Kurt here. If you love Christmas, odds are there's an incarnation of A Christmas Carol of which you take ownership. For me, it's a stage production performed annually at the McCarter Theatre in Princeton, NJ. For you, it might be the 1938 Joseph L. Mankiewicz classic with Reginald Owen. And for a special few, it's The Muppet Christmas Carol, a film that proves how effectively one beloved property can be used to refresh another. The worlds of Jim Henson and Charles Dickens intertwine rather beautifully in this 1992 musical dramedy, whose Muppet stars pull the Yuletide tale out of mothballs, but don't crank up the contemporary jabber so far as to brand it with a born-on date. The comedy is all about that distinct Muppet attitude, which, as the new Muppets film seems determined to emphasize, is as timeless as "Bah Humbug."
Charles Dickens is in fact a character in the film. He's played by Gonzo, who, along with Rizzo the Rat, narrates the story of Ebeneezer Scrooge (a game, sincere Michael Caine) and the spectral Christmas Eve that rids him of his jerkdom. You might think excessive hand-holding would result from having a pair of narrators guide you through a film that already sees its lead and his visitors guide you through second-act flashbacks, but that's never the case here, as Gonzo proves an entertainingly knowing voice and a funny teacher to Rizzo, who's ever-eager to listen and learn ("Why are you whispering?" Rizzo asks. "It's for dramatic emphasis," Gonzo tells him). It's a gentle form of un-dusty, all-ages comedy, and it's a far better rejuvenator than, say, a 3D shrunken-man rollercoaster.
The narrating duo also add to a team element that seems to unfailingly manifest when it comes to the Muppets. Of course, the characters are their own traveling troupe (a factor that undoubtedly helps attract flesh-and-blood actors to work with them), but there are subsets of teams that appear within projects, and help to give the comedy that ultra-important communal feel. Jacob Marley, for instance, is given a brother, Robert (wink-wink), so the pair can be portrayed by the hysterical hecklers Statler and Waldorf, who may just offer the most enjoyable books-and-chains preliminary haunt the story has ever seen ("There's more of gravy than of grave about you," Scrooge says to the pair in his blame-it-on-the-food speech. "More of gravy than of grave?" they reply. "What a terrible pun! Where do you get these jokes?"). There's also Bob Cratchit's (Kermit the Frog) shivering team of bookkeeping colleagues, who famously initiate an impromptu Hawaiian dance when their request for more furnace coal is met with the threat of unemployment.
Watching the film again, I was struck by just how many musical sequences it includes, and they're fine ones at that. The movie begins with the familiar marketplace bustle, through which Scrooge hurries home amid a whole town of scared and scorned onlookers. "There goes Mr. Humbug," they chant, "there goes Mr. Grim. If they gave a prize for being mean, the winner would be him." Even the Muppet-ized vegetables join in on the chorus, shaming the village grump. Later, the central cast members unite for "Thankful Heart," an ending tune that, like the others, was penned by Paul Williams (the score is credited to Miles Goodman). Off hand, I can't recall another Christmas Carol that presents itself as a musical, apart from the usual festivities at the house of Fezziwig (who, here, naturally, goes by "Fozziwig"). The story works great with the songs sprinkled in, and the music has an effect similar to the Muppet comedy: updated, but un-dated.
What probably nets the biggest laughs is the recurring tendency of Gonzo and Rizzo to get physically involved with the story they're telling, be it by falling off an in-flashback shelf they describe as "old and decayed," or receiving a self-reflexive Christmas greeting from Scrooge himself. Gonzo, in particular, has fun with the different levels of fiction, playing an imaginary version of an author poking around in his own creation. "Great story, Mr. Dickens," Rizzo says at film's end. "You should read the book," says Gonzo.