I’m not sure if Charles Dickens would be amused or appalled at the wide range of adaptations of his enduring cautionary tale, but it seems like just about everyone has had a crack at the Scrooge story.
There was “The Birds’ Christmas Carol” way back in 1917, and a rural/country version in 1979. More distinctive variations of “A Christmas Carol” have featured Mister Magoo (1962 TV), Bugs Bunny (1979, TV), The Flintstones (1994, TV), the Sesame Street gang (2006 direct-to-video), Barbie (2008 direct-to-video), Brer Rabbit (1992 TV), Dora the Explorer (2009 TV), Mickey Mouse and his friends (2009), a pop singer (“A Diva’s Christmas Carol” 2000 TV movie), The Smurfs (2011), and “An All Dogs Christmas Carol” (1998 direct-to-video). It’s been a turned into a comedy with Bill Murray (“Scrooged,” 1988), a 3D mo-cap adventure with Jim Carrey (“Disney’s A Christmas Carol,” 2009), and a musical with Albert Finney (“Scrooge,” 1970).
And in 1992 Brian Henson threw his father’s Muppets into the mix with “The Muppet Christmas Carol,” which also includes musical numbers. This version is one of the more family-friendly productions, with the three spirits not remotely frightening, as they are in practically every other adaptation.
Picture a PBS production of “A Christmas Carol” with live humans . . . and a bunch of Muppets.
Chief among the humans is Michael Caine, who plays Ebenezer Scrooge, the miser who is visited by the ghost of his old partner trying to warn him to change his skinflint ways or suffer great consequences. Only things are a lot mellower. In fact, how serious can you take something that features The Great Gonzo as Charles Dickens and Rizzo the Rat (who, we’re told, plays himself) introducing the story and commenting throughout?
I can’t imagine anyone not knowing the basic plot of Dickens’ tale, but adding Muppets lends a little humor to the production while still maintaining the gravity of the message. You would think that would be an oil-and-water blend, but somehow it works.
Part of the fun is seeing what Muppet characters turn up in specific roles. Kermit the Frog plays Bob Cratchit, Scrooge’s chief clerk and accountant who is underpaid and overworked . . . even on holidays. Mrs. Cratchit is (who else?) Miss Piggy, who actually plays it Dickensian straight, with no porcine feminist karate chopping. Tiny Tim is a little frog spawn, and Scrooges former employer, old Fozziwig, is played by (wait for it) Fozzie Bear.
Credit Caine for some very good acting. If you’re thinking back to the live-human guest stars on “The Muppet Show,” everything was played for laughs and variety. Not so here. Caine manages the same dramatic seriousness as if he were playing off real people rather than puppets.
Original songs by composer Paul Williams add a lot to the production as well” “Scrooge,” “One More Sleep ‘Til Christmas,” “Marley and Marley,” “When Love Is Gone,” “It Feels Like Christmas,” “Christmas Scat,” “Bless Us All,” “Thankful Heart,” and a grand reprise: “When Love Is Found / It Feels Like Christmas,” all of which feel festive and help cement the bond between the dramatic and comedic elements.
“The Muppet Christmas Carol” is available in this “It’s Not Easy Being Scrooge Special Edition” (which includes a Digital Copy) or a “Collector’s Edition” that also includes a DVD of the film. The AVC/MPEG-4 transfer looks to be a good one, with only one small instance of crush that I noticed and no other obvious artifacts. The level of detail is quite good, though be warned that the look of the film changes over the course of 86 minutes. The opening scenes seem to have been edited in post-production to create a slightly bluish wash, while later scenes are warmer-toned. Some exterior background also have a little more grain than interiors, along with some noise in spots. By and large, though if you’re not looking for flaws you’re not going to see them. Nothing leaps out at you. “The Muppets Christmas Carol” is presented in 1.85:1 widescreen.
The audio is less impressive for this catalog title, with a largely front-heavy soundtrack unless the songs kick in . . . and then so do the other speakers. It’s not a dynamic soundtrack, in other words, though it is a clear and full-toned one. The featured audio is an English DTS-HD MA 5.1, with additional audio options in French Dolby Digital 5.1 and Spanish Dolby Digital 2.0. Subtitles are in English SDH, French and Spanish.
One fun feature is a “Holiday Intermission Song” extra that allows you to pause the film whenever you feel like an intermission and hear the Muppets sing one of five Christmas songs. It’s the only feature in HD. The other new-to-Blu feature is a commentary track in-character, with Kermit, Gonzo, and Rizzo doing the honors. Don’t expect information, though. Just mugging and hamming it up and the kind of schtick that Statler and Waldorf would criticize or walk out on. Thankfully a serious commentary track is ported over from a previous DVD release, with Brian Henson talking about everything from concept and casting to shooting live-action and puppets, with attention also paid to post-production. It’s a very worthwhile and above-average commentary track.
Also ported over from previous releases is the standard def “Frogs, Pigs and Humbug: Unwrapping a New Holiday Classic” (22 min.) that features Henson and Gonzo and Rizzo in a behind-the-scenes look at the film, with other cast members climbing aboard. It’s pretty standard but more fun than the in-character commentary track. More strained is “Gonzo: A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Weirdo,” with Pepe the Prawn hosting a retrospective look at Gonzo. Despite the allusion to James Joyce, it’s not terribly highbrow nor penetrating. It’s just more nonsense for some, and more fun for others. Of more interest is Gonzo and Rizzo’s tour of “Christmas around the World,” where we learn about different Christmas traditions. Rounding out the bonus features is a blooper reel that’s under five minutes long.
Fans of The Muppets found this a bittersweet release, as it was the first feature-length production following Jim Henson’s untimely death. Steve Whitmire took over as the voice of Kermit. But the late Jim Henson would have been proud of the job that his son did directing this production. It’s a solid Muppets feature. Call it “The Muppets Take Dickensian London.”