victorian literary illustrations, and in one vision of the future Scrooge sees the scraps of his stolen possessions sold off to a backstreet dealer after his death, the bed sheets still warm. “Boy, this is scary stuff!” says Rizzo the Rat at one point. “Should we be worried about the kids in the audience?”
“Nah,” says Gonzo/Dickens. “This is culture.” That just about sums it up. Although the Muppets pile on the wit and child-friendly slapstick, they never dumb down, and never compromise their story’s literary origins. As an approach, it couldn’t be more true to the original spirit of Dickens.