A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 290 – The Muppet Christmas Carol

The Muppet Christmas Carol – December 15th, 2010

Tonight being our second night of Christmas movies we had to take a look at our list and see what we should watch. Normally we have a couple hundred movies to pick from, but the Christmas list really does narrow it all down. Andy pointed out that we have two versions of A Christmas Carol and we have three nights’ worth of Muppet Christmas material to watch, so perhaps we should space it all out and do one early on? And thus, we got two turtledoves with one stone by watching this.

The DVD we have for this movie has two versions listed: One is the theatrical release and is in widescreen. The other is an extended edition (four more minutes long) but is in pan and scan (shudder). Given the rules of the project, we put on the extended version and oh, oh I hate pan and scan. It’s so horrible, what it does to a good movie. Muppets are cut out of every scene and there are some particularly noticeable moments where there’s half a face that should be completely in the shot. Also, there’s so much in some of the wider shots, I hate seeing it in pan and scan and knowing that there’s more just off screen that of course took a lot of work to bring to life. It’s just plain frustrating. And what was the trade-off? What did we lose inches of screen through the whole movie for? An extended musical number.

The songs here are a mixed bag for me. There are a couple I love, like “Marley and Marley” with Statler and Waldorf, and a couple I can’t stand, like the interminable song about love, sung by Belle. I’d blocked that last one out but when it started it all came rushing back and I suggested we put the 43 minute long Blackadder’s Christmas Carol into the VCR and maybe the song would be over by the time we’d finished watching. Andy started snoring. This is in no way a comment on the actress playing Belle. It’s just a long song about love that meanders and doesn’t really do a whole lot. It slows everything down. But I tend to feel that way whenever there’s a lovey-dovey song in a Muppet movie. The lively numbers are the best, incorporating a lot of Muppets for group scenes or a couple of well-loved characters for solos. The romance? Especially when done by a human actor or two instead of Muppets? That’s not what makes a Muppet production for me.

What does make it a Muppet production, however, is the sheer mass of Muppets involved. This is obviously an adaptation of the classic Dickens story. Michael Caine plays Scrooge, and does an excellent job with it, though my love for him isn’t quite enough to make his Scrooge eclipse my favorite (which we’ll be watching soon enough). There aren’t many other humans, really. There’s Belle, and some incidental characters in the background, and there’s Fred, Scrooge’s nephew (played by Stephen Mackintosh, which I keep forgetting and then remembering again) and his wife, Clara. And other than that, the major roles are all Muppets. Bob Cratchit is played by Kermit, Tiny Tim is played by Robin. Mrs. Cratchit is Piggy (obviously), and a host of other Muppets round out the cast, from the rats as other bookkeepers in Scrooge’s employ to Bunsen and Beaker as the two philanthropists who try and get Scrooge to donate to the poor. But then there’s Gonzo, who plays the part of narrator (along with Rizzo).

Now, this movie was made not too long after Jim Henson’s death. I cannot blame anyone involved for keeping Kermit a smaller role in this one and putting Gonzo front and center. Gonzo’s a great character, a fan favorite, and really, where would he go in this story otherwise? I suppose he could have played Scrooge, but that puts him even more center. Kermit, on the other hand, is perfect for Cratchit. He’s a sympathetic character from start to finish, with a kind heart and good intentions. So I’m really quite pleased by who played whom in the story, and as I love Gonzo, I’m thrilled that he and Rizzo got some great lines and moments while telling the story from a spot in between the movie and the audience.

While this isn’t my favorite adaptation of the story, and it does have its flaws, there’s a lot to love about this movie. It’s got some fantastic puppetry and casting, and I think it was a good choice as a feature film for the Henson Company following the loss of their founder. Something familiar that they could make their own, and they did make it their own, from a vegetable in the beginning protesting being stolen to Animal playing the drums during Fozziewig’s Christmas party. I think in the future I’ll stick to the theatrical cut so I can get the full breadth of what makes it a Muppet movie for me.

December 15, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment

The Muppet Christmas Carol

December 15, 2010

The Muppet Christmas Carol

The Hensons clearly have a great love of Christmas. We have four Muppet Christmas specials in our collection (two of which we will be reviewing on the same day since they are so short.) I also had as a child two Muppet related Christmas albums – the Sesame Street Christmas special and the John Denver Christmas special. Taken all together this means that three of our twelve days of Christmas this year will involve Muppet related movies. Tonight’s movie is also the first of two adaptations of Charles Dickens’ classic Christmas Carol that we’ll be reviewing this year.

