Everybody loves George Bailey, but it’s time to face facts: after the 30th viewing of It’s A Wonderful Life, Frank Capra’s aw-shucks populism might grate a little bit. That’s the trouble with Christmas movies: even the good ones are ground into exhaustion by repeated annual viewings. We’re long since due for the anointing of a new generation of Christmas classics on film, and with passable mediocrities such as Home Alone and Elf (if you’ve got beef, meet me in the streets/comment section) leading the pack, we’re also in dire need of a new vanguard for this fledgling movement.
Mercifully, we have the immaculately wrapped present that is The Muppet Christmas Carol, directed by Brian Henson — whose father, Muppet creator Jim Henson, died in 1990 — and written by Muppet veteran Jerry Juhl. An entertaining riff on the immortal Dickens novella, the 1992 film places Kermit, Miss Piggy, Gonzo, Fozzie Bear, and the rest of Jim Henson’s gang of felt rapscallions in Victorian London. There, they encounter Michael Caine as Ebenezer Scrooge, a coldblooded miser not quite beyond salvation. The story is well known to all but the youngest viewers — and for them, the Muppets can offer a welcoming point of entry to Dickens — but even so, the hokey laughs and pervasively peppy energy make for a uniquely pleasurable experience. The Muppet Christmas Carol is an infectiously good time and more than worthy of induction into the pantheon of new Christmas standards, and to make an argument for this delightful cornucopia, we’ve singled out five songs that capture its appeal. Bless us, every one!
Readers revere Dickens’ commitment to detail, the way he finely shades the specifics of his London until they cohere to form a rich, recognizable society. Inspecting London’s cultural caste system at every level from the top down, Dickens has a talent for identifying the distant connections between seemingly separate social spheres. Everyone inhabits the same city, and actions taken by one character can ripple out to affect everyone else. Though Henson’s aim is never to provide the same harsh sociopolitical critiques that Dickens carefully constructed, the fully-developed sense of community in the Muppets does mirror the complexity of Dickens’ interior worlds. Like the town of Springfield or Pawnee, Indiana, the universe of the Muppets teems with bit characters that tend to offer one sort of joke, but reinforce the wholeness of the fictional world. As Caine’s Scrooge strides down the lane in stately musical number “Scrooge,” friendly faces abound. The chorus has been well-stocked with minor players from the Muppet company, with the sassy ensemble of talking vegetables, a meager family of mice, and a pair of gawky horses all chiming in for a line. In the process, the film sets the bustling worlds of Henson and Dickens on a collision course with one another.
“One More Sleep ‘Til Christmas”
The tone Henson strikes with Muppet Christmas Carol has been finely calibrated. It’s smart without being smug and taps into earnest sentiment without melting into sap. The film warms its viewers like a cup of cocoa, and that sincerity is made especially clear in the film’s attitude toward Christmas. In “One More Sleep ‘Til Christmas,” Kermit’s Bob Cratchit takes a childlike stance of tittering anticipation on Christmas Eve. It’s a sensation that fades away as time goes by, supplanted by dread of responsibilities and stress in adults, but intimately familiar to children. Laying in bed the night before the greatest day of the year (for those who celebrate, anyway) with too many sugarplums dancing through your head to even consider the possibility of sleep is a primal part of childhood. The reverence the film shows for the holiday as a force of good cheer, personal transformation, and even magic reinforces why there are so many dang movies made about Christmas in the first place. It’s not easy to unironically talk about the “Spirit of Christmas” without sounding like a mawkish extra in an after-school special, but if anybody can do it, it’s the boundlessly earnest Kermit.
“Marley & Marley”
The Muppets’ comic sensibility was born during the ’70s with The Muppet Show, a vaudevillian variety program that bound slapstick with room-clearing puns you couldn’t help but love. The Muppet Christmas Carol sustained that same loopy sense of humor, but also reworked the plot of Dickens’ classic through its overall aesthetic of jerry-rigged theatricality. In this film, the specter of Scrooge’s former business partner Jacob Marley splits into Jacob and Robert Marley (cue knowing chuckles from parents in the audience), taken on by fan-favorite hecklers Statler and Waldorf. They appear to an afeared Scrooge to warn him of the fate that awaits him should he continue on his avaricious path, issuing their ghostly counsel via a jaunty tune. Henson keeps everything determinedly low-tech, conveying Statler and Waldorf’s ghostly qualities through an old-school double exposure that makes them look slightly transparent. The chains they summon to spook Scrooge look even more charmingly homemade, with the floating lockboxes that appear to sing a little backup betraying a modest budget. But necessity has always begat ingenuity, and the Muppet team made use of their wits to create a spectacle on a humble scale, clearly made by human hands. The care devoted to this project is evident even at a glance.
“It Feels Like Christmas”
As a delivery system for throwaway jokes and miss-it-if-you-blink sight gags, writers can’t do a whole lot better than song. The musical numbers free up the puppeteers to cram every corner of the frame with goofs that last for a second, get their laugh, and move briskly along. It’s not particularly dense comedy — as the hearty Ghost of Christmas Present claps Scrooge on the shoulder and shows him the Yuletide celebrations that will commence once dawn breaks, one caroler accidentally smacks another in the face, who then drops like a sack of bricks. But they fly at you with such frequency that all they need is to generate a snort before ceding the audience’s attention for whatever comes next. At their best, these little curlicues of comedy play out with the clever simplicity of classic silent shorts, such as the classic snowman-sneezing-his-head-off pratfall. This approach holds the itsy-bitsy attention spans of the young audience while nudging along a perfectly catchy number.
An abiding humanism is at the core of Dickens’ original text, and The Muppet Christmas Carol carries on the source’s legacy of cathartic forgiveness with its final number. Touched by the spirit of Christian generosity, Scrooge does a heel-turn on his curmudgeonly ways and immediately buys the biggest turkey in the window for a threadbare Bob Cratchit home. His words upon realizing that the ghosts “did it all in one night” instantly lift the spirits of all who hear them; he’s overcome with relief, all because he’s still got time to save his earthly soul. It’s a profoundly comforting (and distinctly Christian) sentiment, that even those of us who’ve gone astray in our everyday lives are never beyond salvation. Dickens reveals a wellspring of compassion for his characters with this final gesture of goodwill, creating the happiest of happy endings that never for a moment feels unearned. The Muppet Christmas Carol promotes magnanimous warmth inside and out — its upbeat show tunes gets toes a-tapping, and its enduring message of forgiveness and generosity moves the heart.