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It's a Mann's World: God Bless Us, Everyone!

BY Olly Mann

14th Dec 2022 Life

It's a Mann's World: God Bless Us, Everyone!

How early is too early to watch The Muppet Christmas Carol? Olly Mann waxes lyrical about the ultimate festive musical (or should we say carol?)

When does Christmas begin in your household? The day you get the decorations down from the attic? The first afternoon you mull some wine? The morning you first tackle a chocolate orange for breakfast?

For me, it’s the evening we watch The Muppet Christmas Carol, Disney’s enduring 1992 retelling of the Dickens story, with added Americanisms and fur.

For many years, this involved fetching a dusty VHS from the back of the cupboard, and would occur sometime in early December.

Since the advent of Disney+, however—with the Muppets available on-demand 24/7, just one tap along from the Kardashians (insert your own gag here)—our annual home screening has been pulled ever earlier into autumn.

This year, it was October 25. I was in a T-shirt. There were still leaves on the trees. The Halloween pumpkin had yet to be carved. But we just couldn’t wait. I caved.

"It has the same profundity and morality as the original book, yet finds space for singing vegetables"

My two kids have been hot-housed in the Muppet oeuvre from birth; if only because, when Grandma comes to babysit, The Muppet Show is the one cross-generational entertainment on which we can agree: slapstick for the kiddies, warm nostalgia for me, and Seventies guest stars Mum can readily identify (Charles Aznavour, Zero Mostel, Bernadette Peters… even their names feel retro).

The tactility of the puppets is appealing too; the ping-pong eyes and the sticks under their arms being so much more relatable than their modern-day CGI equivalents. You can imagine exactly what Fozzie Bear feels like.

But The Muppet Christmas Carol is a triumph far beyond demographic box-ticking. This year it turns 30, a respectable age for a film to be taken seriously; but, to me, it’s forever felt comfortably on par with It’s A Wonderful Life and Miracle on 34th Street as a solid-gold Christmas classic.

It’s postmodern, yet timeless. It has the same profundity and morality as the original book, yet finds space for singing vegetables and a cameo from the Swedish Chef.

It is, dare I say, the most redolent version of Dickens’ tale committed to film.

Cartoon illustration of family sat watching The Muppet Christmas Carol on televisionCredit: Dom McKenzie

What makes it work? In two words, Michael Caine. His portrayal of Scrooge is convincing, committed and completely irony-free.

When he took the role, he reportedly told director Brian Henson, “I'm going to play it like I'm playing opposite the Royal Shakespeare Company,” and his performance meets those ambitions.

In just a few seconds his face cycles from joy, to apprehension, to dejection, to fear. He never once nods and winks to the audience; never betrays any awareness that his co-narrator is a rat from New Jersey, or that Dr Teeth and the Electric Mayhem band don’t really belong in Victorian London.

"Michael Caine told director Brian Henson, 'I'm going to play it like I'm playing opposite the Royal Shakespeare Company'"

You utterly believe that he has been on a gut-wrenching journey to confront his own mortality. That he has looked death in the face and anticipated an eternity of endless suffering. And then, minutes later, that he is dancing down the street with a cow.

The Muppets slot easily into a world of festive fun: the very cloth that forms Kermit’s physiology is the colour-palette of Christmas. But there was pain behind the scenes on this project, and I think it shows.

Henson’s Dad, Jim, had died suddenly two years prior, at the age of 53. As if this wasn’t stressful enough, Disney then threatened to pull out of the deal to buy Henson’s company, arguing that without its most senior creative force—the voice of Kermit himself—the enterprise was worth less.

Then, just a year later, long-time Muppeteer, Richard Hunt died of complications related to HIV/AIDS. Not the obvious circumstances for a feelgood film.

Composer Paul Williams, meanwhile, was emerging from rehab after a decade of alcohol and cocaine abuse and, tasked with writing songs about spiritual awakening and redemption, gave tracks like "Thankful Heart" and "It Feels Like Christmas" an emotional punch way beyond their role in the plot.

"Composer Paul Williams was emerging from rehab after a decade of alcohol and cocaine abuse"

Like Caine’s performance, they are unshakeably sincere. The orchestrations are lush. The choruses are subtle and reward repeat listening.

That said, I suspect the Les Mis-esque ballad "When Love Is Gone" is quite boring for little kids, and applaud Jeffrey Katzenberg’s decision to cut it from the theatrical release.

Since December 11, it has once again been restored to the film on Disney+, which at least provides me with an excuse for a repeat viewing, to test my theory.

Apparently, an original version of the screenplay had the Ghost of Christmas Future played by Gonzo, his distinctive blue nose sticking out from under the Reaper’s hood.

This would certainly have lightened the mood, and perhaps enticed my kids out from behind the sofa, but it would have added a pantomime quality that is gloriously absent from the final film.

Instead, because all three of the spirits are represented by puppets with whom the audience are unfamiliar, and who do not appear elsewhere in the Muppet canon, it makes the scenes more urgent, and Scrooge’s crisis more acute.

The film makes no mention of the Nativity, yet stays true to the Christmas message of family, love and kindness—something meaningful for every viewer. With added Miss Piggy. What’s not to like?

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