Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Think of the Children! Tuesday: 'The Muppet Christmas Carol'

Look, I'm sure by now that all of you have picked up that I am not an overly sentimental person. I like cute animals, but tearjerker movies about dogs who rescue their owners do nothing for me. I enjoy ruining Disney movies. I have forgotten my own birthday. Multiple times.

The point is, I'm not a sentimental person. So apparently it comes as a surprise when I explain to people that my all time favorite holiday movie is none other than The Muppet Christmas Carol. I guess most of them don't see that coming.

Yes, I, Deborah Pless, queen of the raised eyebrow and rolled eyes, genuinely and unabashedly adore a movie that is literally just ninety minutes of the Muppets muddling their way through a Charles Dickens story. Did I mention that I hate Charles Dickens? That's another reason this is kind of confusing for people.

But my reasons for loving this movie are, as far as I'm concerned, completely sound. Namely, I think The Muppet Christmas Carol is the best adaptation of A Christmas Carol out there. Really. I really and honestly think that. And I think that because, in some weird way, the combination of Muppets and Dickens' schmaltzfest that is this story somehow cancels each other out, leaving us with a story that has all the heart of the original but actually none of the sentimentality.

At least that's my story and I'm sticking to it.

For those of you who have managed to avoid this film so far, here's what it's about. In a shockingly faithful adaptation of A Christmas Carol, the Muppets come together to act out the story. Michael Caine stars as Ebeneezer Scrooge, a horrible old man who makes his living by brutally exploiting the poor and only cares about his money. Kermit the Frog is Bob Cratchit, Scrooge's clerk and the voice of morality. The story starts on Christmas Eve, and we discover that Scrooge isn't just an old bitter man, he's an old bitter man who might just be out of time.

That night, as has become an indelible part of our pop culture, Scrooge is visited by a series of ghosts who bid him to look at his life and reconsider his actions. First it's the Marley brothers*, who warn Scrooge that if he does not change his ways he will be, like them, "doomed for all time". They even show him the chains that bind him down, chains forged by the links of greed and selfishness he's made in his life. 

Then Scrooge is visited by the Ghost of Christmas Past, who takes him through his own history of Christmases and shows him how he became the man he is. The Ghost of Christmas Present shows Scrooge all that he's missing out on in the present day and all the love that could be his if he'd just open his heart. And finally the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come takes Scrooge one year into the future to see the grim world that awaits him if he does not repent.

Scrooge does, of course, repent, and it's a love transformation to see this man go to bed one night a horrible, cruel man who cares for nothing but his accounts and wake up the next morning a generous, light-hearted man who wants desperately to care for and love the people around him. I mean, there's a reason why A Christmas Carol has become one of our most indelible cultural touchstones. It's not an accident. Something in this story really gets to us. It's true in a way that we all find very hard to ignore.

Anyway, in this adaptation, naturally all the Muppets make their appearances, but the real focus is never on them and their antics, it's always firmly on Scrooge. Sure, Gonzo and Rizzo the Rat are hilarious as Charles Dickens' narrator and the color commentary, respectively, but they really only serve to lighten things up and keep the plot moving. Miss Piggy is surprisingly relegated to a background role as Emily Cratchit, Bob's wife. Fozzie Bear does get to make a fantastic pun as Scrooge's old employer, Mr. Fozziwig**, and even Sam the Eagle gets his moment as Scrooge's former headmaster at school.

But for the most part the story really does center itself on Scrooge and his transformation. Michael Caine might have been absolutely confused about how he ended up on a soundstage covered in puppets, but he covers nicely and there are only a few moments when he seems completely lost. Most of the time, Caine's Scrooge is what keeps the story going. His cruelty in the first act is really hard to watch, making his slow realization of who he has become all the more heart-wrenching.

I meant what I said above about the presence of the Muppets kind of cancelling out the inherent cheesiness of this story. I'm not sure how this happened, but I do think it's true. First there's the fact that director Brian Henson clearly chose not to edit out any of the scary stuff in the story. I mean, it's a pretty terrifying plot, when you get right down to it. It's about man having a near death experience and being shown the worst things he's ever been and done, including the aftermath of his own death, just so he can hopefully change his ways and not spend an eternity wrapped in the chains of his own avarice. That's dark, and the movie does not shy away from it one bit.

In fact, and this is one of my favorite parts of the film, Rizzo even comments on it at one point, asking if this isn't a little too scary for children. Gonzo replies dryly, "Nah, it's all right. This is culture!" Fair enough.

So the movie doesn't try to talk down to its audience and make the story more palatable for them. That's one point in its favor. But how do the Muppets work into this? Well, I have a theory.

