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’.

beaker benefactor

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.

gonzo and rizzo

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.

The-Muppet-Christmas-Carol-Screencaps-michael-caine-5823454-570-330

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.

muppet past
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.

marleys 2

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.

muppet present

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.

The-Muppet-Christmas-Carol-Screencaps-michael-caine-5823446-570-330

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.

muppets cast2

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.

sesame muppets

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

muppet_show_cast1

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

MuppetBabiesPUPPETS

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

fraggle rock

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.

___________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

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

ElmosChristmasCountdown

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.

________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

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”

big_bird_roof

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.

_________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

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!!

MFCCLose

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.

Christmas_Song_in_Muppet_Family_Christmas
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
MuppetFamilyChristmas-MuppetBabies
They watch a family movie of the Muppet Babies
jim henson
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.

muppet-piggy1

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.

muppet-header

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!!

___________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

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!

Movie 21: Robin Hood

robin hood poster

(This review ended up being less about the story of the movie but more about the things I learned in my research and how I feel about individual scenes.  I hope it works for you guys)

Robin Hood is a movie as soon as I heard it was on blu-ray I went out and bought it. I really do love it.  That said, I do have to look at films a little bit objectively or what’s the point in even reviewing them?  It can’t be all based on nostalgia even if that is a factor.

So, let’s talk about it.

Production-

robin and little johnThere isn’t a ton of production info on a lot of these movies from the 70s.  Honestly I poured through the internet trying to find out the thought process behind the writing, art, songs, etc in Robin Hood but found very little.  However, I was able to piece some interesting tidbits together, and really enjoyed rewatching it again.

First thing to know is Robin Hood is the first movie to be made without any involvement from Walt Disney.  (Walt had signed off on the Aristocats before his passing).

Released in 1973 Disney had moved its focus away from its animated division in the late 60s and all of their capital and energy was going into Walt Disney World in Florida.  We are used to it now but at the time Epcot was a herculean task and another example of Walt Disney dreaming big!

But the budgets on the animated films suffered for a long time.  We didn’t see Disney invest real money into a picture until 1985 with the Black Cauldron, which was also their biggest flop (kind of excited to see that one!).

Robin Hood didn’t always start out as a comedy.   Lead writer and storyboard artist Ken Anderson (who is given writing credit on the feature even though he hated it) was commissioned by Disney to come up with a story based on Reynard the fox, a fearless creature known throughout France.  He gave his drawings to Disney animators and I read multiple places he ‘wept when he saw that his “character concepts  had been processed into stereotypes for the animation in Robin Hood”

raynold fox

It is the first Disney movie to have all anthropomorphic creatures.  The Rooster says at the beginning it is ‘the animal kingdom’s version’ of the story.  Not sure why they did it this way but there were shows and stories featuring all anthropomorphic creatures for kids successful at the time. On the anthropomorphic note doing this research I came across a group called the furry fandom which have an unhealthy love for anthropomorphic creatures.  Let’s just say I have nightmares! 😉

They also give us a really long intro with the character name, type of animal, and the celebrity voice which is new to Disney.  Before Jungle Book Disney had not used celebrity voices, but had relied on talented voice overs actors like Verna Felton and Sterling Holloway. Even now when celebrity voices are very common I still don’t recall them having a character introduction like in Robin Hood.

Recycling Animation-

Something surprising I learned in my research is Disney has admitted to recycling animation (I didn’t know you could do that) from other films to make Robin Hood.  I’m not sure I really care but it is kind of disappointing.

This recycling or ‘limited animation’ is defined as- “Limited animation is a process of making animated cartoons that does not redraw entire frames but variably reuses common parts between frames

It is for this reason that Disney as a company kind of hates Robin Hood and many other films from this era, despite them being very popular.  I’ve always thought it was interesting how little attention they get in the park and I think this recycled material explains why..  .

Humor in Robin Hood-friends

The thing I liked as a child and still like today about Robin Hood is its humorous script.  There is a ton of funny dialogue like when Prince John tells the guards to ‘seize the fat one’ or when Little John says ‘who’s driving this flying umbrella?’ This scene at the tournament is full of classic physical comedy.  We even get a pie in the face.  Some may think that is cliche but to kids watching they haven’t seen those bits before and they are put together so well.   It still makes me laugh:

There is also humor with Robin Hood and Little John dressing in drag to steal from Prince John.  Again the scene uses classic comedy tropes including some sexy music but it works. I repeat it still makes me laugh:

One Disney site I found said Prince John’s humor had been based on The Smother’s Brothers, which makes sense.  They were a very funny comedy sketch team that produced popular comedic albums and had The Smother’s Brothers Comedy Hour from 1967-1969 but it was deemed as too edgy and taken off the air.

