What Christmas films do you watch every year without fail? Everybody has their list and EVERYBODY does a top-10 list, so instead of doing that, I thought I’d focus on four films over the next couple weeks leading up to Christmas, showing why they should be considered for the Best Christmas Movie Ever award. Tell me if you agree or disagree or what movies you think should get that title. So, without further ado, here’s the first one, one of my personal favorites: The Muppet Christmas Carol. Why should it be considered the best holiday film?
Have you ever watched any of the Muppet movies? I mean really watched them? If you have, then you’ve at one point wondered aloud, “How the heck do they do that?” How do they get the Muppets to interact with their world? Think of the limitations: people are underneath them, making the mouths and hands move. That requires multiple hands per puppet sometimes, not to mention a stage where real actors can stand on and puppet actors can stand beneath. With all these limitations, how do the Muppets do all the things they do?
For example, near the end of the movie, there’s a giant spider Muppet. He takes a blanket from someone and passes it along his hands, one to the next all the way back. How the heck do people with strings make that happen? He literally grabs it in each hand, no other hands on camera. Is it an optical illusion? Is the hand hidden? Is there more going on inside the giant spider? It’s truly amazing how genius these puppeteers are, how they make them come to life so well.
But technical aspects aside, it’s still amazing how alive the Muppets can seem thanks to their actors. The men and women who move the puppets and give them voices can’t just phone it in. They have to seriously commit to their parts to make a fuzzy toy seem anything other than silly. Have you ever seen the bloopers for this movie? The Muppets stay in character! The actors are so invested, they can even ad lib as the Muppets when things go wrong!
CG is impressive, but it leaves no mystery. There’s something incredible about watching someone create a world without a computer, working within serious limitations and creating gold from straw. Jim Henson didn’t just create fancier puppets, he created real characters. The genius puppetry, voice acting, and stage design turn what could be a bunch of silly toys into a memorable cast capable of holding their own against human actors.
THE MUPPETS ARE CHARACTERS, NOT JUST THEMSELVES
The Muppets all have their own identifiable personas, that’s why you go to the theater in the first place, to see those characters. So the filmmakers actually took a risk and making these characters into actors, playing totally different characters.
For example, Gonzo isn’t some wild and wacky goofball. He’s a mostly-serious narrator. True, he has his funny moments, but he’s not trying to be Gonzo; he’s trying to be the narrator. Even more impressive is the volatile and camera-hogging Miss Piggy, who takes on the quiet housewife role of Emily Cratchit. Only once does she act like Miss Piggy: when she’s about to knock Scrooge right off the pavement, but that’s only for a second. For the most part, she’s not Miss Piggy; she’s Emily Cratchit.
True, some Muppets are just themselves, like Statler and Waldorf, but even these have been painted with shades of Dickens. This wasn’t just he Muppets with different outfits on. This wast he Muppets treated like actors instead of characters. That gives a lot of dignity to Jim Henson’s creations and it shows that the filmmakers actually wanted to put some effort into this movie instead of just cashing in on famous names.
IT ISN’T AFRAID TO STOP LAUGHING
The Muppets are by default humorous, and surprisingly good at it. They don’t pander to little ones, but the jokes don’t generally go over their heads, either, so everybody gets a chuckle. Some of the jokes are just plain odd, but lovely, such as when Rizzo asks Gonzo if 2am is too early for breakfast. When Gonzo says yes, Rizzo says, “Oh, good, suppertime.”
But the best comedians also know when to stop laughing. That’s what made Simpsons so great: it didn’t just make you laugh, it broke or melted your heart, too. Bad films can’t handle the awkwardness of when the plot necessitates seriousness, so they either skim over it or laugh inappropriately. But The Muppet Christmas Carol doesn’t shy away from the sad moments of the source material.
When Belle leaves Scrooge, the Muppets don’t intervene because they think kids can’t handle it; they let the moment settle, even allowing Scrooge to cry on screen. Even more importantly, the film doesn’t play any games with Tiny Tim’s death. You know he’s actually dead and Kermitt’s family suffers from it. They shoot his coming home just like an earlier scene, where the kids joyfully tackled their dad with Christmas glee. Now, they move more slowly, nobody gleeful. And they linger on a shot of Tiny Tim’s empty chair and the crutch beside it.
It’s rare that children’s movies are able to let their audiences feel sad or uncomfortable, but the best ones do. The Land Before Time, The Lion King, Up, those are the ones that stick with us as great films because they allow kids to feel a full range of emotions, not just happy distraction.
And this goes beyond just tears.
IT WASN’T AFRAID TO BE SCARY
A Christmas Carol is a spooky story by default, and once again, the movie shows respect for the source material and for the audience by letting the scary parts play out.
I’ve mentioned in an earlier blog post that the bell-ringing scene is one of the scariest moments of my childhood. And even though Statler and Waldorf come to make you laugh, their scene is still somewhat unnerving when you think about it, especially when they’re dragged, singing, back into Hell by their chains. Rizzo the Rat actually points out the kids might be scared by this part of the movie, but Gonzo says, “It’s okay; it’s culture.” Amen, brother.
But the Ghost of Christmas Yet-to-Come segment is impressive because the comic relief characters actually leave the movie because the writers knew comic relief had no place at this point. The rest is a dark and unhappy series of scenes led by a faceless, wordless, ghostly grim with a spooky, two-note tuba background score. Gonzo and Rizzo don’t return til he’s left.
This film isn’t trying to traumatize kids like other Christmas Carol adaptations (Jim Carrey and Robert Zemeckis want your soul), but it wanted to tell the novel’s story with full dignity, not just shred it up to make the audience comfortable. Sometimes, it’s okay to let kids be scared. Sometimes, that’s just how life is.
SIR MICHAEL CAINE
It takes a certain caliber of actor to interact with puppets on strings, to speak to them as you would a human being, to get past the tremendous height difference and pretend that they are any other actor–that’s acting within acting for you. Often times, this doesn’t work too well in the Muppet movies. But Sir Michael Caine makes it work. He has a fantastic chemistry with the Muppets and when he takes it seriously, it helps the audience suspend their disbelief.
But more than that, Michael Caine gave a great performance as Ebeneezer Scrooge. Many actors just phone it in for children’s fare, but the good ones don’t. Caine is believable in all the many faces he has to wear, first as the miser who’s tired of life and sick of Christmas, then as the emotionally-wounded old man crying as he watches his love leave for a second time, then as the reformed and jubilant man singing down the street. It’s more than a sour old jerk, it’s a rich and complex character that must be treated with respect, and Caine does a wonderful job.
The Muppet Christmas Carol is a fine Christmas film, easily one of the best. Good acting, impressive set and stage work, good humor, surprisingly emotional, great respect for its audience, and even some pretty good musical numbers. It fully deserves a place among the best.
Next week, we’ll examine a very different Chrstimas miser…
What did you think of this film? Agree or disagree? Do you think another film deserves the best spot?