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Scrooge Month Day 9: Michael Caine in THE MUPPET CHRISTMAS CAROL (1993)

Muppet Christmas Carol 1993Director: Brian Henson

Writer: Jerry Juhl, based on A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

Cast: Michael Caine, Dave Goelz, Steve Whitmire, Jerry Nelson, Frank Oz, David Rudman, Don Austen, Jessica Fox, Robert Tygner, Steven Mackintosh, Meredith Braun, Robin Weaver

Notes: The early 90s were a rough time for the Jim Henson Studio. After Jim died in 1990, there was a serious doubt in the minds of many that the Muppets could go on. But before his death, Jim had begun working out a deal with the Disney studio to produce more Muppet films, with one of them being an adaptation of A Christmas Carol. After Jim died, his characters were passed on to other performers. This was the first theatrical production for the Muppets after Jim’s passing, and the film is dedicated to him and Muppeteer Richard Hunt, who died in 1991. Although a musical and mostly comedic, this is a pretty faithful adaptation of the original novel, with Michael Caine playing Scrooge, new Muppets created for the three ghosts, and classic Muppets filling most of the other roles. Statler and Waldorf played Jacob and Robert Marley (rimshot), Fozzie Bear became Scrooge’s old boss Fozziwig, Sam the Eagle was Scrooge’s headmaster in school. Most notably, we got Kermit the Frog and Miss Piggy as Bob and Emily Cratchit and Kermit’s nephew Robin as Tiny Tim. The film’s stroke of genius, something that gives it an added dimension of fun, is casting the Great Gonzo as Charles Dickens himself, and allowing him to act as narrator, with additional commentary by his oft-time sidekick, Rizzo the Rat.

Thoughts: Not to put too fine a point on it, but this may well be my favorite version of A Christmas Carol. Yeah, there are probably better films, but something about this one works for me. Maybe it’s the amazing music by Paul Williams (who also wrote the songs for the original Muppet Movie). Maybe it’s the silly charm that I still feel when I see humans and Muppets walking around a set together as if there was nothing unusual about that at all. Maybe it’s because this is the movie that, in many people’s hearts, proved that the Muppets could survive after Jim Henson was gone. Whatever the reason, I love The Muppet Christmas Carol like I do few other Christmas movies.

Michael Caine is, of course, an acting legend. He’s done amazing work in dozens of fine films, such as Jaws: The Revenge, which made him the logical choice for Scrooge. His Scrooge starts out as bitter as any, but he has a quality of containment about him. He’s mean and angry, but even in the first scene you get the sense that his greatest degree of hatred is turned inward. He seems like a man ready to explode, and few people present that quality as clearly as a man who is keeping everything inside. When the film ends, when he lets his emotion finally free, it’s not anger but happiness that explodes into the old town. For all his lively parading through the streets, though, nothing serves to illustrate his reformation as well as the quiet moment where he approaches the charity collectors (here played by Dr. Bunsen Honeydew and his assistant Beaker) to give them a generous donation. Bunsen is speechless, but Beaker (always speechless) finds a way to express his gratitude: giving Scrooge the scarf from around his neck. The surprised look on Caine’s face makes you believe it’s truly the first Christmas present he’s ever been given.

This wasn’t Steve Whitmire’s first time playing Kermit the Frog, but it was here that he really had to prove himself. The simple kindness and sincerity of America’s favorite amphibian was perfect for Bob Cratchit… but it wouldn’t necessarily have been all that funny in and of itself. The solution was to surround him with Muppet rats who alternately support him and sell him out when Scrooge bellows. It’s a funny juxtaposition, and when he’s paired off with Miss Piggy (Frank Oz) for the scene in the Cratchit home, her overbearing personality plays off of him in much the same way. Whitmire has had the Kermit job ever since. He acquitted himself well.

At one point, the plan was to use existing Muppets to play the three ghosts, but the filmmakers decided it would detract from the seriousness of the story. Instead, we got three all-new Muppet creations. Christmas Past is a softly floating, ethereal puppet that looks like a bizarre combination of elf and child, glowing and floating. In fact, the performance was filmed in a tank of water to give it the sort of weightless effect they wanted, then greenscreened onto the film. For such a simple effect it’s remarkably effective, giving the ghost an ethereal quality that truly makes it look like it belongs to a different world than our own (or even an alternate version of our own where Muppets coexist with humans). Jessica Fox’s Ghost takes Scrooge on the traditional trip through his past – the joy as he left school and went to Fozziwig’s Christmas party, the heartbreak of losing Belle (Meredith Braun) when she realized he loved his money more than her. The song they sing together is devastating – she sings “The Love is Gone” with fresh sadness, while behind her Michael Caine joins in. Near the end she turns back and, just for a second, you think she’s going to acknowledge the older Scrooge… but she doesn’t. She can’t hear or see him, of course, but the audience sees the agony in his face – the pain of a man forced to relive the greatest mistake of his life.

