‘Boy, that’s scary stuff! Should we be worried about the kids in the audience?’
‘Nah, it’s alright. This is culture!’
With over 20 versions in film alone, A Christmas Carol is perhaps the most heavily adapted story in western civilisation. So, what makes this particular version better than all the others? Well, it’s got the Muppets in it, for a start…
A deft combination of our favourite Muppets and human actors gives us Kermit the Frog and Miss Piggy as Bob and Martha Cratchett, Michael Caine as Ebenezer Scrooge and The Great Gonzo as Charles Dickens.
Just writing that last sentence, I’m aware of how awful this film could have been. There is so much room for error here, yet it all somehow works together. Having Rizzo the Rat and ‘Mr Dickens’ as our guide really helps bring us into their world and control the tone of the story. Michael Caine delivers a perfectly pitched performance, by turns vicious and sympathetic (no easy feat when you’re acting with puppets). It was also a very canny move to create completely new characters for the ghosts of Christmas, rather than ‘casting’ Muppets. This maintains their sense of other-worldliness and unpredictability.
Production values are really top notch, with brilliant costumes and sets creating a strong sense of place and atmosphere. There are some lovely shots of the snowy streets of London, and the famous grave yard at the end is surprisingly spooky. With its oddly convincing mix of humans and Muppets, the world of the movie is rich and vibrant and utterly engaging. I think the attention to detail is part of what sells it – Miss Piggy look brilliant in a bonnet – but also the fact that the humour is left to the Muppets. All the humans play it straight, so everything stays nicely grounded, even in the presence of singing cabbages.
Which brings me onto another real strength of the movie – its fantastic soundtrack. We know the Muppets can crank out a tune, but every time I watch this film, I’m in awe of just how good the music is. Each song is memorable and perfectly suited to the scene it’s in. All the joy and energy of Christmas Day is condensed in It Feels Like Christmas; Scrooge is a brilliant introduction to both our lead character and Victorian London; One More Sleep ‘til Christmas evokes all the excitement and anticipation of Christmas Eve (and includes a montage of ice-skating penguins). Yet the film isn’t afraid to slow things down, allowing the more emotional scenes to play out gently, such as when Tiny Tim takes the lead in the quietly touching Bless Us All.
Strangely, my only gripe with the movie is also tune related. At the end of the film, when Scrooge has learned to reconnect with his fellow man, everybody sings together:
The love we found, the love we found,
The sweetest dream that we have ever known!
The love we found, the love we found
We carry with us, so we’re never quite alone.
It’s honestly lovely, and a poignant reminder of the true meaning of Christmas. Watching the movie as a kid (on VHS!) I remember Belle singing an incredibly sad song called When Love is Gone as she breaks her engagement with Scrooge. With this song as a counterpoint, the finale has that extra layer of feeling. But whenever I’ve caught the film on TV, When Love is Gone has been cut. (You can watch it here from 1.50: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tfI_N0vyxaI) Of course, the film is still brilliant without it. But I do feel this omission takes away from the emotional impact of Belle’s leaving, and Scrooge’s eventual redemption.
Still, it’s the only misstep in a film that is constantly balancing so many different elements. It has a wonderfully self-aware sense of humour, while also sticking faithfully to the source material. It’s touching without being mawkish, and clever without being cynical. It also cleaves to the central idea that this is a story of redemption. This is all about how Scrooge came to be the way he is, and how he learns to change. That might sound really obvious, but a lot of adaptations end up with Scrooge as a side-player in his own story. But The Muppet Christmas Carol has a very clear idea about what story it wants to tell, and has a lot of surprisingly sophisticated ways to tell it. It’s inventive, dexterous, warm and clear-headed. I think this is ultimately why it’s aged so well, and is already well on it’s way to becoming an all-time Christmas classic.
And there’s only 51 weeks left ‘til I can watch it again!
What did you think? Did the Muppets win you over, or does another version of Christmas Carol hold a special place in your heart? Do you miss Belle’s sad solo, or is the film better without it? Would you eat singing food? Let me know!