THE FELT-LINED COUNTDOWN: The Muppet Christmas Carol

1 June, 2019 at 8:09 pm (film, muppets)

PREVIOUSLY: A “Muppet” movie is made where the primary character dynamic is between Tim Curry and young actor Kevin Bishop. Because it’s a Muppet movie. With Muppets.

RIZZO: I guess the human beings want to hang out together.  Huhn.

In the opening commentary for Muppet Treasure Island, director Brian Henson talked about the complexity of the opening pan, and the way it transitioned into the studio set, but that he’d opened Muppet Christmas Carol the same way. I gave him a little stick for the mild — very mild — grandiosity of the claim, as it didn’t seem to be a major stylistic flourish. However, in watching the opening here, I see why he wanted to recapture the idea, and even kick it up a notch by using a helicopter to incorporate real ocean and island footage. It works very well, in that it’s a slow, graceful pan over a model village of London rooftops, and despite being a solid two minutes in length, it’s not boring. Which is surprising, but a testament to the craftsmanship of the model.

TITLE CARD: The Muppet Christmas Carol

And maybe that’s part of what gets lost in the Treasure Island recreation. The giant pan over rocks and water should convey natural beauty, but instead captures the audience abstraction of distance. It doesn’t explode with natural splendor, it just is. In contrast, the the rooftops and chimney pots in Christmas Carol are close to the camera, and noticeable in their detail, and so even in the moments between credits, there is atmosphere and hand-built care to absorb.

The vibrant camera work continues during the opening number, “There Goes Mr. Scrooge”, which employs both interesting visual angles and inventive compositions for the Muppet interactions and framing. The song is a really good mix of the Dickensian language and front-loading the themes of the larger work, and the tune is fun and catchy. Paul Williams, notably the writer of some of stone-cold Muppet classics, brings some enjoyable playfulness to the opening. The only odd thing that struck me is that the beginning scenes do the typical thing of establishing a world in which Muppets and humans work and live alongside each other, but only the Muppets sing in the song. This becomes particularly apparent as the camera allows Caine to swish and stride through the streets, that while there are occasional other humans in shot, all non-felt people are noticeably silent.

This establishes the three pillars of the production: Michael Caine as Scrooge, the Muppets teetering between comedy and pathos, and the original content from the novel. It’s an interesting balancing act, basically making a family-friendly Cliff Notes version of the novel — which is already famously short and simplistic enough to have captured the imagination, the occasional mention of Laocoon aside — but an act that feels parallel to the kind of efforts the Muppets have been making all along, by having a foot in each world of realism and fabrication, of interactions with real and unreal. Which, of course, is film-making all over anyway.

GONZO: I keep teling you, storytellers are omniscient!

That knowing balance between artifice and realism (not reality, realism) also informs both the role of Gonzo as “Charles Dickens” and my meta-relationship with the film. I believed that I’d never watched it. I know I’d seen parts of it, because I had audio-clips on a mix tape I’d made, but I would have sworn I’d never watched it in its entirety. That may still be true, but I’d watched more than I thought, as the middle of the film was solidly in my head. I think I probably skipped over the songs and some of what I assumed would be the boring bits. And I know that I was prejudiced against Steve Whitmire’s Kermit. Jim Henson had died in 1990, only two years before, and I wasn’t used to the new inflections, and I stubbornly didn’t want to become so. The fact that Brian Henson was directing the film muddled the pre-internet conversation, and people were confused as to who was playing Kermit and whether it was a legacy or a travesty or both. So I simply opted out of the picture.

It took a few more years before I dipped my toe in. I don’t know if I would have been able to appreciate the film then the way I do now. But I will say that not only does Whitmire’s Kermit sound fine to my ear — if not as roundedly nuanced — but his singing voice is particularly excellent. His version of the character is solid, but he really comes into his own during Kermit’s two major musical moments. The “Christmas Scat” is a particularly wonderful, playful deconstruction of a carol, that does some great heavy lifting in terms of establishing the joyful bond between Cratchit and Tiny Tim, and I only wish that it was longer than the scant 23 seconds. Some of that is mollified by how good “One More Sleep ‘Til Christmas” is, which is an inspired song… the sort of thing that Williams probably hoped would have legs as something one could sing to one’s kids on Christmas eve to send them off to sleep. I would suspect that it hasn’t quite established itself as quite that canonical, but it remains a fun ditty, and appropriately on target in its sentimentality.

'Tis the season to be jolly and joyous! Fa-la-la!I’m not much for Christmas or sentiment, actually, as both seem to me to be easy targets for soft soap. So the fact that I warmed to this film at all surprised me. But it is a testament to how successfully the film bridges that gap between, as I said, pathos and comedy. I come for the sarcastic, post-modern rat, but then I’m struck by the simple message of keeping oneself open to charity and relationships. But I will say that it’s easier to ingest such arguments when they are made compellingly, and not just by childhood felt-favorites, but also in Dickens’ original words. The songs work for me so far in part because the language is elevated and the dialogue is the same. The use of Gonzo as Dickens to literally recite whole passages of his prose verbatim lends a heightened precisions to the events. It avoids cliché, even while recreating one of the works that has been so frequently imitated that it established the cliché.

