There are so many versions of A Christmas Carol out there that it soon becomes tiresome arguing about their individual merits. The only faintly reliable indicator of an adaptation's success is in its lifespan over subsequent Christmases, specifically how often it will turn up in the double editions of the Radio Times. The Muppet Christmas Carol is not the finest version of this story, but neither is it by any means the worst, and there are many elements which have cemented its status as a festive family favourite.
Purely as a matter of principle, The Muppet Christmas Carol is among the more faithful adaptations. A number of small changes have been made - there is no mention of skating penguins or rubber chicken factories in the original. But otherwise the film follows the arc of Dickens' story very closely, and the dialogue doesn't feel like it is being lazily paraphrased to prevent a modern audience from thinking
What is often forgotten is that the original story was a pot-boiler, a shorter, more incidental work designed to keep the money coming in (presumably so Dickens could afford his Christmas shopping). Its subsequent status as one of the most fondly familiar of English texts was by no means intended, a factor which makes the film's fortunes all the more apt. It has slowly grown from breaking even at the box office to be embraced as a stalwart of Christmas television.
The Muppet Christmas Carol is also the film to which Michael Caine ultimately owes his recent career revival. Aside from a BAFTA win for Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, the late-1980s had not been kind to him and he continued to make bad career choices. He famously could not collect his Oscar for Hannah and Her Sisters because he was on location in the Bahamas making Jaws: The Revenge. But the eventual goodwill caused by this performance, along with a revived interest in his 1960s work, would eventually lead to richer roles and a second Oscar for The Cider House Rules.
Actors who have played Ebenezer Scrooge have emphasised different aspects of the character - George C. Scott's version plays on his aggressive grumpiness, Bill Murray's version his worldly-worn weariness, and Alastair Sim's version his grim fastidiousness. Caine cherry-picks the best aspects from past portrayals and makes it his own, showing his range and placing himself in the top five all-time Scrooges. He sings well, looks great in period costume, and there are a number of brilliantly memorable moments. The scene of him shouting "UNEMPLOYED!" in a tight close-up at the book-keepers is hugely entertaining and wins over an audience immediately.
Although it is primarily a children's film, The Muppet Christmas Carol is not afraid to tackle the darker aspects of the story. Because it's the Muppets you're not going to see anything questionable, and even to talk about it in terms of 'fantasy violence' is to dress things up a bit too much. But there is an appropriately creepy Gothic side to the film, and it handles the darker aspects of the story much more ably than the recent Robert Zemeckis version. Death is only hinted at, but those hints are enough, and the film is on its surest footing with the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come.
The design of The Muppet Christmas Carol is the key to understanding its successes and failures, and as with Zemeckis' version the film rises and falls on its portrayal of the ghosts. The Ghosts of Christmas Past and Future are very well-designed, the former as a childlike spirit recalling the paintings of L. S. Lowry. The latter is especially good, resembling a Ringwraith and being surrounded by Gothic churchyards and plenty of fog. There is something inherently creepy or eerie about a faceless ghost, and the film handles this very well.
But then we come to the Ghost of Christmas Present, and to the first problem with the film. Where the other two ghosts felt bespoke and purpose-made for the story, Christmas Present is a lot less memorable and a lot more annoying. Because the character has to age on screen, we are forced to confront the shortcomings of both puppetry and visual effects. The Ghost's disappearance is well-handled, but his sudden greyness after the flashback looks like someone dumped a vat of flour on him.
The present-day section of the story is the hardest to get right because it contains the moment where Scrooge has his change of heart; the final Ghost's actions are little more than a confirmation of his volte-face when faced with his own death. Despite the presence of Animal in a brief cameo, this section of the film is saggy and sentimental in a way which sits awkwardly with the attempts to send up Dickens' tale. In an age where Shrek has sent up so many of Disney's conventions, seeing the Tiny Tim sequence played straight is little short of toe-curling.
The songs in The Muppet Christmas Carol are a little hit-and-miss. When they work, they work well: 'Thankful Heart' has a good, hummable melody which captures the upbeat tone without overcooking the feel-good factor. 'One More Sleep 'Til Christmas' and 'There Goes Mr. Humbug' are fine, having their moments but being more sustained by visual gags than a compelling set of lyrics. But 'Bless Us All' feels forced and cloying, as if the writers were trying too hard to be charming, and as a result it comes across as quite the opposite.
Like the subsequent Muppet films, the film relies on the characters we know and love slotting into their allotted roles in the story. While in later films whole sequences had to be invented just to get Miss Piggy on the screen, in The Muppet Christmas Carol the characters fit like a glove. Gonzo treats Dickens' narrator with the tongue-in-cheek approach it deserves, and the double act he has with Rizzo works well. Kermit fits snugly into Bob Crackett, playing him as a well-meaning coward, and seeing him and Miss Piggy finally married on screen is something many fans had been waiting for years to see. As with Shrek, it works so long as you don't think too much about the children.
The film is also notable as a passing of the torch from Henson's personal involvement to the characters living on without him. Steven Whitmire, who took over the voice of Kermit, told a story of how Henson appeared to him in a dream and gave his blessing. The film is directed by Henson's son Brian, who would also direct Muppet Treasure Island, and of all the post-Henson films it is the best, being made with both charm and affection tied up in a tribute to the great man.
The Muppet Christmas Carol may not be the finest version of Dickens' story by any stretch of the imagination. Its weaknesses are obvious and older viewers may struggle to sit through its concessions to sentimentality. But as a means of introducing young children to the story, it is very good indeed. Michael Caine holds the film together with a fine performance and there is enough charm and well-meaning embedded in the film to tempt even the biggest miser to purchase a copy. Essential viewing.