Thursday, December 22, 2011

Muppet Christmas Carol

Amanda has us on our Christmas Movie Advent Calendar countdown. Last night was Scrooged, and tonight we had The Muppet Christmas Carol. There are so many variations on this Charles Dicken's story, it would be hard to count them all. When Andy Williams sings "The Most Wonderful Time of the Year", there is a lyric that says, "they'll be scary ghost stories and tales of the glories of Christmases long, long ago". Dolores asked me, what scary stories are there about Christmas? I had to point out that A Christmas Carol is in fact a ghost story. I remember watching the Alister Sim version in 1993, at 1:00 in the morning as I was wrapping gifts, the day of Christmas. It always puts me closer to the spirit of Christmas than any other element of the holiday.

The Muppet Christmas Carol has become my favorite variation of the Christmas Carol Story. It features the magnificent Michael Caine, who I first noticed in the movie Zulu, back in the 1960s, and who is still working and impressing today. Caine does a couple of things with this movie that are essential to make it work and keep the essence of the story in tact, despite the fact that it is being told by puppets. First of all, he plays it very straight. There is no winking at the camera, he is not the comic lead, he is the dramatic center that all the other Muppet characters react to. He on the other hand takes no notice that he is having conversations with rats, frogs, pigs etc. All the Muppets are simply other actors in the story and he treats the story seriously. Second, this is a musical, and therefore Michael Caine will be called on to sing. He does not have a singer's voice. He does however achieve the same kind of effective "talk singing" style that Rex Harrison achieved in "My Fair Lady". He can sell the songs that he needs to get through but the main work is carried by others.

The songs in this movie may not be perennial Christmas tunes, but they are all quite tuneful. The opening number which introduces Scrooge is particularly amusing and has a nice hook to it. There are clever bits of humor in other songs as well and they carry the story with a lot of perky bravado. The slower ballad lament song is sentimental and easy to listen to but it would not be easy to sing along with. The songs were written by Paul Williams, who does not work enough these days in the film business. He probably doesn't need to because he may have been one of the most successful songwriters of the 1970's and can get by on licensing his music everywhere. His Hollywood career may have been cut short by his participation in the movie "Ishtar", but I'm still waiting for the song score from that movie to show up somewhere. It was promised, but when the film tanked, those plans went out the window. The bad songs in that film were deliberately stupid but in a brilliant comedic way. His cleverness with a melody and a lyric are on full display with the Muppets singing his funny lyrics with just the right amount of silliness.

We originally saw the movie in Hollywood at the El Capitan Theater. The El Capitan is the Disney Operated upscale theater on Hollywood Blvd, directly across the street from the Chinese Theater and the Kodak Theater. We went two years in a row at Christmas time to see first runs of films there. In 1991 we saw "Beauty and the Beast" and in 1992 we saw "The Muppet Christmas Carol". The films were preceded by a holiday themed live action show featuring Disney characters and Christmas Carolers. Also, there is live organ music played on a huge Wurlitzer organ. Both years the weekends we went were chilly, the movies were exclusive to that theater for the week, and it felt like we were in an old movie set in New York at Christmas time. I may be clouding my impression of the movie with my nostalgia for that experience, but I still think anyone would like this film.

Not everyone appreciates the Muppets. I can't understand that very well since I love them. I was not a Sesame Street kid, but I did get into the Muppets when they were on TV and I was in college. All of the Muppet films have been a part of my life, this was the first one that I got to share with my kids and pass on the love of these characters. They stick very closely to the story here and the occasional slapstick humor does not detract from the true meaning of the themes. I get warm and Fozzy, just thinking about how much I love this movie. I hope all of you reading will seek it out and enjoy it again if you haven't seen it in a while, or discover real Christmas joy if you are new to it. Merry Christmas, and God Bless us every one.

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