Tuesday, December 25, 2018

Blast from the Past Movie Review: The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992)

Long ago I remember seeing The Muppet Christmas Carol in theaters, which means I would have been around eight years old. I didn't remember it very well beyond Scrooge gloating about how Christmas is the perfect time for moneylenders because people spend mortgage money on gifts and parties.

Well, the film podcast Myopia: Defend Your Childhood has decided to revisit the film, and so I took a watch. Here's the podcast. And now for the review...

The Plot

It's Christmastime in Victorian London and the miserly Ebeneezer Scrooge (Michael Caine) doesn't give a damn. He's a selfish, bitter, unpleasant man who gloats that Christmas is "harvest time for the moneylenders" (like himself) because people spend their mortgage payments on gifts and other "frivolities," tyrannizes his staff, including loyal Bob Cratchit (none other than Kermit the Frog), and apparently has turned foreclosed homes into slums he doesn't maintain while squeezing the tenants with high rents.

However, his deceased former partners Jacob and Robert Marley (Statler and Waldorf) visit him in the night, telling him that to avoid their fate of eternal damnation, he will be visited by three spirits--the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Christmas Present, and Christmas Yet To Come--and he should heed what they're saying. These spirits take Scrooge into his past, into the present, and into the future, a journey chronicled by Charles Dickens (the Great Gonzo) and his companion Rizzo the Rat.

The Good

*The acting is very good. Michael Caine does an excellent job as Scrooge, conveying the crankiness and bitterness and the temper creeping out from under his rather thin veneer of politeness. He also plays him as intelligent enough to make wise-sounding arguments to justify his ugliness (like suggesting people pay their mortgages rather than spend money on Christmas "frivolities"). And in the scenes of his childhood he conveys very well how these arguments are severe denial papering over deep psychological wounds. He's a big jerk gloating about foreclosing people on Christmas in the beginning, but damn I felt sorry for him based on the boarding-school scenes alone. And slowly as we see nostalgia creep in and him confronting his issues, he warms up quite convincingly. The musical number with the Ghost of Christmas Present shows him experiencing straight-up joy probably for the first time in many years and even though I didn't like the song, I thought that was one of the finest acting bits in the movie. And by the time the ghoulish Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come arrives, he has learned genuine humility and eagerly awaits the lessons this terrifying creature can teach him. Scrooge's arc is well-done and most of the credit for that belongs to Caine.

*When I was a little kid I didn't really understand why Scrooge hated Christmas or even really understood his back-story at all. I saw the Alliance Theater production (an Atlanta tradition) sometime later that elaborates on the end of his relationship with his fiancee Belle (he foreclosed on former employer Mr. Fezziwig under the influence of a much more malevolent Jacob Marley) and in the animated version he outraged her by foreclosing on someone whose mortgage payment was an hour late, but this one goes deeper into his past. Seeing him spending Christmas alone at boarding-school was legitimately poignant, as was seeing his fiancee leave him on Christmas because he was becoming too fixated on money even though the scene was rather abbreviated. Scrooge as an old man is a prick, but all of this made me feel for him.

*Per the above, you can see the miserly tendencies in Scrooge even when he's not truly a bad person. As a young man working for Fozziwig (Fozzy the Bear), he's concerned that Fozzy's Christmas party is consuming too much of the company's money. And his reasoning for delaying marriage to Belle (apparently not the first time this has happened) is that he's worried they don't have enough money to live properly. Scrooge's true wickedness (even if you have to foreclose on someone who doesn't pay their loans you don't have to enjoy it) comes later, but it doesn't emerge out of nothing.

*There are some moments of legitimate creepiness, like those leading up the appearance of Jacob Marley or the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come.

*The film moves along relatively quickly, which is good for a kid's movie.

*I did like the younger Statler and Waldorf portraying the Marley Brothers as "lads" before they became old skinflints who ended up in Hell. I've only seen those particular Muppets as old people before, so a completely new design was pretty cool. We also see a Muppet spider-monster as the fence Old Joe buying stolen property and I liked the puppetry design of the Ghost of Christmas Present and the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come.

*I liked the explicit Christianity of the Cratchit family, especially the disabled Tiny Tim who explicitly speaks of the One who healed the sick and made blind men see. And although Mrs. Cratchit clearly knows how much of a jerk Scrooge is, they all wish him a merry Christmas regardless. Jesus said to love even one's enemies and one's jerkass employer doesn't quite reach that level.

The Bad

*Muppet Treasure Island has much better and more memorable songs. "One More Sleep 'Til Christmas" really isn't that good. Neither is "Marley and Marley," which introduces Scrooge's deceased business partners who try to help him avoid their damnation for callous greed and even outright sadism (gloating about foreclosing an orphanage). The Ghost of Christmas Present's song isn't that good either. Belle's song about how her and Scrooge's relationship wasn't meant to be should have stayed in some capacity so Gonzo and Rizzo's reactions make more sense and to amplify the sadness of Scrooge's back-story, although perhaps not this version.

(From her facial expressions she seems like she's spitefully rubbing her leaving in his face rather than sad their relationship is dying because of Scrooge's greed and/or fixation with having "enough money." If she truly loved him I would imagine she would mourn rather than be sadistic.)

*I would have had a lot more sympathy for Scrooge's nephew Fred (Stephen Mackintosh) if he hadn't taken shots at his uncle at a Christmas party. If I had a relative with whom I had some...sharp philosophical disagreements...I simply wouldn't discuss them with non-family-members at all rather than making them the butt of my jokes at parties. Especially if I'd invited them to said party in the first place.

*It's my understanding that Fred's mother Scrooge's sister (with whom he was rather close) died and that Fred's presence aggravates Scrooge's uglier tendencies because he's never come to terms with her death. Although one might think they can't go into a lot of detail due to this being a kid's movie, the impending death of Tiny Tim stayed. Perhaps Fred could bring up his mother and that sets Scrooge off--kids wouldn't get it but adults would. Instead Scrooge's sister is never mentioned at all, even though according to some of what I've read her death (apparently that was on Christmas too) is one factor behind Scrooge's hating Christmas and his bad behavior in general.

*Scrooge is entirely too well-dressed for a miser. It's my understanding Scrooge was so cheap and obsessed with money that he didn't spend even on pleasurable things for himself. In one version of the story I read or saw on television (it might have been the Mr. Magoo version of the story), the ghostly Jacob Marley chides him for living on gruel in a cold drafty house. Obviously he does have to look somewhat presentable to do business, but I would expect a more austere mode of dress.

(Of course, either Nic or Thomas theorized that he pilfered the watch and chain off the dead Jacob Marley, which would make sense.)

The Verdict

Michael Caine is probably one of the best human actors in any Muppets film I have ever seen, but the movie is still rather mediocre. 6.0 out of 10.

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