My Muppet journey has finally arrived at Christmas. For a supposedly joyful season, Christmas can be a dark time: from It’s A Wonderful Life (a film about a man who attempts suicide, then goes a bit mad) to Bad Santa (where the nicest character is a thieving drunk who vomits in front of children), but for the Muppets it was an attempt to put behind them some real life dark times. Since The Muppets Took Manhatten Then Realised They Had No Idea What To Do With It, both Jim Henson (Kermit / Rowlf / Dr. Teeth / Swedish Chef) and Richard Hunt (Scooter / Statler / Janice / Beaker) had passed away, at a combined age of less than 100. So for their first visit to the big screen in eight years, it seemed fitting that the Muppet movies should undergo something of a reinvention.
So gone were the modern day settings, the self-referential knowingness and a lot of the Muppets that we know and love. (Wait, what?) Yes, call it controversial, but while The Muppets Christmas Carol has come to be regarded as a classic Christmas movie, it isn’t actually a classic Muppet movie. Part of this is the sidelining of so many of the main characters of the core Muppets ensemble: with the loss of Henson and Hunt, the likes of Rowlf and Scooter are sensitively rested this time out, but those that do make an appearance often have less screen time, with even the likes of Miss Piggy reduced to an extended cameo. The only two Muppets who get any extended screen time are Gonzo and Rizzo, as even the Ghosts themselves aren’t portrayed by regular Muppets (the original plan to have the ghosts portrayed by Miss Piggy, Scooter and Gonzo being, perhaps sensibly, put to bed).
But The Muppets Christmas Carol is a classic Christmas movie, even if, like many of its contemporaries, it didn’t grab audiences at the time. It’s A Wonderful Life wasn’t truly appreciated in its own lifetime, only finding life on cable TV re-runs many years later, and similarly The Muppets Christmas Carol struggled to find an audience first time round. Look at the box office chart (courtesy of Box Office Mojo) for 1992 for the US:
There it is, 47th best of the year. Note that it only just beat Howards End despite being on four times the number of screens, and lost miserably to The Lawnmower Man despite another screen advantage. (Screens is the number in the fifth column, in case you were wondering.) So why is it now so loved by so many at Christmas time?
In my book, there’s two reasons. One is the faithfulness of the adaptation; while respectful, it’s never reverential but captures just the essence of Dickens’ seminal seasonal story, even to the extent that the finer details, such as The Ghost Of Christmas Present aging during his time with Ebeneezer, are faithfully captured. The other reason is this:
Again, in a departure from previous efforts, there’s little human presence here. Steven Mackintosh is a moderately familiar face, and a couple of the young Scrooges have also popped up on TV, but the Muppet Christmas Carol stands and falls on the performance on one man, and thankfully the one man is one who has one of the safest pairs of hands in the business. Oddly, or maybe not, The Muppet Christmas Carol represents some of Caine’s best work and is certainly a better performance than at least one of the Oscars he’s picked up.
But while The Muppet Christmas Carol can stand toe to toe with It’s A Wonderful Life and Die Hard as perfect examples of Christmas movies, it’s not quite as good a Muppet movie as some of the earlier efforts. Guess you can’t win ’em all.
Current ranking of the Muppet movies
1. The Great Muppet Caper
2. The Muppet Christmas Carol
3. The Muppet Movie
4. The Muppets Take Manhattan
Next month Later today or tomorrow because I got quite some way behind: Pirates! AAAAR! It’s Muppet Treasure Island.