For a movie with the word 'Christmas' in its title, this film sure does a nice line in Eastery resurrection.
For in 1992 this was the first muppet movie to be made after the sad, sudden and downright early death (53) of their main creator Jim Henson.
Would the rest of his team be able to pull it off and keep the muppets alive without his voices, puppeteering and inspired leadership, or was this going to be derivative proof that the muppet magic had died with him?
Thank God it was the former!
I still remember the thrill that I got in the cinema in 1992 as the opening titles rolled, promising that after a few years of silence, the muppets were about to live again. There's an animated caricature of Kermit that fills the screen. Then the credits begin rolling, slowly listing each of the main muppets by their character name. "Starring Kermit the Frog…" This was just the reassurance that I wanted, that the muppets were real living entities. I remember smiling that Gonzo was still getting billed under his stage name of "The Great Gonzo". It's a shame that more recent productions have dropped this running gag.
It's strange, but when I first saw this at the cinema I also felt that there were elements lacking. I thought that Kermit's voice wasn't quite right yet, but that didn't matter because he was still authentically Kermit. I thought that there were too many humans and not enough muppets as usual, but that didn't matter because it was quite a serious drama in places. I thought that the songs weren't as catchy, but that didn't matter because I would overheard people at work singing them, years later.
Well, perhaps the real shortcoming was me.
And you know what? Over the years The Muppet Christmas Carol has grown on me with repeated viewings, and apparently I'm not alone. I have no figures to back this up, but the way that I hear people talk about it, today I'd estimate that it has become the best-loved of all the muppet movies. Even just a month ago I found myself listening to Rob enthusing on about it. Not bad for a make-or-break new beginning. Actually, a triumph.
Despite how I have long since come to love the film myself, I still find its popularity a surprise. I haven't seen all the other muppet flicks, but I suspect that this is the only one that looks quite so cold and depressing throughout. There are few bright colours in Ebeneezer Scrooge's miserable corner of London, and the whole thing is shot to look like exactly the genre that it's going for - a ghost story. The spirits of Christmas past and future look nothing like muppets, and particularly in the latter's case, are genuinely chilling.
That said, this film is, bravely, much bigger on muppet warmth than muppet jokes. I guess that's how it overcomes all the cold snow and loneliness.
And those songs? Wow. Having just watched the film again tonight, I don't think the muppets have ever had a finer collection. Those lyrics are much deeper than I'm used to. And I've heard many of them enough times now for them to have become familiar - another luxury that I didn't have on that first viewing at the cinema 20 years ago.
Scrooge himself remains a weak and easily defeated villain - he cracks so quickly - however given how this weakness has been present in every version of this story that I've ever seen, I suspect that's simply a shortcoming of the original book, which I've never read.
Humbug? Unemployed? Sour? Nah.
Even the vegetables love this movie.