This was the first Muppet movie made after Jim Henson’s untimely passing, and the first theatrical Muppet movie to be an adaptation of a classic literary work. (To be followed by Muppet Treasure Island and the made for TV Muppet Wizard of Oz, both of which we have already reviewed.) At the time I was disappointed that it was not an original movie as had been the first three Muppet films, but as I watch it again tonight I find that my feelings have mellowed somewhat in the intervening years and there is an awful lot to enjoy about this movie.

Brian Henson directed this movie and dedicated it to his father and fellow Muppet performer Richard Hunt. It seems that Brian has inherited a love for the clever art of puppetry, and this movie is full of wonderful moments of Muppet magic as Brian and all his companions continue to make wiggling dolls do things they shouldn’t be able to do. The ghost of Christmas past, for example, has a very ethereal feel which was accomplished by filming the puppet in super slow motion (meaning that the performers had to sync to the dialog and do all the puppetry at least twice as fast as usual so it would appear floaty and supernatural.)

The ghost of Christmas Present is a full body Muppet along the lines of the cast of the short lived Dinosaurs TV show or the Teenaged Mutant Ninja Turtles. Two things about this ghost strike me as impressive – one is how well animated the remote-control face is. The mouth in particular is capable of the same kind of rapid and expressive motions that any of the hand-operated Muppets can do. (Come to think of it – he probably IS a hand-operated Muppet in the close up shots that don’t show the rest of the body – the fact that the contrast between the close-ups and the long shots has so little impact is evidence of how well things are handled in the wider shots.) It’s astonishing how far the technology of servo motors and radio remote control had come by 1992. The other striking thing about the ghost of Christmas present is that his constantly changing scale required a lot of compositing, and it’s completely seamless. Take, for example, the cool camera move that was required for the ghost to “shrink” after he first meets Scrooge – fantastic! Then there’s the full body Muppet interacting with the much smaller scale mouse puppets – again it looks as though he’s just there. (Jim probably would have done it as an in-camera forced perspective shot, but I suspect this shot was done via bluescreen in post production.)

I also want to call attention to my favorite shot in the movie, which involves Kermit skipping down the streets of London. It’s a charming moment that captures that character of both Kermit and Bob Cratchit, and it’s also a brilliant piece of puppetry. The cobblestone road rolls under his flippers (literally, it being a big cylinder with cobble stones on it) as he hops and jumps thanks to some great rod puppetry. I love it.

As is almost traditional with Muppet movies the songs are by long time Muppet collaborator Paul Williams, although there is nothing quite so memorable as Movin’ Right Along here. The best number in the movie, in my opinion, is the opening song of “There Goes Mr. Scrooge” which sets the mood for the movie and also involves quite a lot of Muppets. There’s also the song sung by Statler and Waldorf as the ghosts of the brothers Marley (there being two of them in this adaptation.) It’s a little unsettling that two Muppets once performed by Jerry Nelson and Jim Henson should appear as ghosts – but the number itself is really quite good.

The starring role in the movie – that of Ebeneezer Scrooge – is played by a human. I don’t like the trend of casting humans as lead characters in Muppet movies, but in this case I’m willing to overlook it since the human in question is the always wonderful Michael Caine. He’s a treat to watch, especially as the cold-hearted and nasty Scrooge. It’s a great performance as his armor is slowly torn away and her begins to remember how to act human.

Sadly, one of the worst moments in the movie is also the result of casting a human. During the Christmas past segment young Ebeneezer’s love Belle has a song about dying love that absolutely kills the movie. It feels like it lasts about half an hour and it’s utterly dull and boring. Even worse – there’s a re-done pop adaptation of the same song over the closing credits in the lamentable style of Disney movies of the nineties. Normally I would fast forward through this scene, but in the spirit of the movie project I had to just grit my teeth and wait for it to be over. Half a lifetime later.

I also have a quibble about the DVD we were watching. When you start this version of the movie you are given the choice between a widescreen theatrical cut and a full-screen extended edition. Because we are watching all extended versions of movies for our project if they are available we were forced to watch the movie tonight in pan & scan. Most of the time it was tollerable, but there were a few instances where Muppets were half cut out of the frame off the sides, which drove me crazy. The only difference I was able to spot from the theatrical cut was a song by Kermit and Piggy about the blessings of Christmas – which didn’t add much to the movie to be honest. (I had heard once that there was a musical number with Beaker and Dr. Bunsen Honeydew which was cut, and I was kind of hoping that we’d be seeing that tonight, but no such luck.)