Listen to this bit and see if it reminds you of Robin Hood.

As I was watching it today I kept thinking about a Muppets sketch from the 70s I had seen a few days ago.  It felt very similar in tone and cadence to Robin Hood and it made me wonder if the two were connected in some way?  I did some research and found out Sesame Street started in 1969.  Real work on Robin didn’t start till well after that date.  I could be wrong on the Muppet connection but it just feels like a similar form of comedy.   The Muppets are very bawdy in their humor, they have all different animals behaving like humans and they have sincere moments like Rainbow Connection. I think Disney saw the success of Muppets and decided to apply it to Robin Hood.

When I saw this clip my opinion was even more confirmed.  From season 1 or 2 of Sesame Street:

I am spending so much time talking about the writing because I think that is what is special about Robin Hood.  The animation clearly has problems but even if it is recycled, the humor still works.

The Music-

The music is pretty good.   Following the lead of the Aristocats and Jungle Book, they used recognizable singers including Phil Harris and country singer Roger Miller who wrote the songs and serves as narrator.  (A folksy feeling soundtrack may also be a nod to the Smothers Brothers who played guitar and sang in their act).

The introductory song is my personal favorite and I pretty much have it memorized.  It’s not a song that will change your life but I kind of like it.

The Love song is pretty 70’s corny so it isn’t my favorite.  I do like Phony King of England song even if it is recycled animation. (What about you guys?  Does knowing that make you like it less or do you not care?)

Characters-

Another thing I like about Robin Hood is you get introduced to a lot of characters. In 83 minutes (long for Disney those days) we have little vignettes with the sheriff, Prince John and Hiss, Clucky and Maid Marian, and the rabbits and friends, etc.

cast

I don’t know if there is a more morose moment in Disney than the ‘Not in Nottingham’ number because it affects so many people. I remember as a child being less interested in the last third of the movie and I still kind of agree with that assessment.  The scenes with Nutsy are fun but the jailbreak we don’t really get any action that is better or different from the tournament scenes earlier so it is less engrossing.

That’s a pretty sad song but I like it.   The score is nice by frequent Disney collaborator George Bruns.  They use music for a lot of the sound effect cues so instead of a bonk on the head noise, it is a noise worked into the score.

There is also no attempt in the movie to give accents to any characters but Prince John and Hiss (who is totally a rip off from Kaa down to the hypnotizing eyes but he has a lot of great lines).  Everyone sounds like they are from Chicago but it is less distracting than in the Aristocats because it wasn’t supposed to be London.

I love Hiss’s dialogue like “What cheek! Creepy? Buster? Long one? Who does that dopey duke think he is? or “Sire, you have an absolute skill for encouraging contributions from the poor”

Prince John is also funny with lines like “Yes, my reluctant reptile, and when our elusive hero tries to rescue the corpulent cleric” and “You cowardly cobra! Procrastinating python! Agravating asp! Ooh, you eel in snake’s clothing!”  That’s pretty high vocabulary for a kids movie and it totally works. It still makes me laugh.

prince john and hiss2Clucky is one of my favorite characters.   In one scene she fights off a bunch of rhinos football style and it is very funny. football cluckyThere is also a lot of sadness with Robin Hood with taxes, and people going to prison and one particularly cruel scene where the Sheriff steals the last farthing the church mice have given to the poor.

Movie Review/Conclusion-

So what do you do with a movie like this?  Is it an artistic masterpiece? No.  Do I get why Disney is embarrassed by it? Kind of but not really.  It’s not like in recycling they were stealing from other animation studios artwork.  I get why it may not be your greatest achievement but if it makes people smile than that’s an accomplishment however crudely it is accomplished.

Maybe part of it is Disney had been the first so they didn’t have to recylcle ideas or formulas from any one else.  They were then what Pixar was in the 2000s.  Everything at the beginning had been so great, like Pixar, that when they are less ambitious it feels like a failure even if lots of people like the end product.

I guess when it comes down to it making kids laugh isn’t all that easy, and I think Robin Hood does a good job with that.  I like the vocal performances.  I like the action scenes.  I like that the characters use big words and challenge kids a little bit with ideas of social justice and taxation.

So even acknowledging its flaws I still love Robin Hood and think it is one of the most rewatchable Disney movies.  The artpiece films are amazing but a good laugh goes a long way!

Overall Grade- B+  (I’d give it an A but I do think that last act drags a little)

What do you guys think about Robin Hood?