Do you have that movie that you can watch over and over again because it’s just so incredibly good? For me it’s The Muppet Christmas Carol. It doesn’t matter how many times I watch it, because I still find it captivating every time. The characters are charming, the music is infectious (except for that one song; you know which one I’m talking about), the story is uplifting: it’s a near perfect movie.
And, because it happens to also be a Christmas movie, there’s a built in occasion to sit down and watch it every year.
Rachael and I sat down to watch The Muppet Christmas Carol the other night as a way of celebrating the beginning of American Christmas season, and enjoying a story about the importance of generosity and hospitality towards others (and so we could sing along to the music); there’s a lot of bad stuff going on in the news, particularly in the way people seem to be growing more scared and tribalist in the wake of all the recent mass shootings. Thanksgiving wasn’t a terribly heartwarming holiday this year as it got undercut by all the panic over the refugees from Syria, and it’s felt a little like Christmas is getting similar treatment.
For anyone who might not be familiar (I know that’s probably a vanishingly small number, but whatever), The Muppet Christmas Carol is an adaptation of Charles Dickens’s story A Christmas Carol with the Muppet characters playing the parts of most of the characters in the story (human actors seem to be restricted only to Ebenezer Scrooge, his family, and Scrooge’s lost love Belle). Scrooge is a life-long miser who’s disliked by everyone because of his stingy ways and refusal to celebrate Christmas in even the most cursory fashion, but thanks to the intervention of the ghosts of his dead business partners, Jacob and Robert Marley (stealth pun!), he gets a chance to redeem himself on the eve of Christmas. By way of three more spirits, Scrooge learns about his past, present, and future through the lens of Christmas and comes to the conclusion that he must change his ways.
I’ve discussed this in some depth in the past when I reviewed the Chick Tract adaptation of A Christmas Carol, but I love this story for its insistence that genuine repentance involves action. It’s not enough that Scrooge learns he needs to celebrate Christmas and repair the relationships in his life, but he has to try to make amends for the wrongs he’s done. The epiphany on Christmas morning is one centered around both joyous celebration and immediate work to correct previous injuries, like the unkindness Scrooge shows the homeless boy and his refusal to donate to the charity for the poor on Christmas Eve (something in the line, “A great many back payments are included,” resonates). It’s not simply kind thoughts and pious prayers.
How Scrooge arrives at his moment of epiphany is pretty interesting as well. I’ve wondered for years about the way the story is structured with the three spirits. The Spirit of Christmas Past is necessary because it establishes Scrooge’s history and points out the variety of ways he was guided towards becoming a miser; he never had warm experiences with Christmas as a boy, and he allowed his legitimate desire to build a stable life for himself and Belle to run to excess (the Muppets version is very gentle in how it portrays Scrooge and Belle’s break up, suggesting that she’s tired of waiting for him to feel secure enough, where other versions I’ve seen portray Scrooge as already being more obsessed with money than concerned with his relationship to Belle as a young man). All this background has to be given so we understand what brought Scrooge to where he is and also so he’s confronted with the pain that he’s been trying to protect himself from through his harsh demeanor. The Spirit of Christmas Present takes the opportunity of these freshly opened wounds to show Scrooge how the celebration of Christmas can help them heal. Scrooge is delighted by the fun he sees his nephew Fred having at Christmas dinner (even though it stings to see that he’s an object of ridicule), and he’s moved by his exposure to the personal life of his employee Bob Cratchit and the realization that it’s within his own power to improve Bob’s life dramatically. Christmas Present’s end serves as a sharp reminder that Scrooge’s attitude has been callously dismissive of people in worse circumstances than his own, and it feels like the point where he becomes genuinely repentant. He’s all set up to humbly accept the lessons of the last spirit.
And this is where I’ve always struggled to understand the story’s structure. Scrooge is ready to change when his time with the Spirit of Christmas Present is over, but he’s doomed to go through the visit with the Spirit of Christmas Yet to Come. It’s a harsh sequence, with Scrooge being shown just how much the end of his life as it currently is will be celebrated. Besides the vision of the Cratchit family mourning Tiny Tim’s passing, the entirety of this sequence is about Scrooge learning that his death won’t be mourned. It’s a hard thing to reconcile this essentially selfish motivation for change with the previous episodes that have been about Scrooge learning the importance of generosity and kindness. It feels like a regression back to the Marley visitation, which is all about motivating Scrooge through fear.
Of course, one of the things that we often forget about A Christmas Carol is that it’s a ghost story. Yes, it’s centered around Christmas and what’s important about that season, but it’s also meant to be scary. While it feels like a really reductive explanation, I think the point of the Christmas Yet to Come sequence is to provide a sufficiently terrifying climax to the story. Scrooge’s emotional journey is warm and fuzzy, but moving to the resolution before he’s had a good scare undermines the nature of what the story is. There are probably deeper considerations, like the horror inherent in learning that a person’s selfish decisions cut them out of the fabric of a community, but in simple terms I think it’s just best to say that Scrooge has to be scared before Christmas morning because that’s just how you build a proper ghost story (also, moments of crisis always help make joyous resolutions feel all the more poignant because you get the sense that the characters have worked for them in some way).
As for why the Muppet version of A Christmas Carol is the one I like best? It has some great jokes built in around the core of the story. All of the characters are consistently funny in ways that don’t diminish Scrooge’s story. Nothing feels extraneous or indulgent like, say, the chase sequence in the Zemeckis version of A Christmas Carol which provides an action climax to a story that never needed one. The only major flaw in the construction of the movie that I regularly notice is the scene where Belle breaks up with Scrooge, and that isn’t so much because of any problem with the staging or rhythm of the story, but because the song featured in that scene just isn’t very good (last year The Muppet Christmas Carol was on Netflix, and that entire song had actually been edited out of the movie; Rachael and I rejoiced greatly and told all our friends). It’s unfortunate that the movie’s ending song is a callback to it, because it ever so slightly dampens the ending. Nonetheless, that’s really a minor quibble, since we always have the option to skip “When Love Is Gone” whenever we put the movie on.