CHRIS: The Muppet Christmas Carol (Henson, US, 1992)

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Ah, the festive season, with its fine traditions: waiting for Santa on Christmas Eve, realising he’s never going to appear, so you’ll have to do all the wrapping yourself while drinking his whiskey; overloading on sprouts and parsnips on Christmas Day followed by adverts for new settee on Boxing Day; there’s long expected but still surprising betrothals; and there are Christmas films … lots of them … many of them not very good, but there are exceptions that can still charm again and again, year after year. I can’t choose IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE because it is from the 1940s, and I can’t go for BAD SANTA as Zwigoff has been here before. Instead I have gone from a Dirk Family favourite that has some nostalgic resonance as well.

It’s impossible to compile a list of significant films in the post-Star Wars canon without acknowledging the presence of the Muppets. In many ways, Star Wars and The Muppets are in a cultural symbiosis, as they share a similar ecology: both have been sustained through merchandise, both have been created and driven through the imagination of an individual entrepreneur auteur, both have their own interminable prequels too (Muppet Babies anyone?), both have infused mainstream culture in many varied forms and both have been ultimately acquired by Disney. There are examples of fruitful cross-overs. The first was the appearance of some of the favourite characters as guests on the TV programme; day-glo orange Mark Hamill played foil to gonzo. RETURN OF THE JEDI was nick-named ‘muppets in space’ thanks to the number of Henson creations that populated Jabba’s palace, and of course, Yoda is little more than a shaved, angry Fozzie cross-bred with Kermit’s nephew.

When I mentioned to Roof-Dirk that I intended to include a Muppet film in the list, he said that I was ‘a child of the seventies’, indicating that the phenomena is a generational thing. In the recent reboot THE MUPPETS (2012) there’s funny reference to how they have fallen off the radar of popular culture, but when I was a child, they were the most important part of the weekly schedule. Television in the 70s was was a throw-back to the variety shows. Everything I loved back then had its origins at the end of the pier, such as The Morecambe and Wise Christmas Specials, The Mike Yarwood Show and The Generation Game. THE MUPPET SHOW fitted into this format. I loved it. Every Sunday I would make sure that I was there to see which unlikely instrument Gonzo would blow at the end of the title sequence. I loved all the characters, the running gags, the songs and even some of the guests (most of whom, I wasn’t even sure who they were).

I went to see THE MUPPET MOVIE (1979) on the week that it was released to see the Muppets outside of the theatre, in the open air, riding bicycles! The muppets had legs – who knew! It is a magnificent road movie ( “a bear in his natural habitat: a Studebaker”) which culminates in a great ‘putting on a show’ finale, peppered along the way with various ‘guest spots’ from the likes of Milton Berle, Mel Brooks, Elliot Gould  and Bob Hope. The presence the guests has dated the film, but in some ways it was way ahead of its time as it uses post-modern tricks such as ‘a film within a film’ and a meta-textual device to bring Dr Teeth and his band to the rescue; he manages to get hold of the shooting script so he can come to the rescue before Kermit is forced to join Doc Hopper’s Frog Leg Fast Food Franchise.

THE MUPPET CHRISTMAS CAROL was directed by Brian Henson, following his father’s untimely death in 1990. Jim Henson was the creative force behind the creation of The Muppets however the characters have developed a life of their own. An adaptation of Dickens’s perianal classic with the Muppets performing the parts is a simple idea done perfectly. Paul William’s songs also reward multiple viewings as they are not immediately catchy, but the lyrics are packed with witty turns of phrase. The screenplay is also brilliant:

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Sam the Bald Eagle: Tomorrow, you become a man of business!

Young Scrooge: I’m looking forward to it, Headmaster.

Sam The Bald Eagle: Mm, you will love business. It is the AMERICAN WAY!

Gonzo: [whispers] Sam…[whispers in Sam’s ear]

Sam The Bald Eagle: Oh… It is the BRITISH WAY!

The film is filled to the brim with clever sight gags and riffs, such as the rats complaining to Scrooge about the cold appear in Hawaii grass skirts the moment they are threatened with the sack. Every scene has little details. Every corner of the screen seems to have something to contribute – even the fruit and veg have a character all of their own. Central to this is the Great Gonzo playing the part of Charles Dickens, helpfully guiding us through the adaptation and pointing out where they have diverted from the original novella. Its a surprisingly faithful version with Michael Caine playing Scrooge with accuracy. His performance is deadpan and works perfectly with the madcap lunacy of the puppets. His tender conversion at the end is genuinely moving.

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Above all, Kermit presents the best Bob Cratchit in movie history, bringing his natural self-effacing charm to the role. He has an endearing quality that cannot fail to charm even the coldest of hearts:

“There is nothing in the world so irresistibly contagious as laughter and good humor.”

Merry Christmas and a Dirking Good 2014!

 

8 responses to “CHRIS: The Muppet Christmas Carol (Henson, US, 1992)

  1. An excellent choice. We were talking about this in the pub on Saturday and decided that, with the possible exception of Get Carter, nothing else Michael Caine has done comes close.

    My favourite bit is when the rat bookkeepers pretend that the office is warm enough by singing a calypso.

    • I was going to put a line in about this being Caine’s last great role, it seemed portentous, but it’s probably accurate.

      Happy new year Roof Dirk – let’s hope that a few more people find us in 2014. Our annual review of the year ‘a stats makes depressing reading. Did you get it?

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