I have to give some full disclosure before we get too far into my review of the 20th Anniversary release on Blu-ray of The Muppet Christmas Carol. I don’t have much of what one would call objectivity when it comes to all things Muppets. I have been a huge fan of them since my earliest TV memories of Sesame Street. The arrival of The Muppet Show on TV and then the films took my fandom to new levels. The release of The Muppet Christmas Carol in 1992 came at a crucial time for the franchise – there had not been a film release since the 1984 movie, The Muppets Take Manhattan. It was also the first film to be released after the 1990 death of Muppet creator, Jim Henson.
There is little reason to detail the plot of the film. The story of Ebenezer Scrooge and the visit of the three ghosts is possibly one of the most familiar plots in the history of film. The Muppet version follows the novel very closely, with Michael Caine as Ebenezer and familiar Muppets filling most of the remaining roles. There is also the addition of songs written by longtime collaborator, Paul Williams. Evaluating the film after 20 years comes down to how the adaptation holds up to almost yearly releases of versions of the story and how it compares to previous and recent Muppet films.
As far as an adaptation goes, this is a top-notch retelling of the novel. One expects a comedy from the Muppets and this is, at its heart, a relatively serious story about regret and redemption. The casting of Michael Caine allows them to keep that same seriousness. A Muppet as Ebenezer would be hard to take seriously. Caine is a perfect foil for the Muppet characters and he’s at the top of his acting here as the crotchety old man. The rest of the film is filled out with a variety of Muppets, although there are noticeably few female characters in the book. This causes a very funny but small role for Miss Piggy as Mrs. Cratchit. Kermit plays Bob Cratchit and Robin as Tiny Tim play to the strengths of those characters. Fozzie makes a good appearance as Fozziwig. There are the clever additions are Waldorf and Statler as dual Marley ghosts.
The best change to the usual adaptations is adding Gonzo as Charles Dickens as a narrator with his pal, Rizzo as Rizzo. The story runs very quickly from the visit of Marley through the end. The book has tremendous descriptions that are lost in a normal film. Gonzo and Rizzo add commentary (and needed humor), add to the setting (with some prose taken straight from the book) and transition the plot from scene to scene if the viewer is new to the story. Normally a narrator might be distracting in a film like this but the two of them have great chemistry. The scene where they are sneaking into Scrooge’s home is a hilarious break before a very serious moment in the film and also one of the better Muppet moments on film.
The other change that works is not making the Christmas ghosts be established Muppet characters. The new ghosts are very interesting and show off some of the new technology that Henson Studios had been working on when Jim Henson passed away. It would be hard to keep the serious tone if Scooter or Fozzie were a ghost. These characters need to be a little scary and frightening to offset the lighter scenes happening in the flashbacks and the dark scenes in the flash forwards.
This version is a musical and in all Muppet films (excepting Muppets From Space) the music is used to drive the plot forward and usually a source of much of the comedy in the movies. I’m happy to report that this film has some very memorable songs that will be on your tongue long after you watch the movie. A song like “Scrooge” by the whole cast helps set the mood and establishes Michael Caine’s Scrooge as a dark and angry character – we don’t see his face through the whole opening song, just him marching through the streets of London angrily. The best of the bunch – “One More Sleep ’til Christmas” by Kermit, “Marley and Marley” by Statler and Waldorf, and “It Feels Like Christmas” by the oversized Ghost of Christmas Present.
It’s hard to discuss the film and not talk about the most glaring error. The theatrical version of the film had the song with Scrooge and his true love, Belle, cut before it was released. “When Love Is Gone” covers the most important part of Scrooge’s transition in the story. When the lonely Ebenezer remembers the time he chose money and business over his love for Belle is when his heart starts to grow again. This song between the two is a wonderful, touching song and without it, there is a really harsh edit. It appeared again on the original VHS release and the LaserDisc version. The song was cut from the widescreen DVD release at the 10th Anniversary and it doesn’t appear here on the Blu-ray. The song doesn’t even appear as a special feature which is really disappointing. Without the song, the final tune of “When Love Is Found” does not carry nearly the same weight as it does when we know how painful it was for Scrooge to lose his original love, Belle.
The Blu-ray release is as brilliant-looking release of Muppets from this time period as I’ve seen. The colors are vibrant, especially on Gonzo, and the sound of the 5.1 DTS mix is just as much an improvement. The special features are clever – as I would expect from the minds at Henson Studios. There is a new audio commentary with Kermit, Rozzo, and Gonzo that is more like a comedic addition than informative but just what a fan would want. There’s a Behind The Scenes feature that cleverly seems to recycle an older feature with new connecting interviews with director Brian Henson. A blooper reel, a profile of Gonzo, and Christmas Around The World round out the features. Don’t forget to pause the film at any point and watch the five new songs that happen when it is paused – these are probably the best additions and best use of chickens in the film.
The 20th Anniversary release of The Muppet Christmas Carol is likely to be the best holiday release of this season. The adaptation holds up well against other similar releases over the past few years. The songs are catchy and fun. There is the glaring exception of not bringing the complete film to the public with the exclusion of “When Love is Gone”. But that’s easy to overlook when the rest of the product is so superior. Looking at the film objectively, it stands out for the Muppets. They came off a long break and expectations were high. The previous films had original plots and the next couple films would be adaptations of famous novels. The casting here is inspired and the Paul Williams’ songs recall the best parts of their first few films. I’m happy to see this one take its place in the Muppet Blu-ray library. Bless us all, everyone.