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Festive Films Part 3: The Muppet Christmas Carol and the Spirit of Christmas

Written by Matt Denny.

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Christmas is a time of ritual. Indeed, shorn of its religious significance Christmas has meaning only as a kind of folk ritual, albeit a state imposed and highly commercialized one. It is the private, familial rituals that give Christmas both its shape and its meaning. I am a creature of habit, and thus unsurprisingly an advocate of ritual. Which is why, every December, preferably on Christmas Eve and usually while wrapping presents, I\"ll watch an adaptation of “A Christmas Carol”. One adaptation in particular. The one with Muppets.

In my opinion there has been no finer adaptation of Dickensis work. While Lean\"s Great Expectations and Oliver Twist are perhaps as responsible for our sense of the "Dickensian" as is Dickens himself, neither compare to the glorious coming together of Kermit and Cratchit, Muppets and melodrama.

As far as I can recall, The Muppet Christmas Carol was my first encounter with Dickens. It was certainly not my first encounter with the magic of the Muppets, or at least of the fantastical creations of the Jim Henson Workshop. As a child, I benefitted from a steady diet of Muppets, Sesame Street, Fraggle Rock and the paradoxically quaint-yet-epic fantasy film The Dark Crystal. If it had a Muppet in it, I was hooked. While this childhood fascination with Muppetry doesn\"t entirely explain why I return to The Muppet Christmas Carol year after year, it is a good starting point: Marley was a Muppet to begin with ... This must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come of the story I am about to relate.

And it is precisely because Jacob Marley (and his brother, Robert) are Muppets that The Muppet Christmas Carol is such a success as a Dickens adaptation. Not just the Marleys of course, but the three spirits, and Tiny Tim, and all the caricatures and grotesques that make up our sense of what is Dickensian. One thing that The Muppet Christmas Carol makes absolutely clear is that The Muppets and Dickens are strikingly similar in sensibility. Muppets work as Dickensian characters because Dickens’s characters are already larger than life caricatures (oh for an adaptation of The Pickwick Papers with Fozzie Bear in the lead!). Zemeckis’s use of CGI and mocap comes close to capturing this in his adaptation of the story, but I feel his take on the material is too wacky - despite being surprisingly close to the letter of the text. If less faithful in text, the Muppets are closer in tone. Muppet humour is gentler, less about rollercoaster ride antics and more rooted in absurdities of logic, silly puns, and sight gags. Most importantly it is also bad - full of deliberately naff jokes and groaners. Like the Muppets, Dickens is funny, but he isn\"t Jane Austen funny. Rather than the razor-sharp wit of Austen, Dickens is full of broad humour and running gags, silly accents and even sillier names. When Scrooge declaims that there is “more of gravy than the grave” about Marley’s ghost, it\"s almost a surprise he doesn\"t add “Wocka Wocka”.

Dickens and The Muppets are also alike in sentimentality. While “Christmas Carol” never reaches the almost parodic bathos The Old Curiosity Shop, an appeal to sentiment remains a key Dickensian device, and the key moments of melodrama surrounding the seemingly predestined death of Tiny Tim are truly affecting in both book and film. Tim himself is an endearing presence, a mini Kermit joyously caroling alongside his father, but it is the performances of Kermit and Miss Piggy in the scenes after Tim’s death that really touch the emotions. Kermit is predictably believable as a grieving father attempting to put a brave face on things to spare his family, his voice always perilously close to breaking. Piggy drops out of her usual comic register for the scene, putting in a rare dramatic performance all the more touching when considered in light of her Star Persona. While it might seem slightly facetious to talk about the Star Persona of what is essentially just felt and foam, it’s almost unavoidable to think of the characters of Kermit, Miss Piggy, Animal, Fozzie, and Gonzo (cast against type as Dickens himself) as anything but performers in their own right. This is of course the conceit of The Muppet Show and many of the Muppet films, where the viewer is urged to consider the Muppets as performers rather than puppets. 2014’s The Muppets capitalizes on this for its “getting the band back together” plot, but it’s also exploited implicitly in the “casting” of The Muppets in particular roles in their literary adaptations.

If it is appropriate to discuss Kermit in terms of Star Persona, then it should be evident that the role of bob Bob Cratchitt fits Kermit like a glove. A decent man who is brave enough to stand up to his cruel employer, and even believes that there is some good in Scrooge? Who better than Kermit for the role! Setting aside the meta-textual delights of Muppet casting for a moment, it is perhaps worth considering that part of the enduring appeal of the film doesn’t stem from the Muppets at all, but from a human actor: Michael Caine as Scrooge.

Caine’s performance as Scrooge probably isn’t ranked as one of the great performances of all time. His Scrooge is serviceable, glowering or cowering as appropriate. It’s a moving performance, although Scrooge cheers up rather too readily for my liking. What makes this a stand-out performance is Caine’s profound ability to sell the realness of the Muppets. This is a rare gift. In the scenes with Kermit, for example, Caine performs exactly as if he were sharing the screen the screen with a human actor rather than a puppet. The scene in which Scrooge receives a scarf from Beaker is - against all reason - genuinely moving. Caine brings such fragile gentleness to the moment, all while sharing the screen with Beaker. Beaker! A squeaking flappy mouthed puppet!

Ultimately, that’s the magic of the film - it makes you, just for a moment, believe. You believe that a frog and a pig can act, and can love. You believe that people can change, that there is some good in everyone. And what is Christmas if not a time for believing.

This is part 3 of our festive film series - follow the links to read Part 1 Part 2

This article was published on December 20, 2016.