The Muppets are for life, not just for Christmas!5/10
The number of Christmas films that would work well at any other time of the year can be counted on the fingers of a mitten, but THE MUPPET CHRISTMAS CAROL is definitely one of them. Right from the glorious opening shot, as Brian Henson's camera glides over a convincing Dickensian townscape before coming to rest in a snowy town square teeming with surreal and hilarious activity (fans of the show will get a big kick out of the speaking vegetables and the brief cameo by lunatic boomerang fish salesman Lew Zealand), you know you're in for something very special. Gonzo, the self-styled connoisseur of pain, and his wisecracking little pal Rizzo the rat take centre stage as the storytellers, setting the scene just before Michael Caine as Scrooge (in one of his very finest performances) strides around the corner and an already unfeasibly busy film bursts into stunning, detailed and endlessly rewatchable life. The set design in this film is just amazing - check out the amount of action taking place at the windows, in the gutters, in the doorways and almost everywhere else - and the animation of the puppet characters never ceases to be charmingly convincing. The production design is also remarkably good - there's an early example during the first song, when the appearance of Caine causes a sudden shift in the lighting and atmosphere from the warm glow of Gonzo's prologue to an almost eerie pale blue light. Although Rizzo actually remarks on this, the change is so subtle you probably won't notice it until your second or third viewing, but you certainly will appreciate it, subconsciously or not. Rather than getting bogged down in special effects and technical wizardry for its own sake, the scenes that utilize visual trickery are smoothly incorporated into the flow of the story rather than being imposed upon the film as self-conscious "set pieces" - take, for example, the Spirit of Christmas Past's flight over London (our attention is with Gonzo's death-defying method of hitching a ride), or the ever-changing size of the Spirit of Christmas Present (clue - look in the background during the brief glimpse of the party being held in the mousehole), or the location segues during the Spirit of Christmas Past's visitation. This approach benefits the film immensely, as it never distracts or misleads the viewer - a lesson the Disney company still refuses to take on board, as even their finest efforts are invariably laden with "showstoppers" that stick in the mind long after the rest of the film has faded into distant memory. But the most remarkable aspect of this beautifully subversive take on the beloved Dickens classic is that the core story, with all its attendant pathos, humour and timeless theme of welcome redemption, is neither diluted or stripped of its resonating power. Whilst the Disney animated version, in which Donald Duck played the unscrupulous miser, fell on its face with its ceaseless romanticism and stylization, this "Muppetational" version retains not just a
Dickensian mood but, with the narration of Gonzo and much of the human players' dialogue, a truly Dickensian flavour as well.
Besides, what's not to love about this film? It's virtually flawless. Kermit, as Bob Cratchit, remains one of the most loveable and endearing characters in the Muppet repetory company. Everything about this self-effacing little green frog is funny - the way he walks (slightly stooped), his half-dazed eyes, his voice, his ultra-expressive face...and if you don't double up laughing at his acapella sing-song with his nephew Robin (here cast, inevitably, as Tiny Tim) as they come skipping over the hill on Christmas day, then you should hire a stonemason to carve the word CYNIC onto your heart. And yes, Robin gets to sing again, Jerry Nelson making his voice sound uncannily like a child's with the charming "Bless Us All", a logical companion piece to "Halfway Down The Stairs". Waldorf and Statler, perhaps the show's ultimate cult figures, are finally rewarded with a scene-stealing turn as the ghostly Marley brothers, backed up by a chorus line of singing cash boxes (it's the Muppets, remember!); Fozzie bear is suitably overwhelmed as Fozziwig, the rubber chicken manufacturer (and his use of an ear trumpet in the closing scenes provide the hapless would-be comedian with his biggest laugh for decades); Bunsen and Beaker get some decent scenes as a pair of charity collectors (is it just me, or does Beaker flip the bird at Scrooge at the end of their first scene together?!); Miss Piggy makes a fine wife for Cratchit, and Animalgets a well-deserved close-up, although Dr Teeth and the Electric Mayhem are hardly suited to playing slow waltzes! Paul Williams's songs, on first hearing, are servicable rather than memorable, but after a couple of viewings they'll be as hard to get out of your head as "Rainbow Connection", and ultimately emerge as one of the reasons this film stands up to repeated viewings so well.
THE MUPPET CHRISTMAS CAROL is a delightful family film, possibly too good for kids, but definitely worth dusting off at any time of the year, especially when you're feeling blue. Jim Henson would have been proud of this one.