Scrooge 30: Muppet Christmas Carol

Muppet_christmas_carolI was planning on waiting till Christmas Eve to review the Muppet’s Christmas Carol because my family and I will often watch it on Christmas Eve. But I finished earlier than I expected and this is my last Scrooge review and we are ending with a real winner.

I am well aware that readers of this blog do not share my attachment to Muppet Christmas Carol and I respect their opinion but it has no effect on mine . I love this version and it battles Alistair Sims and George C Scott as my favorite.

Am I blinded by nostalgia?  I don’t think so.  I do love The Muppets.  They are so cheerful it is hard for me to imagine people not liking them.  To me it is like Looney Tunes, Winnie the Pooh or Mickey and Friends they are a part of my childhood but the writing and joy in the stories transcend childishness and become entertainment for all.

That said, I certainly do not give Muppets a free pass in all their films.  The writing has to be there just like with any other artform or entertainment franchise. In fact, this year I included Muppets Most Wanted on my worst of the year list.  The Great Muppet Caper is another less successful entry in the Muppet world.

The key to making a Muppets movie work (or most any film for families) is the human characters, the grownups, have to play it completely straight like they would if they were acting with any other human actors.  When Steve Martin acts with Kermit and Miss Piggy in the original Muppet Movie he plays it just the same as he would if it was Chevy Chase and Jane Curtain.

Muppet Christmas Carol is the best example of playing it straight.  Michael Caine does not change his performance an inch because he is acting with Muppets.  I love his version of Scrooge.

Michael Caine The Muppet Christmas Carol

When he yells at the bookkeepers or throws cute little Beaker and Bunson out as the Benefactors there is no acknowledgement of their cuteness.  He is as Gonzo’s Dickens says ‘a covetous old sinner’.

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Gonzo and Rizzo are our narrators and Gonzo is Dickens and so we get a ton of the actual text for a kids version, and the story plays pretty close to the cuff compared to other adaptations.

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I think that’s great for kids to hear the old English and at the end they invite the children to read the book.

“Nice story Mr Dickens” says Rizzo

“Oh thanks.  If you like this you should read the book” says Gonzo as Dickens

I love that!

They also provide much of the humor in the story to help temper the scarier moments for kids.  Like when Gonzo lights Rizzo’s tail and he says ‘light the lamp, not the rat”.  I don’t know a kid that wouldn’t laugh at that (and me too!).

I’m also a big fan of Muppet Treasure Island which cast a brilliant Tim Curry who can ham it up more as a pirate than Caine’s Scrooge but I think both are strong at teaching kids about a classic piece of English literature in an approachable and fun way.

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Scrooge- As I already said I love Michael Caine as Scrooge.  I think he is tough but I love how we actually see Scrooge cry and early on too.  When he see’s his young self studying alone he cries.  When he see’s Belle he is visibly hurt.  He is one of the most vulnerable Scrooge’s on film and I love that!

When he see’s Tiny Tim he says ‘a remarkable child’ and it feels sincere even though it is a frog puppet.  I actually feel it is one of the better Scrooge/Tim relationships.

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Past looks great with an ethereal look to her that was created by filming the fabric inside a vat of oil according to the audio commentary. I also like when Past is a child

See the warmth in Scrooge’s eyes and this is at the very beginning of his journey.  Sometimes the transformation happens too late.  We don’t see any growth or tenderness until the 3rd ghost.  Not so in this version.

The songs do a great job telling the story instead of stopping it which many versions do incorrectly.  Like our introduction to Scrooge tells us everything we need to know and provides a few laughs along the way. To me the song Scrooge is kind of like Belle from Beauty and the Beast.  Both songs are a character going through town and people telling us who they are what the story is.

In contrast think of I Hate People in the Finney version tells us Scrooge hates people after we’ve already established that.  The song is completely unnecessary; whereas, the one’s from Muppets tell the story.

Differences/Strengths-

Aside from the basic difference of being Muppets as the characters it does stay pretty close to the book.

The Paul Williams songs and Miles Goodman score are just lovely.  I have them on my rotation of Christmas Carols and definitely think they are the best Christmas Carol musical efforts.

