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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!

Gut Reactions: Kick-Ass 2 (2013)

Kick-Ass 2Director: Jeff Wadlow

Writer: Jeff Wadlow, based on the comic book series by Mark Millar & John Romita Jr.

Cast: Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Chloe Grace Mortez, Morris Chestnut, Claudia Lee, Clark Duke, Augustus Prew, Donald Faison, Steven Mackintosh, Monica Dolan, Garrett M. Brown, Lyndsy Fonseca, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Yancy Butler, John Leguizamo, Jim Carrey, Robert Emms, Lindy Booth

Plot: It’s been two years since the events of the first Kick-Ass, and both Dave Lizewski (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Mindy Macready (Chloe Grace Mortez)  have remained retired from action as the “real world” superheroes Kick-Ass and Hit-Girl. When Dave starts to feel restless but is unable to convince Mindy to get back into action, he finds a new team of citizens eager to fight to take back the streets. Meanwhile the former Red Mist (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) finds himself with the freedom to take action against Kick-Ass for killing his mob boss father with a plan that could plunge the entire city into all-out war.

Thoughts: As big a geek as I am, I’ve never actually read any of the comic books the two Kick-Ass movies have been based on. I’m not a fan of the writer, Mark Millar, who I feel often goes for shock value at the expense of real emotion and discards characterization at a whim. Despite this, I liked the first Kick-Ass and wasn’t surprised that I thought the sequel wasn’t bad at all.

With news stories about “real world” superheroes like Seattle’s Phoenix Jones becoming more prevalent in the news, this story hits a nice chord that examines the philosophy of a person who would choose to put on a costume and try to beat up gang bangers at night. This time around, with Nicolas Cage’s “Big Daddy” character out of the picture, the relationship between Dave and Mindy becomes the center of the film. The two of them both shift back and forth between craving the life of a hero and trying to reject it at various points. What’s more, it’s easy to understand and even sympathize with both points of view – on the one hand, it’s a remarkably dangerous and (frankly) stupid lifestyle. On the other hand, when confronted with evil, how can a decent person simply choose to do nothing?

Interestingly, the most press I’ve seen about this movie in the last few months seems to have come from the fact that Jim Carrey, who plays “Colonel Stars and Stripes,” has chosen not to promote the film. Carrey says that the events at Sandy Hook Elementary last winter (which happened after filming was complete) affected him deeply and he cannot, in good conscience, promote violence. While I don’t take issue with him choosing a pacifist lifestyle, I have to wonder if he actually paid attention to the movie while he was making it. Kick-Ass 2 in no way promotes a violent lifestyle. While there is a lot of comedy in the film, and while some of the fight scenes are somewhat exaggerated, that’s not the same thing as saying they’re glamorized. The film clearly shows the consequences of violence in general and the lifestyle that Dave has chosen in particular, and neither of these are things that any sane person would willingly accept. In this movie, as in the first one, choosing a life of violence hurts, both physically and spiritually.

Which is not to say there isn’t fun. Mintz-Plasse’s character, embarking on a quest to become the world’s first real super-villain, is pretty laughable for most of the film. Even once it gets dark, when he starts to recruit real muscle to back up his threats, he’s still a caricature of every stupid, overblown villain cliché you can imagine. He’s a point of ridicule, a pathetic character, and would be pitiable if he didn’t pull off a few legitimately evil acts in the film. (It’s also worth noting that the film scales back on the comic book, dropping the most evil act he commits as apparently being too much to put on screen. I haven’t read the comic, as I said, so I can’t judge how well it worked there, but I do think it would have been too much on the screen.)

With so many superhero movies these days, it’s nice to see one that brings the action down to a (mostly) human level, that doesn’t treat average citizens as cannon fodder, and that shows that being a hero can hurt. There are two other comics in this series (a Hit-Girl spinoff and the currently in-progress Kick-Ass 3), and I’d be anxious to see both of those make it to the screen too. If not, I may actually have to break down and read the comics to see how the saga of Dave Lizewski finally ends.

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!