The other elevated quality is that of Caine’s performance. It’s not flawless. In particular, each move from humbugging skinflint to awed temporal tourist to warm-hearted voyeur to ravaged repentant seems to happen with astonishing speed and almost zero transition. But each role in the grand character development is played with absolute commitment from Caine. He never wavers. He even goes so far as to tear up when first confronted by the ghosts of his former employers. It’s only during when he’s first arrived in the past, approximately halfway through, that the film requires Caine to expostulate, “This is Fozziwig’s rubber chicken factory!”, and it really the first thing he’s uttered that would have been out of place in any other adaptation.

The Rubber Chicken... the staple of the Victorian diet

But he delivers the line, and all other moments, without any winks, nods, or eye-rolls to the audience; he is fully committed to the reality of the situation. He occasionally loses his eyeline in front of a greenscreen, and his flight into the past with the first spirit isn’t quite up to the standards of 1978’s Superman — or even ’83s Superman III, if we’re talking one entity flying and the other being carried or flown — but that’s more a problem with the director correctly lining up and compositing elements than it is the responsibility of the performer. (For another example, check out the directions and overlaps of the chains in the “Marley and Marley” sequence.)

Am I looking at the ghosts, the chains, or where the chains go?

Speaking of The Marleys and slightly antiquated film tech, I guffawed at the cutting-edge ’90s morphing technology that was employed during their first appearance. The manifestation of Marley in the door knocker is iconically famous, as it is a concrete, unavoidable intrusion of the supernatural into the real world, and a visual that features accordingly in theatrical adaptations. So it’s only appropriate that the most current tech was applied. The advent of morphin’ time (as no one ever called the era) was established by the whiz-bang success of Terminator 2: Judgement Day in 1990, and continued with Michael Jackson’s video for “Black or White” in 1991. So costs were dropping from the astonishing pricetag of The Abyss in 1989, but still substantial enough that the couple seconds of VFX would have been significant. It remains a fun piece of timely boundary-pushing, and a good reminder of how Henson was always experimenting with in-camera and digital effects throughout the company’s entire history.

There are so many great Muppet moments over the course of the film, and a few mysterious lapses. For example, despite Fozzie’s prominent opening credit as “Fozziwig”, he has almost nothing to do in the film, and his presence amounts to little more than the creators being enthusiastic about the punny coincidence. Interestingly, perhaps the most famous lapse is not Muppet-based at all, but centered around the human actors and the humans behind the scenes. A key scene detailing why Scrooge’s heart closed, because of a dashed romance, was cut from the film. And not only does this fail to provide the audience with a crucial moment of character transformation, and why his attitude would alter because of the Spirit visitations, the song at the heart of the scene is referred to at the close of the film, changing the lyrics from “When Love is Gone” to “When Love is Found”. There remains a lyrical and sung emphasis on the word “Found” in the second track, which makes it sound — which it is — like the song is in response to something, even if the audience has no idea what the missing scene is.

Mostly, however, the movie is populated with wonderful little moments. The bit at the Fozziwig’s party with the Victorian-era Electric Mayhem (The “Candlelight Mayhem”? The “Coalfire Mayhem”?) where Animal can barely keep from going full rock ‘n’ roll reminded me favorably of the Rudolf Nureyev episode where the Mayhem try to play a minuet in G major and Animal can’t stay sedate. The brief moment where Sam declares that business is “the American way!” before Gonzo corrects him, is a lovely piece of meta character breaking, and just seeing what younger versions of Statler and Waldolf might look like is fun, even if only Waldorf really looks any younger, with his dark hair and moustache. There’s even a fascinatingly sweet moment where Rizzo impulsively kisses Gonzo on the nose, even if it’s undone just moments later by Gonzo calling Rizzo an idiot.

And, lastly the film has the wit to know of the strength of its performances and of the source material, and it has Gonzo and Rizzo peace out for the visitation of the final spirit, letting the quiet solemnity of the Ghost of Christmas Future’s hollow head and Caine’s increasing desperation carry the film without subverting it or undercutting it with gags. It trusts in the simple honest of the scenes and in its actor and in the rapport the audience has established with him up to this point. At this point, it’s worth pointing out that while the film uses other actors for Youngest Scrooge and Young Scrooge and a few Intermediate Scrooges, as well as his romantic interest, Michael Caine is basically the only celebrity actor. This was Raymond Coulthard’s first role, according to IMDB, and the same sources lists Belle as only appearing in a handful of features. That said, it would be remiss to not mention Steven Mackintosh, who went on to have memorable roles in Luther, Lock Stock, and the Underworld sequels, and had probably been recognizable to some due to his repeated appearances in the Adrian Mole adaptations prior to this point. While Coulthard has also gone on to a solid lengthy career, I don’t think he qualifies as part of the Celebrity Human Score, which therefore only notches up to an astonishingly minimal 2.

RATING: Ghost of Christmas Past, Ghost of Christmas Present, or Ghost of Christmas Future? PAST. It’s abundantly clear why this has become such a holiday and household favorite. I can only hang my head and blame other Christmas ilk for why it took me so long to get on board.

NEXT: The Muppets head to Broadway in perhaps the most ludicrous, ill-founded “You can make it if you try” narrative put to celluloid. Or the best Muppet movie evs, depending on who you ask. There are fine opinions on both sides.


Related Links:
+ Hope against hope, but there is a petition to restore the missing song to an uncut version of Christmas Carol. It will probably need a few more signatures.
A tweetstorm of an article about rewatching the film on SyFy.
Apparently, it’s come to the point where I’m linking to UPROXX articles in these things. Sigh…

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