Instead of just Bob Cratchit there are rats that are bookkeepers and they provide one great joke and help Kermit close up for Christmas with my favorite song of the film:

It’s such a warm and happy song.  Really spells Christmas out for me.

kermit cratchitAnother difference is instead of one Marley they have 2 brothers- Jacob and Robert Marley.  This is so the curmudgeons Statler and Waldorf could play them and it is all done very well.  I love the way they mock Scrooge, taunt and heckle him. That’s so S and W and feels like something 2 Marley’s might have done.

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Again Caine plays the scene as if he was working with any human actors and it works very well. I love the singing cashboxes!

They take us to see Scrooge growing up and we get a good joke from Sam the Eagle.

MCC-Screengrabs-Sam-aBut we don’t get a Scrooge and Fan scene which is a shame because I think Caine would have been great with that.  Then we move on to Mr Fozziwigs who is of course Fozzie and they work in a lot of the other characters in the party scene.

fozziwigsWe then finish off Past with Belle and Scrooge.  Present is one of my favorites with a unique Muppet who is one of the few Presents to actually age. He and Scrooge have a real bond.

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It feels genuine when Caine says “I have learned so much from you. You have meant so much to me.  You have changed me” I love that example of friendship.  So many versions the townspeople and even Present can be kind of judgy and mean but here they were all aching to be friends with Scrooge.

We get another great song from Present.

And the interactions at Fred’s and at Cratchit’s feel like real families, not silly puppets.

cratchits muppetsI love that the girls are pigs and the boys are frogs.  That was very clever.

Tim sings a syrupy but nice Christmas song for the God Bless Everyone line and again Scrooge seems very moved by it.

Rizzo is also very funny in these scenes with some good slapstick.

rizzo gooseWe then get a pretty classic Future.  I really liked how they did the Pawn Shop scene with Old Joe as a spider. That was very creative.

old joe muppetThe other businessmen were pigs which I thought was a funny inside joke and then we see the Cratchit’s mourning over Tim and again Scrooge seems very upset by it.

muppets futureHe pleads with Future “Oh spirit must there be a Christmas that brings this awful scene. How can we endure it”.  That’s a lovely heartfelt moment. Makes me tear up.

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Rizzo and Gonzo (Dickens) bow out for ending which helps it remain the serious tone it should.

scrooge muppetIt is one of my favorite if a bit subtle Crazy Scrooge.  The Bean Bunny Scrooge throws out for singing is the boy in the window which is sweet because when he is at Present you see him shivering huddled with newspaper.

Then he meets up with Beaker and Bunson and Beaker gives Scrooge his first Christmas present a scarf and we get our final song. A lot of people are critical of Caine’s singing in this song but I don’t know I think he’s fine.

Weaknesses- Honestly I love this movie so I don’t think much is wrong with it.  I really don’t.  I guess if people want a by the book version than the humor might annoy you but I like it.

Some of the special effects are lame when Scrooge is going from one world to another or flying.

To me this does what you want a family movie to do.  It is warm, funny, sweet, good songs and a few scares. Plus, it introduces kids to classic literature by using lots of the text and being pretty faithful to the narrative.  It doesn’t dumb it down for kids.

I guess people that just don’t like the Muppets even at their best don’t like it but I try to be open minded to all styles and forms of movies. I know people who just don’t like anime no matter how brilliant and creative it might be and I think that’s a shame.

If the humor and style doesn’t work for you than so be it but I love it.

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Scrooge 23: 3 Sesame Street Holiday Films

christmas1Sesame Street started its regular weekly programming for children in 1969 and it has remained on air for over 40 years. So naturally most Americans were raised on Sesame Street and have a fondness for them.

It is a combination of educational skits, puppets, and human characters. The puppets or Muppets were first introduced by Jim Henson and there are worlds of Muppets that actually rarely combine together.

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You have Sesame Street that has Elmo, Big Bird, Oscar the Grouch, Grover, Ernie, Bert and the Count.

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You have Muppets that has Fozie, Kermit, Miss Piggy, Skeeter, Ralph, Swedish Chef, Animal, Gonzo and many more.

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Then there are Muppet Babies which are baby versions of the traditional Muppets.

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and Fraggle Rock.

We’ll talk about The Muppets more when I review their Christmas Carol but today we are talking about Sesame Street and 3 of their Christmas films including one that has a rare combination of all 4 Muppet universes.  Pretty exciting!

