It's a tribute to the enduring charm of Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol" that it has become probably the screen's single most-popular literary adaptation of all time, surviving live action, musicals, cartoons, and television shows. Is it any wonder the Muppets would also try their hand at it, and is it really surprising the story would continue to hold up so well?
"The Muppet Christmas," made in 1992, was the first Muppet movie made after Muppet creator Jim Henson's death and the first Muppet movie directed by Henson's son, Brian ("Muppet Treasure Island," "Muppets Tonight"). It features the usual combination of live actors and puppets, with some delightful songs by Paul Williams and Michael Caine in the lead as skinflint Ebenezer Scrooge.
It's hard not to smile at this one and be moved by it at the same time. "Please, sir, I want some more cheese," says a little mouse in the best "Oliver Twist" Dickens tradition. It's hard not to appreciate Caine's Scrooge as well. He has the same evil glint in his eye at the beginning that Alastair Sim possessed in his famous 1951 live-action version of the classic, and Caine handles Scrooge's eventual conversion to sweetness and light joyously, too.
The story is narrated by author Charles Dickens, in the person of the Great Gonzo (Dave Goelz) and assisted by Rizzo the Rat (Steve Whitmire). They are on the periphery of practically every scene, injecting commentary and humor, perhaps a little too much. Fortunately, they have the good sense to step aside during the climactic and more-serious scenes of Scrooge's future.
The other major parts in the story are played almost exclusively by Muppets, with the exceptions of Scrooge's nephew, the indefatigably cheerful Fred (Steven Mackintosh) and Fred's fiancée, Belle (Meredith Braun). I suppose the filmmakers thought it might have looked a little odd for a real person, Caine, to have a Muppet relative, although none of the humans in the story seem to mind these little creatures co-mingling with them. Indeed, for the film to work, the Muppets must be accepted as a natural part of the universe.
Anyway, Kermit the Frog (Steve Whitmire) plays Bob Cratchit, Scrooge's put-upon chief accountant. Miss Piggy (Frank Oz) plays Mrs. Cratchit, Bob's wife. Fozzie Bear (Frank Oz) plays old Fozziwig, Scrooge's former employer at the old rubber-chicken factory; and one of Kermit's own offspring (Jerry Nelson) plays Tiny Tim, the Cratchits' crippled and dying child.
You remember the story: Closefisted Scrooge gets visited on Christmas Eve by a series of spirits-- those of his dead partners, then the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future. They show him what a cranky old tightwad he's become and how it's never too late to change one's habits. Scrooge's recognition of the importance of love, family, and friends inspires all of the story's viewers better to understand the true meaning of Christmas.
Moreover, the dialogue that supplements Dickens is often witty, and Paul Williams' songs add further to one's enjoyment. On Christmas Eve Scrooge tells Cratchit, "Let us deal with the eviction notices for tomorrow." Cratchit replies, "Tomorrow's Christmas, sir." And Scrooge replies, "Very well; you may gift wrap them." Then there are the half dozen or more songs interspersed throughout the film. Even curmudgeons who don't care for musicals may appreciate them, particularly the opening number describing Scrooge, "There Goes Mr. Humbug," which is probably the best song of the lot. Following that are "One More Sleep Til Christmas," sung by Scrooge's office staff; "Marley and Marley," sung by Scrooge's deceased partners; "Wherever You Find Love, It Feels Like Christmas," sung by the Spirit of Christmas Present; "Bless Us All," sung by Tiny Tim and the Cratchit family; "With a Thankful Heart," sung by Scrooge; and "The Love We Found," sung by the whole ensemble.
It might have been better had the film stuck more closely to Dickens' original storyline, but it's close enough, and the augmentations do no harm. "The Muppet Christmas Carol" hits exactly the right spot in terms of Christmas cheer and seems to me perfect for children and adults alike.
The movie is presented in two screen sizes on the same side of a single disc, its original theatrical ratio of 1.85:1 (here measuring about 1.77:1) and a pan-and-scan rendering that crops about 25% of the image from the left and right sides of each frame. I watched in widescreen and found the video excellent, thanks to a high-bit rate, anamorphic transfer. The only minor distraction is a touch of grain from time to time; otherwise, colors are deep and firm, definition is mostly sharp, black levels are substantial, and colors are as bright as they ever need to be. It's a radiant-looking movie in the daylight scenes, and even nighttime shots come off with clarity and detail.
The English audio is a Dolby Digital 5.1 mix, which is adequate for the front channels but does little in the surrounds except add a small bit of musical and environmental ambience. It sounds fairly ordinary, actually, with a wide front-stereo spread but a limited dynamic and frequency range. I can't imagine anyone objecting that the soundtrack does not remind them of "Star Wars," so it does its job. French is in 2.0 stereo only.
Here's the thing: Because the powers that be at Disney figure that the movie is primarily aimed at children (a "family" picture), they provide an audio commentary by director Brian Henson and an extra scene only in the fullscreen version. OK, to be fair, the pan-and-scan rendering was the only available option on the film's first DVD release, so the commentary and extra scene probably just carry over with it. As one who almost never watches a movie in fullscreen, though, it seems kind of unfair to make me to do so if I want to enjoy all of the disc's extras. Oh, well.... The extra scene included with the fullscreen version is a song by Meredith Braun sung when her character breaks up with Scrooge, which the director tells us was cut from the theatrical release to shorten the movie.
In addition, the extras include "Pepe Profiles Presents Gonzo: A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Weirdo," about five minutes; "Christmas Around the World," about three minutes; and several outtakes and bloopers, a couple of which are quite cute. The bonuses conclude with ten scene selections and a chapter insert; Sneak Peeks at seven other Disney titles; English and French spoken languages; and English captions for the hearing impaired.
"A Christmas Carol" never seems to lose its magic, whether it is a classic movie with Alastair Sim or Reginald Owen, a television show with Patrick Stewart or George C. Scott, a musical with Albert Finney, a cartoon with Scrooge McDuck or Mr. Magoo, or any of dozens of other interpretations. Certainly, there is magic to spare in the Muppets' congenial and moving version with Michael Caine. Perhaps the addition of Gonzo and Rizzo narrating throughout the film was a bit much, but they do no harm and provide a few moments of refreshing uplift. Combined with a deft directorial touch and some charming songs, the movie is a welcome Christmas treat.
"...it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us! And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God bless Us, Every One!" --Charles Dickens