I think that by making it so that a real human man plays Scrooge (because bear in mind, it could easily have been one of the Muppets instead), the film avoids any detours into schmaltz. Instead, it allows the Muppets to be all the peripheral characters, who can break the fourth wall, joke about the story, and generally mess things up the way Muppets are wont to do. With Caine's Scrooge holding it all together, the Muppets prevent the story from getting too sentimental. 

This way even the scenes which could feel really emotionally manipulative, like where we meet Tiny Tim, instead just feel kind of sweet and sad. They aren't overpowering because you've still got Muppets undercutting with jokes. When it's time for the deep and powerful scenes, like when we go to the future and Tiny Tim is dead, it's really emotionally affecting. Heck, Gonzo and Rizzo even duck out of the story during the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come's visit and don't return until the very end. 

Henson clearly understood that taking out these two familiar characters would make that whole part of the story land harder. Without a buffer of humor or a distraction of hijinks there, we're forced to focus on the story and Scrooge's emotional state. And I cannot stress enough how much it helps that the key role is played by a human actor, and one of Michael Caine's caliber. He really saves this whole thing.

But I still haven't fully explained myself to you. Why is The Muppet Christmas Carol my absolute favorite holiday movie?

I like it because I think the story matters and because, out of all of the many films I've seen, this is the one that, for whatever reason, seems to have best captured the feeling of Dickens' original story. Maybe even improved on it a little. 

Christmas is a great holiday. It's one of my favorites. But more than I love getting a mountain of books or singing carols or cooking delicious food that will definitely get eaten, I love stories that matter. Frankly, A Christmas Carol could be An Easter Carol or A Beltane Carol or A Guy Fawkes Day Carol for all I care. What matters to me about this story is how it shows that it's never too late to change your life.

Seriously. That's the entire basis for my love here. I mean, don't get me wrong, Gonzo and Rizzo are also a huge reason why I enjoy this film, but the actual core is my appreciation for a story that gets into the nitty gritty of what it takes to change your life.

Scrooge doesn't just wake up one day and decide to be a better person. Or, well, he does and that is literally what happens in the story, but what the film focuses on is how he gets there emotionally. First he has to understand who he really is and how he got to where he is in life. In other words, real repentance and transformation only happens when we're brutally honest with ourselves about everything. The parts we hate about ourselves. Our pasts. The painful bits no one wants to remember.

Then he gets this taste of the good stuff. He gets a look at what he could have if only he were able to get over his crap. It is so hard to change for real if you don't know the goodness that could be yours. That's why those "It Gets Better" ads work so well: they give you hope. Without hope, what's the point in changing?

And then he has to confront the inevitable results that will come if he doesn't change his ways. He has to look really closely at his life and admit that the path he's on is a bad one. These steps aren't accidental and they're not in a random order. No, A Christmas Carol presents these steps in a really specific order because that's how it's got to be for us to really repent and really change.

I love this story because it's a story I want to hear so much more than I do. I want to hear more stories where grim capitalists wake up one morning after a spiritual experience and start giving their worldly possessions away. I want this kind of transformation to be seen not as a rare occurrence but as the kind of thing that does and should happen every day.

But most of all I want it for me. I want to be able to look at my own life and see it changed, see it different than it was. I want to look back on my year and know that my selfishness has decreased and that I have loved the people in my life well. 

So, yes. The Muppet Christmas Carol is my favorite holiday movie. And I am not at all ashamed of that.

*One of the only major divergences from the book. In the book, there's only one Marley, but who could miss out on the opportunity to have the Marley brothers played by Statler and Waldorf?

**It's Fezziwig in the book, and clearly this was an opportunity no one was going to miss.


  1. "They aren't overpowering because you've still got Muppets undercutting with jokes. When it's time for the deep and powerful scenes, like when we go to the future and Tiny Tim is dead, it's really emotionally affecting."

    That is a consistently effective way to deliver an emotional gut-punch. Adam Sandler does it all time and it never fails to get me. For example, the part in the movie Click when Adam Sandler's character runs outside the hospital in the rain, yelling after his grown son, desperate for his son to not follow the example he set. A moment like that, sandwiched in between all the juvenile humor, really hits you.

    I haven't seen this adaptation of A Christmas Carol, and I think I'm going to have to check it out now. I think I might still have to prefer the Patrick Stewart version (because Patrick Stewart), but Michael Caine is also phenomenal.

    1. I haven't actually seen Click, but I agree. I think Joss Whedon also uses it really well - the emotional stuff gutpunches harder because you've been laughing and your defenses are down. It's good storytelling, basically.

      Okay, yes, Patrick Stewart is amazing and can do whatever he wants. But...Muppets.

  2. I've loved this film for many years but you've just completely blown my mind with the Fozziwig/Fezziwig thing!

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