There’s a lot great about Muppet Christmas Carol: obviously the Muppet performers (their first outing after Jim Henson died—Rowlf is silent in memorial), Brian Henson’s fine direction, Jerry Juhl’s inventive script, strong special effects, Val Strazovec’s production design, Michael Jablow’s editing, the Paul Williams songs (the repetition even helps); but what makes it so special is Michael Caine as Scrooge.
By the end of the movie it ought to be Michael Caine and the Muppets’ Christmas Carol because he’s been so spotlighted for the previous seventy-five minutes or so. Caine breaks pretty early on in the night, Scrooge-wise. The film opens with him being mean to nephew Steven Mackintosh, Bunsen and Beaker (collecting for charity), the odd cute Muppet, then Kermit (as Bob Cratchit) and the office staff.
But he’s never too mean. He’s intimidating, he’s callous, but he’s ignorant of his cruelty in some ways; he’s kind of a libertarian a bit. Like he’s a blowhard, which his peers figure out, and then Christmas Carol is just all about him realizing he needs to alleviate suffering with his fortune. Incidentally, A Christmas Carol—the source material—is really depressing in 2020 when the story is 175 years old and there’s basically never been a redeemed Scrooge in reality. The genetics of Kermit and Miss Piggy’s kids in the movie are more realistic than the core tale.
Caine’s Scrooge cracks the first time during the Christmas past sequence (though maybe not in the theatrical version) and then the rest of the film and Christmas ghosts aren’t about him realizing Christmas is good, actually, but he’s bad, actually, and his bah humbug attitude about Christmas is just a symptom.
The Tiny Tim scene where Caine just stares at the puppets and tears up is fantastic. Henson drags it out, he and Jablow changing the intervals on the reaction shots to Caine, and it’s just this great expression work from Caine. His reactions to his emotions have their own arcs, with this amazing verklempt period for the end of Christmas Present and all of Christmas Future. Henson, Juhl, and Caine turn it into a character study, with the familiar Muppets doing a lot more in the supporting cast department.
Gonzo and Rizzo narrate the film, which is hilarious and one of the film’s best “Muppet” instincts. They have the right personality clash to make their antics particularly funny. Because there aren’t many laughs in the rest of it. It’s a tragedy and all. Even the songs—which have some really funny lines—are always sincere and often solemn. Outside Gonzo and Rizzo, the playfulness is quite muted. It’s a very nimble film; Henson’s able to control the mood just right.
So the special effects should get a callout because they have so much to do with the mood. The Ghosts of Christmas aren’t traditional Muppets—well, maybe Ghost of Christmas Present but even then not exactly; the Ghosts are their own specific characters outside the Muppet movie aspect of Christmas Carol, which is all the more ambitious and all the more successful. Henson and company found the right formula here.
Though it all hinges on Caine’s performance. Including him singing. Somehow Muppet Christmas Carol makes singing Michael Caine an absolute delight.
Other highlights include Statler and Waldorf’s cameos—including young age make-up on them—Jerry Nelson as the Ghost of Christmas Present, and Meredith Braun as young Scrooge’s love interest. Braun’s only it for a scene and a half but makes a singular contribution.
Well, if you’re watching the extended version, anyway.
Muppet Christmas Carol is most assuredly sensational, inspirational, celebrational, and, indeed, Muppetational.