Once upon a time, when Jim Henson’s Muppets were a prime-time television sensation, families tuned in to whimsical, heart-warming Muppet Christmas specials. That was a long time ago. Since Jim Henson’s death in 1990, the Muppets have struggled to maintain household-name recognition, their occasional feature films (mediocre at best) failing to halt their descent into the annals of nostalgia.
Then Disney surprised everybody in 2011 by reviving Kermit the Frog and company with brilliant viral video campaigns and a movie called The Muppets that was better than Muppet fans had any right to expect. The original cast of multi-colored, multi-species characters seemed to have revived their original personalities and their spirit of goodwill spiced with anarchy (if not their original voices). Grown men and women cried, and many children were given an introduction to a world of rewarding entertainment.
So it’s likely that a lot of families began working backwards this year, schooling their kids on The Muppet Show and past Muppet movies.
This Christmas is the perfect time to revisit 1992’s The Muppet Christmas Carol, now available in a restored edition on blu-ray and DVD labeled as the “It's Not Easy Being Scrooge Special Edition.” It’s about as faithful an adaptation of Charles Dickens’ classic story as the Muppets could make in the midst of their typical mischief.
This was the company’s first big production since Henson’s death. They created a wonderful Muppet-world equivalent of Victorian England, the cobblestones, the windows, and the rooftops all busy with activity. Nevertheless, fans could feel that something was missing. The regular cast of characters seemed to have lost their personalities.
Gonzo the Great plays the narrator - Charles Dickens himself - and Rizzo the Rat’s his wacky sidekick. But it doesn’t suit Gonzo to play the straight man. He’s always been an agent of chaos. Rizzo’s a lousy substitute, straining for laughs with mishaps and pratfalls.
Muppet screenwriter Jerry Juhl made Kermit a secondary character here - a wise decision, since it prevents us from getting distracted by the fact that Steve Whitmire is doing his best fill Jim Henson’s shoes (or, in this case, his sock puppet). Meanwhile, Frank Oz is reliable in small roles as Emily Cratchit (Miss Piggy) and Fozziwig (Fozzie Bear). Still, a Muppet movie in which Kermit and Fozzie aren’t at the center is like an episode of 30 Rock with only brief glimpses of Tina Fey and Alec Baldwin.
Dickens’ famous spirits are something of a disappointment here. The cherubic Spirit of Christmas Past looks like a lazy leftover from The Dark Crystal. The gigantic Spirit of Christmas Present is so overly jovial, he might make anybody a Scrooge. And the Spirit of Christmas Future is a typical hooded death figure, creepy but unimaginative.
Most disappointing of all, Paul Williams - the brilliant songwriter who gave us “The Rainbow Connection” - unloads one Christmas cliché after another in forced rhymes and uninspiring melodies. There’s nothing of Christmas mystery in this music, and faith is mentioned in only the most generic of ways. (What is faith for a Muppet anyway? Belief in puppeteers?)
But director Brian Henson, Jim’s son, does have some inspired ideas - like casting the Muppet’s steadfast critics Statler and Waldorf as “Marley and Marley,” come to criticize Ebenezer Scrooge in a memorably spooky musical number.
He also casts Michael Caine as Ebenezer Scrooge. Normally, Scrooge is the big, showy role in A Christmas Carol. And it’s typical for celebrities to ham it up around Muppets. But Caine wisely gives us an understated, soft-spoken Scrooge. He accepts his costars as comfortably as if they were extras on Masterpiece Theater. In the midst of a Muppet hubbub, he’s the storm’s calm center.
This new edition comes with extras that are as funny as anything in the movie, offering visits from caroling chickens any time you hit the “Pause” button. And Brian Henson offers notes on a commentary track.
The Muppet Christmas Carol would a poor way to introduce an audience to the Muppets, but it’s not a bad way to introduce young Muppet fans to Dickens’ story. Plenty of the classic parable’s power is preserved here. And in view of recent unrest among “the 99%”, this cautionary tale about the self-destructive nature of greed seems especially relevant.
And if the Muppets are missing their spark, who can blame them? Their captain had departed so abruptly, a tragedy for a community of wild imaginations. What Brian Henson’s movie does well - the ambitious handmade spectacle, the colorful characters, the wholesome quality of the storytelling - is a tribute to his father’s high standards. Where it falters, it’s just further evidence of Jim’s irreplaceable personality and charisma.
Still, for big Christmas fun, this lifelong Muppet enthusiast would recommend that families revisit the original - 1979’s The Muppet Movie - instead. It’s playing on Netflix Instant, and a blu-ray edition is coming right up. It’s full of inspired comedy, guest stars, and classic songwriting, powered by Henson’s big beating heart. And as two of the film’s most important moments involve humble characters looking heavenward for inspiration and guidance, it seems perfectly appropriate - even poignant - to share during the holiday season.
Jeffrey Overstreet is the author of four novels including Auralia’s Colors, and a “memoir of dangerous moviegoing” called Through a Screen Darkly. He is also a magazine editor, a speaker, a blogger, and a member of the Chrysostom Society. Connect with him via Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, or, if you prefer, email.