Monday, March 04, 2013

Films of Michael Caine: The Muppet Christmas Carol


Cast: Michael Caine (Ebenezer Scrooge), Dave Goelz (The Great Gonzo, Robert Marley, Bunsen Honeydew and Betina Cratchit), Steve Whitmire (Rizzo the Rat, Bean Bunny, Kermit the Frog, Beaker and Belinda Cratchit), Jerry Nelson (Tiny Tim Cratchit, Jacob Marley and Ma Bear), Frank Oz (Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear, Sam Eagle and Animal), Steven Mackintosh (Fred), Meredith Braun (Belle), Robin Weaver (Clara).

Crew: Brian Henson (director), Brian Henson and Martin G Baker (producers), Jerry Juhl (writer), Miles Goodman (music), John Fenner (cinematography), Michael Jablow (editor), Val Strazovec (production designer).

Synopsis: Ebenezer Scrooge is a tight-fisted moneylender. On Christmas Eve he is visited by the spectres of his dead partners, Jacob and Robert Marley. They are trapped in purgatory, bound by the chains of greed and avarice they embraced in life. The Marley brothers tell their former partner that three spirits will haunt him during the night. Scrooge is indeed visited by ghosts of Christmas past, present and future. The old man realises he abandoned love for his pursuit of money. He is unwanted and unloved, with nobody to mourn his passing. Scrooge becomes a new man, vowing to be generous and honour the spirit of Christmas…


The Muppet Christmas Carol was the first major project undertaken following the death of the Muppets’ creator, Jim Henson. His son Brian stepped forward to direct the picture, his first feature film. Screenwriter Jerry Juhl adapted the story by Charles Dickens, turning the author into an on-screen narrator and commentator. In an interview on the DVD release, Henson confesses to early trepidation about the project: ‘I didn’t know how we could do a Muppet version of A Christmas Carol that would stand out from all the others. It was Jerry Juhl’s idea to cast Gonzo as Charles Dickens and have him telling the story. That’s when we knew we had a film.’

The filmmakers decided Scrooge had to be played by a human actor and offered the part to Caine. The part required him to sing two of the songs written by Paul Williams for the picture – a first for the actor. The production was filmed entirely at Shepperton Studios. The movie reunited Caine with Frank Oz, his director on Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (1988).

‘People think I’ll be a silly old Scrooge,’ Caine told Empire magazine in 1992, ‘because it’s a silly old Muppets film. You have to play Scrooge absolutely seriously, otherwise it’s not funny. So what you’ve got is my performance as Scrooge, had I been at The National Theatre. It’s a very stretching, difficult role funnily enough, because you have to sing and you have to act with puppets.’

In publicity material for the film, Caine described what inspired his performance: ‘My basic role models for Scrooge were not Victorian, they were very modern and came from watching CNN and seeing the trials and tribulations of all the Wall Street cheats and embezzlers. I thought they represented a very good picture of meanness and greed! My Scrooge looks particularly irredeemable and is more psychotic than most.’

The Muppet Christmas Carol was released during December 1992, rated G in America and U in Britain. Critics gave it mediocre notices but the picture still grossed $27 million in the US and more than $4 million from Britain. A video release followed in 1993 and the movie made its DVD debut in 2002.

Reviews: ‘Caine resists the temptation to ham up his lead role, and the Muppets are far more spontaneous than some of his recent real life co-stars.’ – City Limits
‘Not as enchanting or amusing as the previous entries in the Muppet series … Michael Caine is perfectly cast as the nasty Scrooge, though his role is too dominant.’ – Variety

Verdict: There are an awful lot of people who love this film - unfortunately, I'm not one of them. The Muppet Christmas Carol strikes an uneasy balance as it blends the Dickens’ story with musical numbers, pithy asides and clowning puppets. The result is a halfway house that chops and changes its mood too often. The saccharine songs quickly wear out their welcome, but the running commentary on events by Gonzo and Rizzo the Rat provides welcome comic relief for adult viewers too familiar with the film’s source material. Caine wisely plays it straight as Scrooge, leaving the humour to the felt-faced creations around him. The less said about his singing, the better. The Muppet Christmas Carol has its moments, but will try the patience of any adult who sees it more than once.

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