Ever since Jim Henson's passing in 1990, the Muppets haven't really felt the same. Sure, Kermit, Miss Piggy, Fozzie and the rest of the gang have had plenty of work in the years since, but Henson's warm, playful soul was such an essential part of the franchise that everything else – even the genuinely entertaining stuff like Jason Segal's cheerful reboot – feels a little hollow. The big exception is The Muppet Christmas Carol, the first film made after Henson's passing. Maybe it's that Henson was the one who came up with the idea for the film or maybe it's that director Brian Henson felt a pressing need to pay tribute to his dad's legacy, but there's still some magic here.
Intriguingly, the Muppets themselves play a supporting role this time around (a trend they would continue in their other playful literary adaptations). In previous features, Kermit the Frog (voiced by Henson himself) had been the emotional center of each film. The Muppet Christmas Carol gives a human being the central role of Ebenezer Scrooge, and then has fun finding appropriate roles for everyone else to play (Kermit gets to play the long-suffering Bob Cratchit, naturally).
The human is none other than Sir Michael Caine, who delivers one of the finest Scrooges I've ever seen (and there have been more than a few). The brilliant thing about his performance is that he plays the role completely straight, never goofing off or indulging in the sort of hammy theatrics often displayed by humans performing alongside Muppets. When meeting with Henson for the first time, Caine said, “I'm going to play this movie like I'm working with the Royal Shakespeare Company. I will never wink, I will never do anything Muppety. I am going to play Scrooge as if it is an utterly dramatic role and there are no puppets around me.”
It's a smart move, ensuring that the soul of the Dickens story (which is recounted with somewhat surprising faithfulness) is left intact while all sorts of Muppet mayhem takes place around the edges. Gonzo, of all Muppets, is cast as Mr. Dickens himself, providing enthusiastic oncreen narration with accompanying snark from the intrigued-but-quizzical Rizzo. Half the fun of the film is seeing the way the details of the story bend slightly to accommodate the personalities of the Muppets that appear: Statler and Waldorf play “the Marley brothers,” Fozzie shows up as “Fozziewig” and Sam the Eagle has a delightful appearance as Scrooge's old headmaster (alas, Sam's fervent all-American patriotism briefly makes him forget that he is acting in a tale set in London).
The scenes between Caine and the Muppets are fascinating to watch, as Caine consistently offers a serious response to the emotional truth of what the characters are saying regardless of the incredibly silly manner in which they may be saying it. He's in sync with them where it counts, but operating in an entirely different style. The younger Henson also seems to have good instincts for when dial back the film's “Muppet-ness,” even going so far as remove Gonzo and Rizzo entirely from the dark “Ghost of Christmas Future” segment (“Yikes! You're on your own, folks! We'll meet you at the finale!”). This is a story that has been adapted too many times, but this telling of it never feels stale or routine. It offers both the fun of a parody and the affecting power of a traditional telling, balancing the two sides of the film quite gracefully.
Naturally, there are plenty of songs along the way, written by the great Paul Williams. These tunes aren't quite as instantly memorable as the songs Williams penned for The Muppet Movie, but that's a bit like saying that Bruce Springsteen's new album isn't quite as memorable as Born to Run. It's a good soundtrack, highlighted by Kermit's chipper “One More Sleep 'til Christmas,” the Ghost of Christmas Present's friendly “It Feels Like Christmas” and the Scrooge-led finale “Thankful Heart” (uh, spoiler alert). This is perhaps the most nakedly sentimental of the Muppet movies, but the filmmakers stay true to Jim Henson's spirit and keep that signature Muppet silliness intact. “You're a little absent-minded, spirit,” Scrooge tells the Ghost of Christmas Present. “No, I'm a large absent-minded spirit!” the ghost replies.
The Muppet Christmas Carol
Rating: ★★★½ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: G
Running Time: 86 minutes
Release Year: 1992