What makes Sesame Street so wonderful is it teaches children ABCs and other skills while making them laugh and providing messages from a diverse multicultural cast.  They do not talk down to kids and have tackled hard topics over the years including AIDS, death, and divorce.  The writing in all the Muppet Universe is always sharp, funny for adults and full of a warmth.

The key is they treat the world like an ordinary world.  In the Christmas Eve on Sesame Street Big Bird is lost and the adult troupe at Sesame Street are as worried and upset as if it was their own little girl.  It’s the same with the comedic moments.  When Steve Martin has a scene with Kermit in the Muppet Movie he plays it just the same as if he was working with Chevy Chase or Dan Akroyd.  That’s what makes The Muppets stand the test of time like Mickey or Winnie the Pooh because their worlds are thoughtfully rendered with universal themes.

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So let’s talk about 3 Sesame Street Movies

First our Christmas Carol movie-

A Sesame Street Christmas Carol

This is my least favorite of the 3 and is more of a clip show than a movie but let’s talk about it.

sesameScrooge- Naturally our Scrooge is Oscar the Grouch.  He is the Muppet that lives in a trash can.  This is very similar to the Grouchy in the Smurfs movie.

I’m really surprised they didn’t use his song ‘I Hate Christmas’ from Christmas Eve on Sesame Street but there is a very funny narration by Tim Curry that starts out regal and stuffy and Oscar interrupts them.

JoemarleyThe gimmick here is that Oscar doesn’t want to be disturbed until after Christmas but he gets a visit from Joe Marley of Scaredy Pants Delivery Service.

Then he gets a vintage bean can or a ‘ghostigram’ and is visited by 3 spirits that are not puppets.  That was a major problem for me!

No CG in Muppets movies!!!

But if I ignore the CG they are actually pretty clever.  The first ghost is Rhubarb the Scottish Grouch to show 2 clips of Christmas Past.

Rhubarb sesameThe 2 clips are Burt and Ernie Gift of the Magi which we will talk about in a bit (a favorite of mine).

xmas-eve-on-sesame-streetAnd then we get Big Bird singing ‘All I Want for Christmas’. She is missing Snuffy and it is a lovely heartfelt moment originally from Elmo Saves Christmas.

Both of these segments have tons of heart and I enjoyed them both.

Next for Present we have Christmas Carole who is voiced by Kristen Chenoweth.

sesame prsentThere are 4 clips in this segment.

1. Elmo and Santa Claus from Elmo’s World: Happy Holidays

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Elmo in the Muppet World symbolizes love.  He isn’t telling jokes or getting stressed out like Kermit, or full of himself like Piggy.  He is always loving.

2. Elmo sings about ‘Everyday Can’t be Christmas’ from Elmo Saves Christmas.

3. A nice segment on Chanukah and Kwanza from Elmo’s World Happy Holidays.

4. Keep Christmas With You from Christmas Eve on Sesame Street.

Final Ghost is a Robot from the future and we get a cartoon about Christmas in the future.

And that’s about it.  It’s a pleasant film but the other 2 I am going to talk about are much better.

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Christmas Eve on Sesame Street-

christmas eve sesame streetThis is a film I loved growing up and you know what I still love it!  It’s funny and got real heart like the best of the Muppets.

This one starts with 2 musical numbers with the kids and adults skating.

sesame-street-christmas-eve-on-sesame-street-04Coming out of the rink Oscar starts teasing Big Bird about Santa not being small enough to fit down the chimney.  This starts the plot for the film.

big bird oscarWorried Big Bird asks Kermit to find out how Santa gets down the chimney so him and Grover interview a bunch of cute kids during segments. Freaking adorable.

We also get a the Gift of the Magi from Bert and Ernie and this is one of my favorites Muppets moments ever.  It is so sweet and heartfelt, and gets to the core of the message of Christmas.  I loved it as a kid and love it now even more.

I also love they sing Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas at the end which is one of my favorite Christmas songs.  It honestly makes me tear up a bit. It’s just a sweet little story about friendship and thinking of others more than yourself . I mean its his paperclip collection!

We also get this hilarious segment from Cookie Monster trying to write to Santa.

Everyone starts searching for Big Bird because he is up on the roof trying to see Santa and find out.  Everyone becomes very worried.  Maria scolds Oscar and says with real intensity (again like they are dealing with real people).

