The Muppet Christmas Carol archive review: deconstructed Dickens

No pogs, no frigs, and one ghost too many, but our critic enjoyed the scepticism and sardonic humour of this family-friendly adaptation on its first release. Now it’s back in cinemas for the festive season.

Philip Kemp

from the February 1993 issue of Sight & Sound

Michael Caine as Ebenezer Scrooge with his fellow cast members of A Muppet Christmas Carol (1992)

Michael Caine as Ebenezer Scrooge with his fellow cast members of A Muppet Christmas Carol (1992)

“This is really scary,” observes Rizzo the Rat during one of The Muppet Christmas Carol’s spookier moments. “Should we be worried about the kids in the audience?” “It’s all right,” responds Charles Dickens, aka The Great Gonzo, “this is culture.” So it is, and maybe a touch too much so; there’s a sense that the filmmakers, overawed by their classic source, are reining back the anarchic exuberance on which the Muppets’ appeal always rested. Cult acts like Fozzie Bear (Fozziwig) and Miss Piggy (Mrs Cratchit) are seriously constrained by their Dickensian characters – although at least the long-delayed union between Kermit and Miss Piggy, celebrated in The Muppets Take Manhattan, has finally borne fruit (two female pigs and two male frogs – the opportunity for a pog, or even a frig, has sadly been passed up).

Given that A Christmas Carol is well-nigh indestructible, a little more irreverence would almost certainly have paid off. Having said that, it may seem perverse to complain that the film’s one major departure from the original comes as a miscalculation. But the addition of a Robert Marley alongside Jacob (to accommodate the show’s two grouchy old hecklers, Statler and Waldorf) should have been resisted: two Marley’s ghosts, chains and all, are not half as scary as one.

All the same, The Muppet Christmas Carol achieves the odd genuinely chilling moment, along with a lot of fun. The sets are detailed and charming, there are the usual lively, instantly forgettable songs, and several favourites (the Swedish Chef, Rowlf) show up in cheerful cameos. As lead guest human, Michael Caine makes a respectable stab at Scrooge, but never for a moment challenges the memory of Alastair Sim. This is a Scrooge whose scowl teeters constantly on the verge of benevolence, with a nice line in sardonic gags. “Very well then,” he snarls, when his clerks protest against sending foreclosure notices on Christmas Eve, “you may gift-wrap them.”

But the film’s neatest trick is the Gonzo-Rizzo double act, with Rizzo providing a welcome undertow of scepticism (“A blue furry Charles Dickens who hangs out with a rat?”) to counteract excess sentimentality. By clarifying the storyline for the benefit of children who may not know it, while at the same time cracking distancing jokes to amuse the adults, they keep the narrative moving – and even manage to toss in a hint of death-of-the-author deconstruction. “I keep telling you,” explains Gonzo, “story-tellers are omniscient.” “Hoity-toity, Mr Godlike Smarty-Pants,” retorts Rizzo. And the Muppets’ original, education-without-tears mission isn’t forgotten. “Nice story, Mr Dickens,” says Rizzo at the finale. “Thanks,” replies Gonzo, “if you liked this, you should read the book.”

 

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