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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!

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Batman Week Day 5: Christian Bale in The Dark Knight (2008)

??Director: Christopher Nolan

Writers: Jonathan Nolan, Christopher Nolan, David S. Goyer

Cast: Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Aaron Eckhart, Michael Caine, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Gary Oldman, Morgan Freeman, Monique Gabriela Curnen, Chin Han, Cillian Murphy, Nestor Carbonell, Eric Roberts, Anthony Michael Hall, Colin McFarlane, Michael Jai White, Joshua Harto

Plot: A group of men wearing clown masks break into and rob a bank in Gotham City, each of them killing another according to their mysterious plan. The last of them, a scarred man in makeup called the Joker (Heath Ledger) boards a school bus full of cash and rides away.

Dr. Jonathan Crane (Cillian Murphy), a Scarecrow-masked villain who escaped Batman before, plans an operation in a parking garage, only to be interrupted by several men wearing Batman masks and sporting guns. As a shootout begins, the real Batman (Christian Bale) arrives, taking out criminals and fake Batmen alike. He warns the pretenders to leave the crimefighting to him.

Wayne and his butler, Alfred (Michael Caine) meet in a secret bunker they’ve been using since the destruction of Wayne Manor. They discuss the new District Attorney, Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), who is prosecuting gangster Salvadore Maroni (Eric Roberts). Dent celebrates his progress with his girlfriend — and Bruce Wayne’s ex — Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal), before meeting up with Lt. James Gordon (Gary Oldman), asking him to arrange a meeting with the Batman. That evening, Bruce has dinner with Rachel and Dent. Impressed by the new DA, Bruce offers to hold a fundraiser for him with friends that will fill his coffers for life. Meanwhile, the Joker interrupts a teleconference between a Chinese businessman named Lau (Chin Han) and the rest of the Gotham underworld. The Joker says they need to eliminate Batman – a task he’s happy to perform for a mere half of their bounty.

Batman meets Dent and Gordon, and the three of them make a pact – if Batman can bring them Lau, they’ll use him to bring down the rest. Bruce makes a visit to Wayne executive Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), who is secretly supplying him with impressive technology. He sneaks off to Hong Kong, where Lucius plants a sonar-like device that allows Batman to track Lau and bring him to Gotham. Dent, Gordon and Rachel interrogate Lau, making a deal that will allows Gordon and the GCPD make over 500 arrests in the next few days. The mayor (Nestor Carbonell) is upset at Dent for overloading the system until Dent points out that, although many of the top criminals will soon be out of jail, most of the lower-level hoods will be tied up for months, giving them the time needed to clean the streets. Their meeting is interrupted by the body of one of the false Batmen, lynched and painted to look like the Joker, dropped from the roof. The news shows a video of the victim being tortured by the Joker, who demands Batman unmask and turn himself in or the killings will continue.

That night is Dent’s fundraiser, where Bruce gives him a ringing endorsement. Rachel is angry at him, thinking he was mocking Dent, but Bruce swears he meant every word. He sees Dent as the man who can create a Gotham that will no longer need a Batman, at which point he and Rachel can be free to be together. Minutes later, she and Dent are alone, and he proposes to her, but she has no answer.  As the party continues, the Joker kills the police commissioner and the judge who indicted Dent’s 500 crooks, then comes after Dent. Bruce knocks Dent out and hides him, then faces the Joker as Batman, just barely saving Rachel. A newspaper at a subsequent crime scene indicates who the Joker’s next target will be: the mayor.

Lucius is approached by a Wayne employee named Reese (Joshua Harto) who is investigating the tech Lucius has funneled towards Bruce. Lucius laughs at the notion of blackmailing a man who spends his evenings beating criminals within an inch of their life. At a memorial service for the slain commissioner, the Joker attacks again. Gordon saves the mayor, but is shot himself. Dent takes away one of the hoods working for the Joker, finding a hint that Rachel is next. Batman brutalizes Maroni, but Maroni refuses to talk, being more afraid of the Joker than the Bat. Dent, meanwhile, has the gunman tied up and starts flipping a coin to determine if he’ll shoot the man or not. Batman arrives, telling Dent he has to remain pure, the symbol of hope Gotham needs. He tells Dent to hold a press conference in the morning, where he’ll give himself up. Before he can do so, though, Dent claims to be the Batman himself and is taken away.

