Jacob's Favorite Christmas Films: #3. "The Muppet Christmas Carol" (1992)/"Scrooged" (1988)
It's a tie! And get ready, because this is going to be the longest review of the whole holiday season as I attempt to articulate why these are my two favorite versions of "A Christmas Carol."
Before I really dig into this, it's worth saying that everyone has their own "A Christmas Carol" adaptation they love the most. It's one of the most widely adapted stories in western media to the point that a video exists on YouTube that takes over 400 versions of the story and edits them together. With that much to choose from, we're all going to have different versions in mind. Some people will gravitate towards George C. Scott's performance in 1985 to Reginald Owen's performance in 1938 (apologies to my Uncle Eddy that this version didn't make the list, but you can't say that I didn't mention it).
For me, Ebenezer Scrooge is either Michael Caine or Bill Murray.
It's really saying something that when faced with a tie between two movies, it's easier to explain with a straight face the movie in which Kermit the Frog plays Bob Cratchit. First up, The Muppet Christmas Carol.
Every major kids icon has its own version of "A Christmas Carol," Looney Toons and Mickey Mouse included. The Muppet Christmas Carol feels pretty unique inside of that sphere though, with two major distinctions. One, it's actually a feature length film. Most kids properties that riff on "A Christmas Carol" work it in as an episode of a TV show or a short film, not a feature length film sent to theaters. Two, Scrooge isn't a "cast member." In the case of the Mickey Mouse version, Scrooge McDuck stands in for Scrooge (no, just because he's got Scrooge in his name doesn't make him the same character, but that's semantics). In the Looney Tunes version, Scrooge is Yosemite Sam.
The Muppet Christmas Carol doesn't send one of its Muppets into the fray as Scrooge, opting to have him played by an actual person. In a film mostly populated by puppets (with rare exception), Michael Caine really stands out in an obvious way. However, he embodies the arc of Ebenezer Scrooge gracefully, transforming from the embodiment of wickedness into kindness. It's a completely believable metamorphosis, and one that Michael Caine took really seriously, despite some of the antics on the film's edges.
The film's biggest weakness comes in the form of Gonzo and Rizzo the Rat, who act as the narrators of the piece. Rizzo's entire role is to get as many slapstick gags in as possible to keep kids in the audience from getting bored. It's almost distracting, except that most of the gags are pretty funny and that Gonzo gets an unusual role. Gonzo is trying to play Charles Dickens and stay in character, but it leads to Gonzo reciting prose from the original novel. Jim Henson's son, Brian Henson, served as the director of this film, and it turns out he's a huge fan of Charles Dickens. He consciously decided to make Gonzo into the narrator to highlight the lines he found to be the most beautiful. It's a decision that directly acts as a counterweight to Rizzo's slapstick, and it's just enough to keep the whole movie rolling and let Michael Caine shine.
Also, some of the puppets in this film are pretty unique in the world of The Muppets. The Ghost of Christmas Past features an aesthetic that reminds me of The Dark Crystal era of The Jim Henson Creature Shop, and the other two ghosts are well designed.
What really makes the whole thing though is that... It's The Muppets. I love The Muppets. Always have, always will. The way that Statler and Waldorf are transformed into the "Marley Brothers" is a brilliant move that brings some of the film's funniest jokes and most surreal visuals. Having Sam the Eagle as young Ebenezer Scrooge's teacher is another brilliant move but making Kermit the Frog into Bob Cratchit is the film's smartest move. Kermit is compassionate and goofy at his best, so seeing him struggle to keep his hope is oddly moving, even tearjerking once Scrooge sees the future and the fate of Tiny Tim.
That might be the most remarkable part of The Muppet Christmas Carol, the genuine heart it has. Watching Michael Caine break down in front of puppets as if they're any other actor is a true talent. He doesn't feel like a guy hanging out on a set loaded to the brim with puppeteers, but as if he's on any normal set. It lends a tremendous amount of empathy to The Muppets that makes them feel more alive than they ever were in any of the other Muppet films.
As odd as all that sounds, The Muppet Christmas Carol isn't nearly as strange as the second film of this review: Scrooged.
God I love Scrooged.
Scrooged is the most nakedly cynical film on this entire list, managing to beat out even Krampus and Gremlins in that aspect. You know you're in for a ride when Bill Murray's character Frank Cross stands in a corporate room that defines the word "cross" on the wall as "something they nail people to."
Frank Cross is the modern evolution of Scrooge, but somehow worse. Ebenezer Scrooge was a landlord in London, but Frank Cross is a television executive that loves Christmas. But not for the right reasons. It's a massive spike in ratings for him, especially as his channel is mounting a live production of "Scrooge" that consumes all of his time. Bill Murray plays a cartoon caricature of a television executive here in a performance that Murray actually hates. He might hate the performance, but I don't. There's something gleefully awful and fun in watching Frank Cross use a stop-watch to see how quickly security can remove someone after firing him. Frank Cross makes the Grinch look positively kind, specifically the Grinch before his heart grew in size.
Frank Cross' life is suddenly upheaved by the ghost of his mentor, who also was a television executive, warning Cross that he will be visited by three ghosts... You can tell where this is going. It's a literal modern re-telling of "A Christmas Carol," but with a main character that is trying to produce a television version of "A Christmas Carol." It's a meta setup that allows for a lot of great jokes and sequences where Cross leaves one of the Ghost's visions and ends up in the middle of dress rehearsal for the TV production.
And those Ghosts are wild as hell. The Ghost of Christmas Past is a chaotic and vitriolic taxi cab driver, The Ghost of Christmas Present is a prissy fairy that beats Frank Cross into submission, and The Ghost of Christmas Future is... Terrifying. Actually terrifying. There are some cheesy animatronics used to depict the ribcage of The Ghost of Christmas Future, but the ghost's head is a TV and the images on that TV are occasionally disturbing. Nothing that the ghost directly does is as disturbing as this film's version of "Scrooge visits his grave." It's not uncommon for filmmakers adapting "A Christmas Carol" to make this sequence into a straight up horror scene, but Scrooged takes it almost too far.
For that grim sequence though, make no mistake: First and foremost, this is an 80s Bill Murray comedy. If you're into that, then this is one of the best ones. If you can't stand Bill Murray, this definitely isn't the movie that's going to change your mind. It's a mean 80s comedy too, with a cold open scene that's a pretty good litmus test for if you're going to like the whole movie or not (and boy do I love that opening scene).
The real genius of Scrooged though is how else it updates the story. If Scrooge becomes Frank Cross, then why not turn Bob Cratchit into Grace Cooley, a black woman struggling to take care of her family in New York despite working for an ultra wealthy man? And with the fact that Frank Cross is younger than Scrooge, why not give him a chance to reconnect with the one woman he loved, Claire Philips, played by Karen Allen. These revisions change the story into an even more hopeful incarnation of the original tale. It's more absurd too, but it works in the way that 80s comedies tend to work.
There are a ton of other funny characters to talk about here, but I'll leave them for anyone who hasn't seen the movie to discover. Scrooged is a nasty B-side to the adaptations of "A Christmas Carol," for people who want an angrier element to the story. That's not to say the transformation isn't any different, with Cross becoming a better man too, but the transformation is even more extreme in this context. Like the best Christmas films, it counterbalances the cynicism with optimism, just in crazier quantities.
Oh, and if you decide to watch Scrooged, look for "Free South Africa" posters all over the place (there are a ton of them).