Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Frog Bless Us, Every One

Year: 1992
Director: Brian Henson
Cast: Michael Caine, Dave Goelz, Steve Whitmire 
Run Time: 1 hour 25 minutes
MPAA Rating: G

So, here we are. The reason I foolishly decided to begin a Muppet marathon in the month leading up to Star Wars VII, only the biggest blockbuster event in the annals of blog history. No, The Muppet Christmas Carol does not hold the same currency as a review of, say, The Empire Strikes Back. But as a fiendish bit of counterprogramming, it works perfectly, injecting a bit of felt-covered family fun into the Popcorn Culture Christmas season, which is generally a notoriously bloody affair.

The Muppet Christmas Carol, released in 1992, heralds in the darkest stretch of our retrospective, the decade immediately following Jim Henson’s tragic death in 1990. Steve Whitmire does an admirable job covering his shifts as the classic characters Kermit the Frog, Rizzo the Rat, and Beaker, but with the loss of Henson, the floppy ensemble also lost their guiding light, that indomitable spark that twinkled at the core of their features. That is not to say that Muppet Christmas Carol is a bad movie. But it is profoundly lacking in that Something that even the worst Muppet features contained.

Cough, cough, Great Muppet Caper.

The Muppet Christmas Carol begins by immediately bringing back the meta absent from the previous entry with hurricane force. Gonzo (Dave Goelz) and Rizzo (Steve Whitmire) welcome us to the film. Gonzo is portraying Charles Dickens as the interactive narrator to the story. As much as he is, in the film, wholly and irrevocably Charles Dickens, we are meant to understand that he is also wholly and irrevocably Gonzo. And both of them, whoever they are, have chosen to partner with a Guido rat to tell us the story. I bet you thought these movies wouldn’t require several advanced degrees in rhetorical logic, but these are still the Muppets we’re talking about, Henson or no Henson.

Anyway, Mr. Ebenezer Scrooge (Michael Caine, somehow) is a miserable, miserly old man who hates Christmas, charity, the poor, and pretty much anything that doesn’t rhyme with “honey.” He is cruel to his employees, including the kindly Bob Cratchett (Kermit (Steve Whitmire)), who lives in destitution with his wife (Miss Piggy (Frank Oz)) and their kids, including the crippled but loving Tiny Tim (Robin (Jerry Nelson)). You know the story, weed of Christmas past – whoops, sorry, I got my The Night Before notes mixed up in there. Ghosts of Christmas past, present, and future arrive to show Scrooge the error of his ways and teach him to respect the spirit of Christmas.

Side note: There are serial murderers less creepy than the Ghost of Christmas Past.

It is at this point that I should probably note that this was the moment in Muppet history where the Disney company first decided to get their hands dirty in the franchise, preparing for the purchase of Jim Henson Studios. Perhaps this is the reason Muppet Christmas Carol feels more like a cheery, corporatized slog. Perhaps it was the loss of Henson, or the advent of that most peculiar epoch known as the 90’s. Whatever the reason, this film, despite continuing the Muppet legacy of solid family content, feels altogether more typical and uninspired than ever before.

It certainly doesn’t help that the film’s adaptation of Charles Dickens’ morality tale is slavishly faithful, even to the point of including full, direct passages because you know how much kiddos love their 19th century literature. Although this does have the intriguing effect of preserving the abjecet horror present in the material, it stifles the ability of the Muppets to do anything other than paint in the numbers, occasionally breaking into one of a litany of mostly boilerplate theater in the park songs. Except for the addition of a little juvenile slapstick here and there, the film is just another lump of coal in the bucker of generic Christmas Carol adaptations, of which there have been literally dozens since the birth of cinema.

Perhaps the single biggest flaw at the core of the film is Michael Caine. This feels like utter heresy to say, but it’s true. He coasts through the film, leaning on his inherent Britishisms to provide an adequately curmudgeonly performance, but nothing more. Many talented actors have trouble interacting with the Muppets (my least favorite being those who pitch up their voices and overact like they’re talking to a damn child with a poopy diaper – don’t they know who they’re dealing with?), but what he’s asked to do here (fly into a time portal with a china doll, shout angrily at a tiny bunny rabbit, and – worst of all – sing) seems to completely flummox him.

The other unfortunate effect of Caine’s starring role is that even the A-list Muppets are sidelined. Miss Piggy and Fozzie Bear (Frank Oz) literally get less screen time than freaking Bunsen Honeydew, and even Kermit hops out of the film for massive stretches. The ghosts and the bulk of the ensemble aren’t even played by recognizable characters! This is a Muppet film that blatantly flaunts its lack of the Muppets, and it suffers greatly for it. Caine is called upon for no comedy at all, and the classic characters are trapped in treacherously serious side roles, so the results are bleakly dull for a miserably large proportion of the time.

I never thought I’d actually be happy to see Electric Mayhem on my TV screen.

If you take the film at face value as a Dickens adaptation, it is acceptable holiday fodder, but from a Muppet fan perspective, it’s an undue slog. The one place where the film really shines with the proper intensity is in its overall aesthetic. The gingerbread Olde England architecture that populates the sets is imbued with a whimsical, dare I say expressionistic, twist that reliably induces the proper sense of fantasy with wonky, tilted designs that delight the eyes.

Muppet Christmas Carol also retains the daring, rule-breaking puppetry that defined all the previous films. Although, there are none of the bicycle shots that Muppet  filmmakers inexplicably adored in the 80’s, we get ice skating Muppets, floating ghost Muppets in chains, and an indescribably stunning shot of Kermit walking down the street with Tiny Tim on his shoulder humming a Christmas ditty. That moment more than any other captures the sentimental magic of the franchise in a perfect little microcosm. Put that crap in a snowglobe, and I’d buy a dozen.

So no, I don’t hate The Muppet Christmas Carol. It is as far from being my favorite Muppet movie as my 12-pushups-a-day physique is from Chris Evans. But as a film, it is at the very least tolerable and from time to time, pretty fun. The Muppets were still reeling from the loss of Jim Henson, as they would be for a decade and change, but this is perhaps the best iteration of his legacy made during that period, even if the choice of material was certifiably dubious.

TL;DR: The Muppet Christmas Carol is a dully devoted adaptation that sidelines its most lovable characters.
Rating: 6/10
Word Count: 1189
Reviews In This Series
The Muppet Movie (Frawley, 1979)
The Great Muppet Caper (Henson, 1981)
The Muppets Take Manhattan (Oz, 1984)
The Muppet Christmas Carol (Henson, 1992)
Muppet Treasure Island (Henson, 1996)
Muppets from Space (Hill, 1999)
The Muppets (Bobin, 2011)
Muppets Most Wanted (Bobin, 2014)

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