Tuesday, December 19, 2006

A Muppet Family Christmas & The Muppet Christmas Carol

Nobody does it better.

Sure, that song was technically written for the James Bond film The Spy Who Loved Me, but only because that film came out two years before the first full-length Muppet movie: The Muppet Movie. If you were to ask Carly Simon today, I'd bet she'd agree that the Muppets, indeed, do it better.

Take A Muppet Family Christmas, for example. First airing in 1987, this made-for-TV special only needs an hour to beat the pants off of rival Christmas specials. You want laughs? It's got that. Observe, for example, the Muppet newscaster being showered with barometers after reading the line, "Barometers are falling everywhere." You want songs? It's got both original (the excellent "Pass It On" with Kermit, Robin, and the Fraggles) and traditional (a Muppet medley of about ten different Christmas songs closes out the film). You want a warmed heart? Observe Big Bird completely reroute the Swedish Chef's attempt to cook him (as the biggest Christmas turkey ever) with some kind words and a thoughtful gift. Their subsequent duet--"Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire"--will make you both hoot with laughter and mist up with sentimentality. It's Big Bird and the Swedish Chef--a guy in a bird suit and a puppet--and somehow they manage a more touching scene than umpteen other Christmas movies do.

The plot is incidental, but here it is anyway: Fozzie brings the entire Muppet gang back to his mom's place for Christmas, inadvertently ruining not only her vacation plans but also those of Fraggle Rock's Doc (a human), who had rented her house in the hopes of having a quiet Christmas to himself. As chaos ensues at Mrs. Bear's house, Kermit anxiously awaits the arrival of the tardy Miss Piggy, who seems to be caught in a blizzard.

But the plot really is incidental. You watch this because it makes you laugh, because it makes you cry, because it warms the cockles of your heart--and because it's the only Muppet movie to feature characters from all four of the major Muppet franchises: The Muppet Show, Sesame Street, Muppet Babies, and Fraggle Rock.

But believe it or not, this masterpiece of Christmas theater is outdone by a later film: The Muppet Christmas Carol, first viewable in movie theaters in December of 1992.

The Muppet Christmas Carol was the first Muppet movie after the death of Muppets creator Jim Henson in 1990, but it doesn't miss a beat. Directed by Jim's son Brian, it maintains all the charm of Jim's productions while including subtle hints toward the directions Brian would eventually take the Muppet franchise, such as the more prominent role of Rizzo the Rat.

The Muppet Christmas Carol faithfully follows the plot of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol. Michael Caine plays Ebenezer Scrooge (unfortunately for Sam the Eagle, as this was a role Sam was born to play). Caine is the only human in a prominent role; the rest of the cast is filled out by Kermit as Bob Cratchit, Miss Piggy as Mrs. Cratchit, Robin as Tiny Tim, Statler and Waldorf as Jacob Marley (who, to accommodate the pair, is split into brothers Jacob and Robert Marley), and Gonzo--turning in his finest performance--portrays Charles Dickens, the narrator.

The plot is precisely the plot you expect. Scrooge is a jerk until he's visited by the ghosts of Marley and the past/present/future, after which he's the nicest fellow you can imagine. To their credit, the Muppets don't do much to update this classic plot.

So why is The Muppet Christmas Carol such a triumph? Well, there's the inimitable Muppet charm and humor, which is a big part of it. There are several excellent songs, notably "One More Sleep 'Til Christmas" and "It Feels Like Christmas." But above and beyond this, the Muppets are all perfectly cast for the parts they play: Kermit, unassuming and hard-working, is the quintessential Bob Cratchit. Robin, the one Muppet consistently guilty of too much sentimentality, is heart-warming and sympathetic as the sickly Tiny Tim. And, as previously mentioned, Gonzo turns out a surprisingly good performance as a know-it-all Charles Dickens.

In fact, the hands-down worst scene of this film--Scrooge's old girlfriend singing "When Love is Gone" to the 20-year-old Ebenezer--also happens to be the one scene where no Muppets are present. When Muppets reappear at the close of this scene, it's a welcome respite.

There are plenty of good Christmas movies, as the rest of TMBC will point out later this week, but you simply cannot go wrong with A Muppet Family Christmas or The Muppet Christmas Carol, which come in, respectively, as an 11 and a 13.


Stormy Pinkness said...

While I agree with you about the superiority of muppets, I do wish to disagree with you on one point. The scene where Scrooge's old girlfirend is singing is a favorite of mine. I think that is mostly because I love the song, which for me save the whole scene.

My favorite line is Muppet Family Christmas (as most TMBC'ers know) is: "Peace on Earth! Give me presents!" - Animal

Many may be wondering why I have chosen another Christmas movie instead of stealing one of Dr. Worm's muppet movies. We both love the muppets, but he appreciates them on a much deeper level than I.

Wicked Little Critta said...

Loved them. The more I see the Muppets, the more they grow on me.
I'd also like to give Michael Caine props for delivering a great performance. I mean, he played Scrooge opposite puppets!

Particle Man said...

the Muppets are indeed genius inventions, and you would be hard-pressed to find characters more cuddly and happiness-inducing. that being said, i can pull it off. as great as the Muppets are, i think the Christmas movie crown has to go to either my pick or WLC's. sorry, DW. Lord knows it's not easy being green, but it has to be harder being an international symbol that has an incarnation in almost every culture on the planet (i.e. Santa).