Rachel gives Alfred a letter to pass on to Bruce “when the time is right,” then goes to see Dent in jail, where he’s being transferred to another facility. He gives her his coin, revealing it’s two-headed, and that he always “makes his own luck.” In transit, the Joker attacks. After a spectacular chase and battle sequence, the Joker has Batman on his back and is about to remove his mask, but is taken down from behind by a cop: Jim Gordon, very much alive. When they return to the police station with the Joker, triumphant, the Mayor announces Gordon’s promotion to police commissioner.

The joy is short-lived, however, when Dent goes missing. Batman interrogates the Joker, who tells him Dent is in a warehouse full of explosives, and Rachel is in a second one. Batman rushes to save Rachel, while Gordon goes after Dent. In the chaos, the Joker escapes. Rachel, who has an open phone line to Dent, tells him she will marry him. Batman discovers the Joker lied – he’s gone after Dent, not Rachel. The bombs go off and half of Dent’s face is terribly scarred. In the other warehouse, Rachel is killed. Batman finds Dent’s two-headed coin in the wreckage, one side blackened and charred. He returns it to Dent and goes home, where Alfred hides Rachel’s letter (revealing her intention to marry Dent), allowing him to believe Rachel was going to wait for him.

Reese goes on television with the intention of announcing the secret he’s found: the true identity of the Batman. The Joker calls the TV studio and says he’s changed his mind about Batman’s identity being revealed, so he issues an ultimatum: if Reese is still alive in 60 minutes, he’ll blow up a hospital. The Joker sneaks into Dent’s hospital room, preaching to him a gospel of chaos, and Dent decides to leave things to chance. He’ll flip his coin – clean side, the Joker lives, burned side, he dies. Moments later the Joker walks away, blowing up the hospital behind him. Dent is missing again.

The Joker announces that anyone left in Gotham will be playing by “his rules” by nightfall, and that people using the bridges and tunnels are in for a surprise. As people cram onto ferries to escape, Dent begins going after the criminals and corrupt cops tied in to Rachel’s death, flipping his coin to decide who’ll live and die each time. Lucius discovers Bruce has adapted his sonar device to allow him to use every cell phone in Gotham as a tracker. He’s disturbed at the invasion of privacy and agrees to help Batman find the Joker, but this will end their partnership. Batman tells him to type his name into the device when he’s finished.

The Joker incapacitates two ferries: one full of citizens, one full of criminals being transported by the police, each loaded with bombs. He’s also given each ferry a device he claims will detonate the bomb on the other ferry. If one of the boats hasn’t exploded by midnight, he’ll blow them both up. On the civilian ferry, the passengers vote to blow up the criminals, but nobody can bring themselves to do it. One of the convicts, meanwhile, takes the detonator from the guard and throws it overboard. Lucius tracks the Joker down and Batman chases after him, but another trick forces Batman to fight the police to get to him. Although defeated, the Joker is in high spirits, anticipating a long future of playing his game with the Batman.

Dent has kidnapped Gordon’s wife and children and brought them to the site where Rachel died. As Batman and Gordon confront him, Dent asks why – of the three of them – he was the only one who had to pay the price for their quest to save Gotham. He nearly kills James Jr., but Batman saves him, Dent dying in the process. He and Gordon agree to allow Gotham City to think Batman is responsible for Dent’s rampage, believing the myth of Harvey Dent to be more important to the city than the truth. When Lucius types his name into the sonar device, it self-destructs, proving to him that he had Bruce’s faith all along. Batman goes into hiding, allowing the city to make him the villain so it could have the hero it deserves, with only the Gordons knowing the truth about the Dark Knight.