Christmas Present is presented in a form much in keeping with other versions. He’s huge, of course, but cloaked in the traditional green robe with a holly wreath and a long red mane of hair. There’s a nice tick they give the character, though – being the Ghost of Christmas Present, he has a difficult time focusing on the future or remembering the past, and frequently repeats himself. Throughout his segment, as he and Scrooge get closer and closer to the end of Christmas Day, the Muppet grows visibly older. At the end, he’s practically ancient, and vanishes with the wind. It’s a brilliant effect that gives a nice subtext to the movie. We’ve already seen that the Past is forever, and Present reminds us the now is transient. But what’s coming next, the future… that can still be changed.

Caine sells the present scenes very well. When he realizes he’s the butt of the joke at Fred’s family party, there’s genuine pain on his face. The scene at the Cratchit family house invites a few uncomfortable questions about a world where frogs and pigs are genetically compatible, and are exclusively male and female, respectively. You forget those things when Tiny Tim launches into his song, “Bless Us All.” This part improves on many versions of the story. So often, you just see Scrooge look upon Tim and start to feel bad for him… his transformation is brought on more from pity than anything else. But here, as Tim sings his song you get an impression of just how good and pure a soul he is, and when he starts to cough Scrooge’s change of heart is no longer that of a man who simply feels bad for a sick child, but a man grieving for a world that will be deprived of such light.

The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, even in Muppet form, is a sight to behold. Although not quite the skeletal figure he sometimes is, he’s got your standard robe and large, oversized hands that make it look like Michael Caine is being escorted by something wholly inhuman and terrible. This segment goes pretty quickly, rushing from one scene of terror to another before they get to Scrooge’s tombstone. Once again, Caine proves himself, begging for his chance to change in a way that makes you believe in him, believe it’s possible to change, maybe even regain a little of your overall faith in the human race.

Surrounding the whole film is Gonzo as Charles Dickens. His antics with Rizzo provide added energy and comedy in scenes that traditionally aren’t that funny – when Scrooge holes himself up in his mansion before encountering the Marleys, for example. Gonzo is smart enough to know when to keep quiet, though, and in fact the characters make a show of running off and hiding just before Christmas Yet to Come pops in, then make a grand return for the finale. Using him as a narrator also allows this film to layer in much of Dickens’s beautiful prose that rarely makes it to screen, as it’s not dialogue. For that reason alone, that helps this stand as one of the most surprisingly faithful adaptations of the book I’ve ever seen.

I mentioned Paul Williams’s music before, but it’s certainly worthy of its own paragraph. The opening song, “Scrooge,” is somehow gloomy and peppy at the same time – a snappy number about a miserable man. It perfectly encapsulates the character, even giving a hint that there may be goodness within him somewhere (although the Muppets quickly dismiss that notion). Kermit and Robin later sing “One More Sleep ‘Til Christmas,” a lovely, happy song that’s worth singing every Christmas Eve. But the crowning gem is Christmas Present’s number, “It Feels Like Christmas.” There’s something undeniably joyous about the song, something that clutches the heart and the ear so tightly that it bubbles out of me at random moments in the middle of July.

Fair warning, though – the theatrical release of the film and some of the subsequent DVD and Blu-Ray editions left out the duet between Scrooge and Belle, “When Love is Gone.” Disney thought it slowed down the film too much, but when left out it kills the emotional impact of the scene, and furthermore hurts the finale, which contains a counterpoint mixed with “It Feels Like Christmas.” My DVD, fortunately, includes it, and I’d never upgrade to a Blu-Ray that leaves it out.

If you haven’t seen this version of A Christmas Carol before I can only presume that you hate the Muppets, hate Christmas, or hate joy itself. Again, I do not deny that there may be objectively superior adaptations of the book, but I very much doubt anything will ever take its place as my favorite.

The first Reel to Reel study, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and Smashwords.com bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!