“The nest is something different. He’s got electric blanket there.  And his friends are there. ‘What are you going to do about it”

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When they find Big Bird it turns out Santa has come and he says ‘Now we will never know’

Bob says ‘Why do you want to know?”

Big Bird says ‘Because it’s important’

Bob says “No, what is important is we lost you tonight and we were all very worried and now we’ve got you back safe and sound for Christmas”

That’s the kind of heart I love in Sesame Street and Muppets.  It’s just great.

This film is a perfect Christmas film for kids.  It will make them laugh with Cookie and Grover, teach them about friendship from Bert and Ernie and remember from Big Bird what is important.

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A Muppet Family Christmas

muppet family

This is a very special Muppet movie because it is the only one that includes all of the Muppet universe- Muppets, Sesame Street, Fraggle Rock, and Muppet Babies!  It was very exciting to watch!!

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It’s a pretty simple story.  All the Muppets are gathering at Fozzie’s house and we get to meet his mother and as the day goes more people arrive.  As they arrive we get more songs.

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Hilarious segment when Swedish Chef tries to cook Big Bird for Christmas dinner.
staltler and waldorf
Totally epic to have Statler and Waldorf with Cookie Monster. Mind blown!
bert and ernie play
Bert, Ernie, and Grover put on the Night Before Christmas
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They watch a family movie of the Muppet Babies
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We even get a little cameo from our friend Jim Henson. Meta!

Robin and Kermit go in the basement and find a Fraggle Hole and invite the Fraggles up for Christmas.  They sing a song.

It ends up being a very full house but the writing is funny.  Ms Piggy is hilarious with a photo shoot at the beginning.  Again, the photographer treats her like any other model which is why the Muppets works .  He says ‘do that pouty thing’ and it is very funny.

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Like I said the rest of the movie is just people arriving and singing songs.  We get We Need a Little Christmas, Jingle Bell Rock, Sleigh Ride, Deck the halls, Santa Claus is Coming to Town, No Place Like Home for the Holidays.

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Then the last 10 minutes are a Christmas medley of carols and it is very cheerful and entertaining.

This movie is a real treat.  It’s so much fun to see so many of the universes together and so many characters.  The jokes are funny.  The songs are good.  It’s not that long so the gimmick worked fine for me.  It’s just great!!

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So we have 3 solid Sesame Street Christmas films.  I think kids and adults will enjoy all 3 with Christmas Eve and Family Christmas being the best of the 3.  They are well written, funny, and have real heart.  The Muppets are treated like real people and they don’t talk down to kids or patronize them.  It’s the best!

Have a great evening!

Scrooge 21: An American Christmas Carol

american corlAmericans should all feel a little bit bad for Henry Winkler.  Why you ask?  Well, he is a Yale educated actor with loads of classical training and his biggest hit was spending 10 years on a TV show playing the Fonz.  This was the smooth talking, leather jacket wearing guy who could always get the girls and teach Richie Cunningham how to be cool.

Winkler has always had a good sense of humor about his glory days but he did try even back in then to do more dramatic work.  One such example was an American Christmas Carol made in 1979 for ABC Television.

And while he and the production put forth a good effort, in the end I can’t really recommend the picture.  It isn’t terrible just kind of slow with poor production values and some odd choices that bothered me.

The new take on the story is it is set in small town America in the 1930’s.  This would be fine but then they use a whole bunch of Canadian actors to play the parts.  That annoyed me a little bit.  I mean if you are going to have all Canadians in your cast call it a A Canadian Christmas Carol!  (I just can’t get the accents I want in Christmas Carol it seems unless your name is Alistair Sim!).   They also change all the names around and have characters refer to the Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens.  They are familiar with the story and it gets a little meta when Winkler’s character is talking to one of the ghosts about the ghosts who visited Scrooge ‘it’s not going to work you know’

Trailer:

Here is an old television promo for it.  You only need to watch the first minute or so of this video.

Cast:

Henry Winkler Benedict Slade
Dorian Harewood Matt Reeves
Susan Hogan Helen Brewster
Cec Linder Auctioneer
RH Thomson Thatcher
David Wayne Merrivale
Michael Wincott Choir Leader
William Bermender Orphan
Brett Matthew Davidson Orphan
Christopher Crabb Tim
Williiam Ballantyne Minister
Tammy Bourne Sarah Thatcher
Chris Cragg Jon Thatcher
James Douglas Sam Perkins
Arlene Duncan Jennie Reeves

Scrooge-

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Scrooge- Winkler is fine with his performance but the writing, makeup and direction don’t do him any favors . I can tell he is trying but they make Slade (that’s the Scrooge characters name in this) kind of like Prince John in Robin Hood.  I mean this guy is a bad dude and you guys know I like the more villainous Scrooge’s best.  Here’s the difference in the book Scrooge is able to be a miser because he does not interact with others.  He doesn’t even know the smallest detail about his own clerk.  As he points out to the Benefactor his ‘occupation consumes him’.

In this version Scrooge is a Repot man which means at the beginning he goes from house to house repossessing items from people (on Christmas Eve no less).  This feels almost Gestapo mean. Especially when we get a scene where he confiscates all the books of a store and rips them out from the bindings . It made me practically physically ill to see those beautiful books destroyed like that.  He also repossess a piano from the orphanage that he grew up in until he was adopted.

american 1st edition

Differences-  There are almost too many to mention them all.  Of course, we have the change in setting and time.  Scrooge was an orphan rescued by a man named Mr Brewster who teaches him how to work with wood and build furniture.  (This is all seen by Past who is the man from the bookstore seen above).

Slade grows up and wants to implement the moving assembly line to make chairs and Brewster thinks it isn’t right to make such a shoddy product.  It’s another movie where darn old capitalism is the villain.  It’s like the ‘Gold, gold, gold’ song in Pocahontas.  Groan.  Dickens is so much more subtle.  He does not condemn the earning of money but just a man who has removed Christ and other people from his life.

The Marley character is actually a teacher or mentor to Scrooge and teaches him ‘the ways of business’ and his name is Mr Latham.  His scene is fairly forgettable.  It’s kind of like the Mr Jorkin bit in Alistair Sim but in that case Jorkin was more of a secondary influence not a mentor.

cratchit winkler

Slade fires his clerk Bob Thatcher because he suggests to him that a good business investment might be opening up the old mill that Mr Brewster used to own.  Slade’s reaction seems extreme and it turns out that Thatcher’s son Jon needs to go to Australia to see a doctor for his condition.

All of the ghosts are people Slade confiscated possessions from earlier in the film, which could have been clever but never quite works.

The rest of the story is what you would expect until Future comes. They cast Dorian Harewood as the last ghost and he is a wonderful actor but in an all white movie it bothered me a little bit that the only black man we see is the part that is usually a grim reaper type.  It’s such an offensive racial caricature to have the angelic white people and the token looming grimacing black man.  Future isn’t a villain per say but he is usually symbolic of death and it just annoyed me.  (It’s made even worse that when Future is introduced Slade’s radio goes bonkers and starts playing hip hop music…Groan.

Also in Future there is an auction where Slade’s possessions are bought by vengeful townsfolk and then burned in a big fire.  How is that the Christmas spirit to stoop to Slade’s level?  They burn things that could be used by people, could help people which is almost as bad as Scrooge destroying the books. The Finney version made the same mistake.  Christmas is supposed to make people kind and forgiving, not vengeful and vitriolic.

future winkler

Strengths- The strengths are the acting.  Like I said, Winkler tries his darndest.  It’s a shame he wasn’t given better writing, makeup and direction.

The sets and costumes are fine and there are some nice messages throughout.  I like what they were trying to do but it just doesn’t work.

Weaknesses- There are so many problems.  Mainly it creates a tonal problem when we have Slade interacting with people, taking their things and destroying books (I hated to watch that!).  Scrooge is supposed to be making only Bob and maybe Fred’s life miserable.  Other than that he is terrified of poverty and the world, not out there taking pianos from orphanages. It’s just an entirely different character and one that is way less likely to be moved by the 3 visits.

Also, I had a problem with the casting of Future and the way that was handled but mostly it is slow and feels dare I say it, a little boring.  All the stuff about the moving assembly line and modernization dragged and took us away from Christmas and the message of the story.

So yeah this one I would say skip. Poor, poor Henry Winkler.

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