Thoughts: The nature of this project being what it is, I could only allow myself to pick one of the three films from Christopher Nolan’s “Dark Knight Trilogy.” Rather than the first or last, I decided to go with the best film of the three, perhaps one of the best superhero movies ever made. But again, as I discuss it, expect spoilers for the whole series, because this is really here as an excuse for me to discuss the franchise as a whole.

Batman BeginsThis being the Batman Icons project, let’s start with Christian Bale himself. When Bale and Nolan came onto the franchise in 2005’s Batman Begins, they had the unenviable task of making up for the mess the Burton franchise became after the dreaded Joel Schumaker took it over. (I spent the better part of a decade firmly believing that Batman and Robin was not merely the worst of the franchise, but perhaps the worst superhero movie ever made. To this day, I struggle internally to decide whether or not Halle Berry’s Catwoman actually took that top spot away.)

The world Nolan created and Bale inhabited is as close to perfect as a live-action Batman has ever been. They tried to make it as realistic as possible, dropping any element of fantasy the previous versions used and making the technology as plausible as they could. All three of the films in the trilogy have at least one piece of tech that seems to fit firmly in the realm of science fiction, but none of them are as out of the blue as so many of the toys the Burton films conjured up.  More importantly, the story and performances have a ring of truth, of authenticity to them that no previous version managed to capture. Although this is a superhero movie, structurally speaking it’s much more like a classic crime drama, a tale of steadfast police trying to take down the scum that have torn their city down. Nolan’s Batman universe has far more in common with The Untouchables than it does with the world of Adam West.

Bale is a pitch-perfect Bruce Wayne, able to put on the flaky playboy image in front of everybody but Alfred and Rachel, and becoming a determined warrior as soon as he’s in a safe place. He’s gotten some flak from people about the gruff voice he puts on as Batman, and yes, it’s somewhat exaggerated, but it’s never bothered me. The comics have often pointed out that Bruce alters his voice when he puts on the mask, and an abrasive tone is just fine. And honestly, if that’s the biggest complaint you can conjure up for Christian Bale’s performance, that still places him light-years ahead of, say, Val Kilmer. (I didn’t discuss Kilmer’s Batman Forever in this project, but in short, he gave us a Batman that’s short and flippant and a Bruce Wayne that was dark and brooding, exactly the opposite of every sane or logical comportment the character has ever had.)

Another reason I had to pick this film instead of the other two is because of the villains – the best two of the franchise and proof that it is, in fact, possible to make a superhero movie with multiple villains that doesn’t fall apart under its own weight. Heath Ledger’s Joker has become truly iconic, and probably would have done so even if he had not died before the film was released. This version of the character is nearly impossible to qualify, especially compared to earlier versions. He uses the veneer of madness that we expect from the Joker, but in his behavior he comes across more like a complete nihilist, a man dedicated to anarchy because of his philosophy rather than because he’s simply crazy. The Nolans and Goyer, crafting the story, picked up on the best parts of the character from the comics, particularly Alan Moore’s notion from Batman: The Killing Joke.  Here, they dismiss efforts to give the character a true “origin,” for the Joker says if he has to have a past, he wants it to be multiple choice. As a nod to that, each time the Joker talks about how he got his scars in this movie, he tells a different tale. That lingering question mark, leaving his past open instead of filling in every blank like Burton did, makes him all the more menacing. He’s the most terrifying vision of the character ever brought to screen, perhaps the most terrifying vision ever. Romero was goofy. Nicholson was dangerous, but still amusing. There’s nothing funny about this Joker, he’s a creature of terror.