I watch this movie every year I’d say, and it is definitely growing on me. I don’t love it unreservedly as I do with many of the works of Jim Henson, but it has a lot of wonderfully Muppety bits, and I found myself quoting along with the movie as I watched it tonight. It has its own special charm, is a fitting tribute to Jim, and does a good job of putting me in the Christmas spirit. More Muppet movies to come in the next ten days of Christmas, and one more Christmas Carol – our favorite adaptation of the book.

December 15, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , | Leave a comment

Movie 289 – The Nightmare Before Christmas

The Nightmare Before Christmas – December 14th, 2010

My family has always had some Christmas season movie staples. Usually my mother and I will get together and bake cookies on a few different days prior to Christmas itself and while cookies are baking or we’re waiting for dough to chill or set we’ll make ourselves tea, put in one of our favorites and settle in to enjoy it. Over the past few years I’ve collected my family’s favorites on DVD wherever possible and VHS where impossible and by now we’ve got a small pile of Christmas movies. When we tallied them up for this project we realized we have twelve Christmas movies! So, tonight is our partridge in a pear tree, as it were. The beginning of our Twelve Movies of Christmas.

I do have to admit, this is not on my top ten movie list. It’s not one of the classics my family watched for years and while I do enjoy it, I’m not quite as taken with it as many other people seem to be. I’m not sure what it is about it that doesn’t quite click for me. Halloween was never my favorite holiday, though I’m growing fonder of it with age. Then again, my best Halloween costume ever was a Christmas tree (I was seven when I came up with that idea and it was an awesome costume), so really, it’s not the concept that’s the issue. Maybe it’s that it’s a full blown musical and the style of that just doesn’t work for me. I’m not sure. It’s probably just a whole bunch of little things, which is a pity, because it’s obviously a fantastic movie and I just can’t get as into it as I’d like.

I do enjoy the world in which the movie is set. This is a world where each major holiday has its own land (well, each major holiday from a very specific viewpoint – I didn’t see a Passover land, or Diwali door). In a strange forest are special trees with doors shaped like a symbol for the land that lies within. In one is Halloween land, where Jack Skellington, the Pumpkin King, rules. And every year he and his people (all demons and monsters and trick-or-treaters) prepare to make sure that Halloween in the outside world is as scary and creepy and tricky as possible. Meanwhile, in Christmas land the same is going on for Santa and his elves, but, you know, for Christmas. It’s sort of taking the idea of Santa’s workshop and the North Pole and applying it to every holiday. And Jack’s feeling down. Halloween just isn’t cutting it anymore. So he goes for a walk and discovers Christmas and decides that’s just what he needs! A change of pace, some presents and snow, a new holiday to celebrate in Halloween land.

Since this is based on a concept from Tim Burton you can likely guess where that all goes. If you haven’t seen this, I’ll give you some hints: Santa gets kidnapped and threatened by the Boogie Man, Christmas carols are played in minor keys, and Jack heads off to deliver toys like shrunken heads and hats made out of bats to small children. It is, in short, a creepy mess of a Christmas. And really? I love the idea. Through the whole thing there’s a woman named Sally, who lives in Halloween land, who knows that this is all a horrible idea, and she’s right! It is a horrible idea! But it makes for a great movie plot.

The whole movie is done in stop motion animation, and I’ve got to say it’s gorgeous. As is to be expected, the level of detail is simply stunning, and it really does suit the whole mood of the movie well. I love the color palette used for the Halloween stuff and how striking the bright red of Jack’s Santa suit is against it. I love a lot of the characters and how they’re realized. The three trick-or-treaters are great, with their masks covering faces that look like their masks. Oogie Boogie is fantastic and sinister and glow-in-the-dark. The visuals are all great and the story is fun. I guess it really must be the music.

Now, I don’t have anything at all against Danny Elfman. I like his work and he did a nice job here. I think it’s more the quantity of sung material. I just want a little bit more in the way of dialogue. The singing loses me a lot. I found myself totally losing interest during some of the songs and I think I’d have preferred to have the music in the background while some lines were spoken, rather than the constant singing. It doesn’t seem to be so much a musical as an opera at times. I kept expecting more dialogue tonight only to get a line here or there and then more singing. Oh well.

Overall, as I said, I like the concept and much of the execution. It just doesn’t quite hit me the way it hits others, which makes me a little sad because I’d love to love it. I just can’t seem to bring myself to do so, be it the quantity of music or something else intangible and impossible for me to identify. So I’ll just go on liking it and leave the loving it to others.

December 15, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment