Christmas Classics: The Muppet Christmas Carol

It’s been a long time, pretty much since the beginning of Covid, that I’ve posted on this blog, but I’m making it my New Year’s Resolution to return to it in 2022 with regularity. There’s more to come soon, but I wanted to share this review of one of my most beloved holiday films before the year ends.

Nominally, The Muppet Christmas Carol is a fairly faithful retelling of Charles Dickens’s 1843 A Christmas Carol, the story of Ebenezer Scrooge’s story of self-recognition and potential self-betterment when confronted one night by the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Yet To Come. A bleak paean to the necessity of self-transformation and dedication to humanistic collectivism, the Muppet version follows closely to the moral imperative of Dickens’s original. Which may not work for some. Like the 1843 novella, the Muppets’ 150-year-later version is frankly manipulative and sentimental. While other authors of his era, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels most obviously, reacted to the soul-devouring inequalities of capitalism and the dark factory towns of nineteenth-century Europe with a call to overturn capitalism systematically, Dickens was essentially appealing to sentiments of shame and guilt. That doesn’t mean his portrait wasn’t grim, sentimentality aside (or, rather, the grimness is part of the sentimentality), and it certainly doesn’t mean that his pen’s charismatic pull is any less forceful.

In this regard, this equally beloved version echoes the story’s intrinsic strengths. Michael Caine’s Scrooge is phenomenal, a bitter, acid-etched capitalist masking roiling internal tensions, a figure who is maybe more aware of how doomed he is than he lets on. Scrooge’s transformation feels genuinely earned, slowly suffusing from Caine’s subtle performance tilting increasingly from cloistered loneliness and viciousness to amenable humanist. And the production design is a wonder, particularly the film’s proto-gothic tilt, a feeling explored most thoroughly in a song involving Scrooge’s deceased partners in capitalist crime, cannily played by Statler and Waldorf and suggesting the hell of living a life cynically criticizing rather than playing within the world. And the outright Expressionist tilt of the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come pulls no punches, sinking right into out-and-out children’s horror for a sequence that exerts a harrowing pull, the film seemingly having tapped into demonic urges for a fire-and-brimstone sermon about what it means to ultimately do good.

This film wears its heart on its sleeve, then, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have a few tricks up that sleeve. Subtle details resonate, like the Ghost of Christmas Present (a gigantic, garrulous bear of a man) going steadily greyer as his hour-or-so long life on earth comes to a close, suggesting the fleeting, momentary nature of warmth that must be constantly replenished, passed on, and tempered with a recognition of sorrow and melancholy. Indeed, it may be the ghost of Muppet-creator Jim Henson, who prematurely passed during pre-production for the film, that looms over the finished product most of all, not to mention the passing of original Muppet performer Richard Hunt closer to the film’s release. Henson’s countrified humanism reverberates throughout every scene, suggesting that being surrounded by death and loss is all the more reason for finding joy and hope (which is not to be confused with optimism), a spell which The Muppet Christmas Carol stands testament to.

That, and the Muppets themselves haven’t lost their dueling energies. Indeed, the Dickensian infusion, if anything, enhances the push-pull between the Muppet’s dueling humanisms that make the film: their gentle but not uncritical communalism, on one hand, and its comic yang in the form of their anarchic, unleashed comic brio. The Muppet touch both celebrates and lightly mocks the story’s inherent sentimentality, counterpointing it and keeping it from growing sickly sweet. The Muppets retain but trespass on the story’s famous “fellow-feeling,” especially in cannier moments when Gonzo (Dave Goelz), playing Charles Dickens and narrating the film from the sidelines, admits that the story’s internal logic dictates that he has to be somewhere else, even when it doesn’t logically make sense, or when he simply leaves for portions of the film. This Christmas Carol is loaded with quietly off-kilter details like this, like the fact that Gonzo’s relationship to the diegesis is never exactly clear. Or the fact that the Muppets, in their first film “playing” preexisting characters, seem to slip in and out of their roles, reminding how much a gleeful performance this all is, and filling it with the wonderful dead air of a community theater production that insists, perhaps because of its flaws, on the humanistic creativity of it all.

And The Muppets really are the deal here. Embodiments of the possibilities and tensions of roleplaying, they suggest the hope, although not the guarantee, that creative products animated out of felt, handcraft, and ingenuity might resist the terms that create them, becoming alive in spite of their origins. This sensibility runs throughout the film. For Scrooge, it is a question of cultivating the humanistic sensibilities dormant within him, wrecked by capitalism. For the film, it is the capacity to revitalize a cherished, much-adapted, century-old property, to reanimate it anew. The Muppets themselves, though, tap into a much more fundamental interrogation of animation: the capacity for creative puppetry to generate life, and for those lives to become anew, to take the role of new characters, to play with them, a deeply and endemically cinematic question that connects the Muppets to the earliest examples of cinematic stagecraft and animation.  

In turn, A Muppet Christmas Carol probably emerges as the most theoretically sophisticated and exploratory Muppet motion picture by virtue of simply playing with the framework that constitutes the character themselves. In this context, this includes Kermit the Frog (Steve Whitmire) as Scrooge’s assistant Bob Cratchit, Ms. Piggie (Frank Oz) as Cratchit’s wife Emily, Fozzie Bear (Frank Oz) as the youthful Scrooge’s more humane boss, Mr. Fozziwig, Rizzo the Rat (Steve Whitmire) as Rizzo the Rat, Dickens’s friend and narratorial assistant extraordinaire, and Robin the Frog (Jerry Nelson) as Bob and Emily’s son Tiny Tim, who warms Scrooge’s heart most of all. The barrage of names there should suggest the film’s surprisingly knotty relationship to performativity. We have puppeteers playing multiple Muppet characters who, in turn, are playing characters in the story of A Christmas Carol. We might remember that the troupe itself were created as a variety troupe to reanimate centuries-old burlesque traditions of performativity, multiplicity, and carnivalesque chaos, to think of identity as a dialectic of playing and being played, of trying on new roles and exploring the intersection of adaptability and rigidity endemic to the enterprise.

The Muppet Christmas Carol extends this sensibility beautifully, exploring these tensions in multiple levels, interrogating how and to what extend capitalism can accommodate genuine human performativity and creativity, without even seeming like the themes are sitting “above” the story as intellectual questions thrown in arbitrarily. They emerge out of the story, and out of the characters populating it. Scrooge’s rat workers, for instance, follow a long line of marginalized figures in media and reality who disobey edicts about the separation of work and playtime, suggesting that they might inhabit their identities as workers dissidently, to remake those identities in their habits, practices, and performances. The coruscating friction between levels of identity, by which I mean the manner in which the film turns identity into practice and performance, recalls film theorists Sergei Eisenstein’s claim that animated-ness resists “once-and-for-all-time” status, instead turning to the capacity for revision on multiple levels. Which is just a fancy way of saying: if this is an old story, the Henson crew makes it new.  

Score: 9/10

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