22 December 2009

CHRISTMAS CAROLS: THE FAMILY FILM

It is largely a matter of chronology that my favorite of all adaptations of Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol - and maybe my favorite Christmas movie of all time - should end up as the very last entry in my impromptu retrospective of some of the variant forms of this most well-traveled narrative. But I like how it gives the whole thing a sort of grand finish, ending with the biggest and best spectacle of them all. Your mileage may vary, of course, and I imagine that every predominant Christmas Carol movie probably has someone out there calling it the best; but for me, man, there ain't nothing so great that it can't be improved if you throw a few Muppets at it.

Thus, The Muppet Christmas Carol, which is a film of all kinds of firsts: the first feature project in which the classic Muppets - Kermit the Frog, Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear, Gonzo, et al - play characters other than themselves; the first Muppet production created after the death of Jim Henson in 1990 (it was directed by his son, Brian); the first Muppet production released theatrically by Walt Disney Pictures during the first flirtation when that company seemed ready to buy The Jim Henson Company (that same period also resulted in the impeccable theme park attraction MuppetVision 3-D at the Disney-MGM Studios, as it was then called). And it is a film of a very depressing last: the last Muppet project that's really worth a damn (Muppet Treasure Island has its charms, Muppets in Space hasn't, and I should just as soon not speak of anything involving the characters produced after the year 2000). But let us not dwell on that. It will only serve to make me sad, and feeling sadness right in the face of The Muppet Christmas Carol is a perversity.

It is not, maybe, the most rigorous of Christmas Carol adaptations, although it is a lot more faithful than one would perhaps have expected. Despite the family-friendly Disney and Henson brand names, there's very little effort made to soften any of the dark edges; indeed, this is even pointed out by the onscreen narrator Charles Dickens (The Great Gonzo, voiced by Dave Goelz) and his aide Rizzo the Rat (Rizzo the Rat, voiced by Steve Whitmire), who elect to leave the movie during the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come sequence. And certainly, Michae Caine's portrayal of Ebenezeer Scrooge is snarly and nasty, at least as snarly and nasty as anyone can conceivably be when they are interacting with Muppets. This is perhaps the only point at which the movie really does fall apart as a treatment of the Christmas Carol narrative: it is much too funny for us to ever have much of a sense of Scrooge's torment or his acidity; he comes across as nothing worse than a particularly ill-tempered old man, not the embodiment of avarice, greed and regret that Dickens envisioned, nor that the finest film adaptations of the material capture so well.

But Christ, who needs an emotionally seething Christmas Carol when you have Gonzo as Charles Dickens, Kermit the Frog (Whitmire) as Bob Cratchit and inevitably, Piggy (Frank Oz) as his wife, Statler (Jerry Nelson) and Waldorf (Goelz - there weren't all that many Muppet voice performers) as the Marley brothers, Jacob and Robert, which is a joke that I didn't get until just this most recent viewing of the film. Though in my defense, it's been five years or better since I saw it last. My point is anyway that The Muppet Christmas Carol is at any rate a great Muppet film; for my tastes, the second-best after The Muppet Movie. Its particular genius lay in proving that the established characters of the Muppet universe could be plugged into a new context, playing roles that were complementary to, but different from their established personae, and that the whole thing could be believable as a narrative and not as a gimmick (Muppet Treasure Island would promptly crap all over this great step forward: it is absolutely a gimmick and little more, though a sometimes funny gimmick). For the strange thing is that it's not terribly hard to buy Kermit as Cratchit or Fozzie and Mr. Fozziwig, and while the presence of Muppet-style humor prohibits the film from being the most strictly accurate Christmas Carol, it can never be said that the film doesn't tell Dickens's story in a manner that is clear and enjoyable and even, in bits and pieces, as meaningful as any other film version - as a friend of mine pointed out, the one thing that absolutely makes Tiny Tim even more of a gentle, sympathetic soul is when he's played by Robin the Frog.

Certainly, I cannot name a funnier, more clever Christmas Carol: if only for the marvelous weirdness of having an onscreen omniscient narrator interacting with the world of the film while remaining apparently invisible, the film would be one of the more meta-narratively complex adaptations of any work of literature - and in a children's movie, no less. And of course there is the matter of the script, written by longtime Muppet Show and Fraggle Rock head writer Jerry Juhl, meaning that it rather naturally shares those series' customary blend of sincerity, absurdity, and strange puns.

What appeals to me about Muppets has long been that they make artistic anarchy - a complete breakdown of all rules of aesthetic and narrative - safe for a family audience, and The Muppet Christmas Carol gives the characters and unusually smart vehicle for this tendency: it is one of the best-known of all English language stories, and thus the filmmakers can indulge their silliest impulses in finding ways to try to bend the story, for not only do we already know how the thing is going to end (so they don't really need to focus on the details), but we're going to be more aware of dramatic tonal shifts. In short, The Muppet Christmas Carol finds the Muppets exercising their deconstructive muscles on the very notion of adapating a narrative, and especially adapting a narrative using fictional characters playing different characters. There's a lot bubbling right under the surface, and that's enough to make this perhaps the smartest and potentially challenging of all Christmas Carols; it is the surface itself, a silly, giddy farce of language and puppetry, that keeps the film so very high in my affections. Christmas is, after all, about what is delightful, and rare indeed is the movie that has given me more pure delight than this through the years.

And since Christmas is also about giving, let me end with this present, which I suppose somebody out there might not have seen quite yet.

2 comments:

Meg said...

As I leave this comment, I am participating in my family's yearly viewing of the Muppet Christmas Carol. It is absolutely my favorite Christmas movie ever, by far my favorite Muppet or Christmas carol movie, and yes, sometimes I listen to the songs on my ipod even when it's July.

I was worried you were going to overlook my dear Muppets in this Christmas Carol series, and I'm glad you didn't. Because it's good to know that someone who actually knows things about movies agrees with me that this is a wonderful film.

Troy Olson said...

Tim -- my wife and I are watching this right now, as we do every year. You are absolutely correct on it being the most fun of the Christmas Carol movies. Glad that it made your list!

That meta commentary that Gonzo and Rizzo provide throughout makes me laugh every time (just got done chuckling over the bit with Sam the Eagle about the American/British way). Wish they could make Muppet movies like this again...