It’s Not Easy Being Mean
The Muppet Christmas Carol is the first outing for Kermit and Co. after the death of Jim Henson, and I’m sorry to say that it shows just a bit. Henson’s son Brian took over the company and the voice of Kermit in the sudden creative void, but Kermit’s soul was that of the elder Henson. The little green guy just isn’t quite the same these days.
And things, unfortunately, are not helped by the principal human actor here — Michael Caine as Scrooge — who can’t seem to get past the fact that he’s performing with conglomerations of felt and glue. Caine doesn’t believe in Kermit as the real, living, breathing being all of us who grew up with Sesame Street know him to be. And that can’t help but add to the feeling that Kermit is a bit diminished.
Yes, some of the magic is gone forever, but that’s not to say that this skewering of Dickens isn’t chock full of the kind of gentle lunacy we’ve come to expect from the Muppets. There are singing vegetables in this movie, for pete’s sake.
The familiar holiday tale is mostly present here, if in abbreviated and fantastical form. Scrooge is visited at first by the ghosts of his two partners, Jacob and — ahem — Robert Marley (Statler and Waldorf, The Muppet Show‘s balcony hecklers). The atypically female and fairylike Ghost of Christmas Past takes Scrooge to visit his first employer: Fozziwig and Mom Ltd., “the old rubber chicken factory.” His nocturnal adventures teach Scrooge to be nicer to his clerk, Bob Cratchit (Kermit the Frog), and the rat bookkeepers in his employ, who had complained that Scrooge’s cheapness with the coal had resulted in “frozen assets.”
The singing vegetables? They croon of Scrooge: “He must be so lonely / He must be so sad / He goes to great extremes / To convince us he’s bad.” It’s psychoanalysis preschoolers can understand. The songs — by Paul Williams — are simple and sweet, except when they aren’t: The Marleys’ ghosts do a vaudeville number that details how evil and greedy they were. But we don’t need to worry about scaring kids, or so says The Great Gonzo (himself), because “this is culture.”
The biggest addition to the original is Gonzo, narrating the movie as “a blue furry Charles Dickens who hangs out with a rat,” Rizzo the Rat, to be precise. They comment on the action and move the story along for the impatient youngsters at whom the movie is mostly aimed, and in the process define some conventions of storytelling (Hey! This is educational as well as entertaining!), never forgetting to be funny in the process. When Gonzo explains what “omniscient” means, Rizzo calls him “hoity-toity Mr. Godlike Smartypants.” It’s that sort of erudite humor that continues to endear the Muppets to those of us well beyond elementary school.
I still mourn for Kermit — and for Jim Henson — though. The lamentable Bob Cratchit seems the ideal character for the creature who made “It’s Not Easy Being Green” both melancholy and winsome. But The Muppet Christmas Carol never achieves the delicate pathos it might have if Jim Henson had still been there for his froggy alter ego.