As perfect as Heath Ledger’s Joker is, though, I think Aaron Eckhart is often overlooked as Harvey Dent. Everybody who went to this movie went in to see Batman and the Joker, but it’s Dent that’s the Shakespearian figure, the tragic hero that falls to the darkness. When we first meet Dent we see someone proud, idealistic, and determined to do good at any cost. Throughout the film his armor is chipped away – first by Rachel’s refusal of his proposal, next by the threat on her life, then a piece at a time until her death and his disfigurement. At that point his plunge over the abyss, his embracing of the Joker’s doctrine of chaos, seems utterly plausible. We weep in this movie for Harvey Dent, we bleed for the hero that Gotham needed, but that lived long enough to become the villain. Eckhart sells every minute of this transformation. Ledger got a posthumous Oscar for playing the Joker (a concession I still maintain was only given to him because he died – I simply can’t believe the turgid Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences would have awarded a “comic book movie” if the actor was still alive), but I think Aaron Eckhart was every bit as deserving of a nomination.

Next, let’s look at Gary Oldman as Commissioner James Gordon, and I apologize if the comic nerd in me becomes even more pronounced here than it usually is. Most of the Batman characters allow for different interpretations, but the version of Gordon dearest to me is that of the one good cop in a sea of corruption, struggling to right the ship. He’s one of the greatest supporting characters in comic books precisely because of this, and he’s the one character that none of the live-action versions ever got right. The 1966 Gordon was inept. The Burton Gordon started out okay, but never impressive, and spiraled down into a clown by the time Schumaker was done with him. Goldman, though, was magnificent throughout three movies. It’s Batman’s series, but Gordon here is a true hero in his own right, and I would have been just as happy watching him as the star. When he was shot in this movie, I didn’t really believe he was dead (although I knew I couldn’t discount it, as Nolan had proven himself willing to toy with the mythology of the franchise). Despite that, when he revealed himself, taking down the Joker, I jumped out of my seat and cheered right there in the movie theater. (My fiancé, Erin, still laughs about that.)

DarkKnightRisesPosterThe third film in this trilogy, The Dark Knight Rises, has caused a bit of a division between fans. Although I don’t want to spent too much time talking about that movie right now there’s one point of contention I want to address, because I believe The Dark Knight sets it up very well. At the end of that film (and c’mon, spoiler warnings if I really need to say it), Bruce fakes his death and passes on the responsibility of protecting Gotham to a good cop, John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt). This upset a lot of comic readers I know who argue that Bruce Wayne would never quit, never retire, because it simply goes against his character. And if we’re talking about the character in the comic books, I agree. But as I’ve been saying all week, Batman is a character that allows for many interpretations, and to me, The Dark Knight justifies the retirement of this incarnation of Batman. Several times in this movie, Batman clearly expresses a desire to quit. He latches on to Harvey Dent because he sees in him a man who can create a Gotham that doesn’t need a Batman. He wants to give it up and be with Rachel, but he doesn’t feel like he’s earned it and refuses to leave Gotham without a hero. Although Rachel is dead in the third film, he manages to find happiness with Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway) and a hero to take over for him. Even in the first movie, Batman Begins, the groundwork was laid when Bruce indicates to Rachel that they can’t be together as long as Gotham needs Batman, as well as in an early conversation with Alfred where he makes it clear that he needs to be a symbol rather than a human being. If your version of Batman doesn’t allow for that, I can respect that. That’s pretty much how I feel about the 1966 version, after all. But I think it’s perfectly consistent with the world that Nolan created.

But this discussion is supposed to be about The Dark Knight, and I think it is The Dark Knight that is the Batman masterpiece. Warner Bros is already talking about restarting the franchise with a new Batman, as Nolan’s story is done, and I guess I’m okay with that. He’s been rebooted before, after all. But I can’t help but wish they’d wait a little bit longer, let this trilogy completely digest and fade a little bit before moving on to something new, because anything they try to do next will inevitably be compared to Christopher Nolan, Christian Bale, and Heath Ledger. And unless they pull off a feat of storytelling virtually unheard of in filmgoing circles, almost any movie that invites an immediate comparison to The Dark Knight will inevitably be left wanting.

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!