The Christmas Special Day 19: A Muppet Family Christmas (1987)

muppet-family-christmasDirectors: Peter Harris & Eric Till

Writer: Jerry Juhl

Cast: Jim Henson, Frank Oz, Dave Goelz, Richard Hunt, Kathryn Mullen, Jerry Nelson, Karen Prell, Steve Whitmire, David Rudman, Caroll Spinney, Gerard Parkes

Plot: Kermit the Frog (Jim Henson) and many of the Muppets are off to spend Christmas at Fozzie Bear’s mother’s house (Fozzie and Ma Bear performed by Frank Oz and Jerry Nelson, respectively). They arrive to find that Ma is about to leave, having planned on taking a vacation to Florida for the holidays. Doc (Gerard Parkes) and his dog Sprocket (Steve Whitmire) are renting the house for a quiet holiday. When the Muppets arrive Ma decides to call off her vacation, and Doc finds himself surrounded by strange creatures. (Perplexed, he asks Sprocket if the Muppets are like the “Fraggles” his dog often reports encountering back home.) As everyone settles in, Kermit gets a call from Miss Piggy (Oz again), who is finishing up a photo shoot and plans to join them later. A Turkey (Whitmire again) arrives at the door, having been invited by the Swedish Chef (Henson), and the poultry-loving Gonzo (Dave Goelz) tries to convince him that a turkey at Christmas is more likely to be the main course than a guest. As more Muppets arrive, the farmhouse begins to descend into chaos: the Turkey tells Chef that Sprocket is the turkey, Fozzie Bear attempts to start up a new comedy routine with a Snowman (Richard Hunt), and the Turkey starts to hit on Gonzo’s girlfriend, Camilla. Scooter (Hunt) cheers everyone up with some home movies of the gang as babies, and just before Gonzo and the turkey come to blows, a group of carolers arrive: the Muppets’ friends from Sesame Street. They come in, Bert and Ernie (Oz and Henson) engage Doc in small talk about the letter B, and Christmas Eve.

Chef gets the Turkey into the kitchen and begins sizing him up for the pan, but the Turkey deflects his attention by pointing out the most delectable dish of all: Big Bird (Caroll Spinney). The news reports a terrible storm approaching, and Kermit begins to worry about Miss Piggy, who still hasn’t arrived. The different groups begin bonding, with Janice (Hunt) and Cookie Monster (Oz) “sharing” a plate of treats, drawing Animal (Oz)’s admiration, Oscar the Grouch (Spinney) offering to share his trash can with Rizzo the Rat (Whitmire), and Bert and Ernie leading the Sesame Street gang in a performance of “Twas the Night Before Christmas.” Kermit gets a call from Piggy and tries to convince her to stay off the road during the storm. The pigheaded (rimshot) Muppet doesn’t listen, though, and tries to hail a taxi. The Chef summons Big Bird into the kitchen, planning to prepare him for dinner, but is touched when Big Bird – feeling sorry for him spending Christmas so far away from his home in Sweden – gives him a present of chocolate covered birdseed. When Doc sees Kermit staring out into the snow again, he offers to head out and look for Piggy. As Kermit waits, his nephew Robin (Nelson) summons him to the cellar, where he’s found what he believes to be a Fraggle hole. The two frogs wind up in the subterranean world of Fraggle Rock, where the Fraggles are in the midst of their own midwinter celebration, in which Mokey (Kathryn Mullen) is giving Boober (Goelz) a yellow pebble – which has been a present from Fraggle to Fraggle 37 times. Boober gives the pebble to Robin. As the Frogs return to the farmhouse, Doc arrives on a dogsled wearing a Mountie uniform – all things Miss Piggy just happened to have for him when he found her in the snow. After all, Miss Piggy knows how to make an entrance.

With everyone finally safe and warm in the farmhouse (which is now so tight on space Gonzo and Animal have to sleep on hangers on the wall), Ma Bear officially welcomes everyone to her home and Rowlf the Dog leads the extended Muppet family in their annual Carol Sing. The music summons the Fraggles into the farmhouse, and they join in. Gifts are exchanged – Kermit gives Piggy a mink, and Robin passes the Fraggle Pebble on to Grover – and in the kitchen, Jim Henson himself watches on and smiles… then recruits Sprocket to help him wash the dishes.

Thoughts: We finally get to Jim Henson’s most famous family of characters, the Muppet Show Muppets, making the Henson company’s final entry in our countdown. This special hits on several levels. First of all, it’s full of fantastic Christmas music – in and of itself, that’s enough to make it worth watching. We get a lot of traditionals in the Carol Sing at the end, as well as plenty of other songs throughout. There’s also a song plucked from Fraggle Rock – the joyful “Pass it on” – and the show caps off with a slightly modified version of “Together at Christmas” from The Christmas Toy.

It’s also impressive just how many different stories the special manages to juggle. Kermit and Piggy’s story is ostensibly the A-plot, but it doesn’t really have much more screen time than the Chef’s attempts at dinner, Gonzo’s rivalry with the turkey, Fozzie’s new act, Ma’s effort to find room for everybody, or the introduction of the Fraggles to the rest of the family. All of these things could command a larger chunk if they eliminated the other stories, but it would be a real loss to do so.

It’s also worth noting that most of the stories are pretty original – no retreads of Dickens or Capra or O’Henry, even though Henson has turned to that well before. It’s interesting to note, though, that of the four specials we’ve watched from the Henson company, all four have dealt with gift-giving and self-sacrifice on a fairly significant level. Food for thought.

But the thing that makes this legendary for fans of the Henson company is because this is the only time the casts of all three major Henson families came together on-screen. We saw the Muppet Show and Sesame Street characters interact on several occasions in the past, but throwing in the Fraggles (at the height of their popularity when this special was made) makes it… well, extra-special. There’s even a small bit with the Muppet Babies, when Scooter shows the home movies, allowing us to see them as puppets for only the second time. (Their debut was in the feature film The Muppets Take Manhattan – for their own show, they were animated.) Unfortunately, due to rights issues with the music used in that scene, most of it was cut from the special’s DVD release. There are actually several scenes removed or abbreviated for this reason, so a complete version has never made it to DVD. Even worse, because of the fracturing of the Jim Henson company, in which the Muppet Show characters were sold to Disney and the Sesame Street characters given to the Children’s Television Workshop (now Sesame Workshop), the three families are now all owned by three different companies. Because of this, the DVD has been out of print for years, and can only be obtained used. Good luck – I managed to snag it when it was new and I’ve been watching the same disc for ten years, and it’s now extremely hard to come by. (Although you can find the whole thing on YouTube, and it’s worth it.)

Jim Henson was one of those creators that comes along once in a generation. While he wasn’t the sole force behind the creation of the Muppets, and probably gets too much credit for Sesame Street in some circles, the fact that he was the epicenter of so many different creative movements in his too-short time on this planet is nothing short of astonishing. The fact that so many people continue to use his creations to tell new and wonderful stories 20 years after his death is astonishing. He made something magical and lasting, and this special is one of the few places you can see the scope of his talent all at once, all together, as it should be. That, in and of itself, is a Christmas miracle of a kind.

The Christmas Special Day 9: Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas (1977)

emmett-otterDirector: Jim Henson

Writer: Jerry Juhl, based on the book by Russell & Lillian Hoban

Cast: Jerry Nelson, Frank Oz, Marilyn Sokol, Dave Goelz, Richard Hunt, Eren Ozker, Jim Henson

Plot: With three days to Christmas,Alice Otter (Marilyn Sokol) is having trouble getting together the money to give her son Emmet (Jerry Nelson) a happy holiday. Emmet sets his heart on a $40 guitar in a music store window, but their shopping afternoon is disrupted by the appearance of a group of rough animals calling themselves the Riverbottom Boys. As the Otters return home, Alice tries to discourage Emmet from getting too hopeful about Christmas, but the boy continues to dream about the days when his father was alive and money went farther. Alice is practically down to using her washtub as their only means of support, while Emmet uses his father’s tools to do odd jobs. Both Alice and Emmet learn the town’s upcoming Talent Competition has a grand prize of $50. Emmet’s friends form a jug band and ask him to borrow his mother’s washtub to make a bass, but Emmet refuses, knowing you can’t make a washtub base without putting a hole in the washtub. Alice is reluctant to enter either, knowing her only way of having a dress for the competition would be to hock her late husband’s tools. Later, as Emmet and Alice play on the frozen lake, they share memories of Pa Otter, and each becomes convinced that he would have made the sacrifice for the other’s sake. Alice wants to buy her son the guitar he admired, while Emmet wants to use his share of the prize money to put a down payment on a piano to replace the one she sold some time ago. Emmet makes his washtub bass, while Alice sells the tools and buys fabric for a dress.

As Emmet’s band practices, the Riverbottom Boys mock their efforts to win the talent contest. Their nerves are shaken even worse when they arrive at the contest to find the opening act is performing the same song they’ve rehearsed. They rush off to learn a new song, but the stage manager forces them back into the theater, afraid they’ll miss their cue. Alice performs “Our World” to a thunderous round of applause, and Emmet’s Jug Band follows up with “Brothers.” The competition is supposed to be over, but the Riverbottom Boys come on and perform a harsh, angry rock number, “Riverbottom Nightmare Band.” The Nightmare Band wins the competition, and the Otters are despondent. Outside they’re told the judges liked both of their acts, but felt like they were missing a little something extra. Alice realizes what their songs were missing was each other. She begins singing and the jug band joins in, resulting in a beautiful combination of the two pieces, “Brothers in Our World.” As they sing, the townspeople come out to listen. Doc Bullfrog, one of the judges, offers them a job performing at his restaurant – free meals included. As they walk home, Alice and the boys sing Pa Otter’s favorite song in his memory.

Thoughts: The great Jim Henson makes his first (but most assuredly not last) appearance in our countdown with this 1977 TV special, adapting a folksy little tale with a hint of O. Henry and a lot of Henson-style sweetness. Although Henson was a veteran puppeteer at this point, and Sesame Street had been on the air for eight years, this special still shows some of the marks of early work and low budgets. The establishing shot is very obviously a model, control rods and seams are often all too visible, and the car the Riverbottom Boys ride through town looks like a wind-up toy. Amazingly all of these things actually contribute to the charm of the special. It gives it a homey, old-fashioned feeling that suits the characters and the world Henson and company created.

The plot has an interesting dash of “Gift of the Magi” in it, but with a clever twist. Rather than trading their own possessions for gifts (which turn out to be useless, thanks to their partner doing the same thing), in this special both Otters trade something important to the other in the hopes of getting the money for a decent present. I’m not quite sure what the message here is… “If you take away your family’s only means of support, make sure you can use it to get them a musical instrument” seems like kind of a bizarre theme for the Christmas season. What makes it work, however, is how the movie uses the focus of the absent Pa Otter – Henson convinces us that both Otters are doing what they believe their late husband/father would do, which is what makes it not only acceptable, but admirable. It helps, I think, that they don’t actually accomplish their goal. Losing the contest makes for a slightly less sugary climax, and the way they get their happy ending anyway feels more natural, more emotionally honest.

Emmet and Alice themselves are sweet, old-fashioned characters. There’s a bit of saccharine to them, but just a bit – enough for the obnoxiously cynical among us to cling to in an attempt to deride this special, unfortunately. For the rest of us, the Otters are simply a hard-luck family in need of a break at Christmas.

The star of this special, I’d argue, isn’t any of the Otters or even Henson, but songwriter Paul Williams. Williams would go on to have a great history with Henson and the Muppets, and the songs he composed for this special (“There Ain’t No Hole in the Washtub,” and “Bar-B-Que,” for instance) have transcended Christmas and become folksy classics. There’s an interesting phenomenon when you rewatch the special, though… having heard the “Our World”/”Brothers” mashup at the end, when you listen to each song performed on its own it feels oddly incomplete. “Brothers” especially sounds like a backing track, with odd pauses and harmonic notes that don’t seem like a proper melody. It’s been far too long since I first saw the special to remember if I would have noticed such a thing upon first viewing, but it stands out to me now. Also amusing, to a Muppet fan like me at least, is “Riverbottom Nightmare Band,” which has some riffs and beats that seem to echo Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem in musical energy, if not in actual tone or message.

A few years ago, Williams wrote a few extra songs to expand the special into a full-length stage play, which ran for two Christmas seasons in Connecticut. Would that I could have seen that one – I’ll bet it was magnificent.

For those of you wondering if the inclusion of this special means you won’t be seeing any other Muppets in the countdown thanks to the “one-per-franchise” rule, the answer is heck no. Using the same logic that allows me to include multiple Rankin and Bass specials, I consider each “family” of Muppets a different franchise. Since this one doesn’t include any of the Muppet Show or Sesame Street Muppets, except Kermit in an intro that is no longer included on the DVD, I hereby declare this a standalone film. You’ll definitely see the Henson company again.