A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

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 | , ,

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