Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Bah Humblog: Stave the Second - The Muppet Christmas Carol


(Good Movie Poster)

THE GOOD - The original puppets look good, the classic puppets look good, and what puppeteers as remain alive do a marvelous job. Also, they have Gonzo following everyone around, acting as a narrator, which is a good idea for two reasons. One, it gives them some funny visual bits in the draggy parts; and two, it gives them an easy excuse to use Dickens’ narration as he wrote it, instead of awkwardly working it into dialogue like so many other productions.

(Horrifying DVD Cover. I love how Michael Caine is just sort of hovering in the back.)

THE BAD - Jim Henson and Richard Hunt died before this movie went into production. You may think it unfair to put this in ‘The Bad’, since it’s not really the movie’s fault, but if you don’t like the way I run things, you can write your own blog. You could probably update more often, too, you lazy bastard. Anyway, I have to put the blame on these deaths for the fact that the movie never really comes together. They had Jerry Juhl writing, Paul Williams songwriting, Brian Henson directing… that should be Muppet gold. But instead, it’s more like a collection of concepts. It works, it doesn’t, it never really comes together as a whole work. Oh, and the “Streets of London” set is pretty tiny. They’re obviously stretching to make it look expansive at some points, when it’s obvious they’re just walking like 30 feet.

("Hey, Bean!" "Yeah?")

THE OTHERWISE WORTHY OF MENTION - Quite surprisingly, this is not a comedic parody of A Christmas Carol, or even a funny version of the story, like Mickey’s. This is a straight-up honest adaptation that happens to feature funny puppets in some supporting roles. And while I can’t fault them for… Oh, wait, yes I can. FAULT The Muppets take supporting roles in their own movie. FAULT There are long stretches where nothing funny or interesting happens on account of there’s no Muppets around. FAULT FAULT FAULT. Anyhow, it’s still a good movie, and a good version of the story, but apparently the original intent was to have Scooter, Piggy, and Gonzo be the ghosts, and it would be much more of a comedy. Wow, Muppets and jokes. We wouldn’t want that in our Muppet movie.


SCROOGE - Played by Michael Caine. I like Michael Caine. I like Michael Caine’s voice. I like it when he putts an upper-class edge on it, as here. It sort of makes you feel like Scrooge was a dirty London boy who made good. It sort of makes you wish the actors playing young Scrooge had got the memo. I mean, everyone knows what Michael Caine sounds like, you’d think they’d try it. (Oh, and I like when he does an American accent, because it’s HILARIOUS.) Anyway, Caine plays an effective, if low-key Scrooge. Whereas McDuck’s was sort of avuncularly evil, with a clear sense of humor, Caine’s comes off as a very bitter sort of mean, and his scraggly haircut and overbite make him the second ugliest Scrooge I’ve ever seen, after Alistair Sim. Frankly, I’m less than impressed.

("We left the key in one of these...")

MARLEY - Marleys, actually. If you need Muppets to play elderly men who delight in cruelty, you’re obviously going for Statler and Waldorf. And so Jacob Marley gets a brother, Robert. (Get it? GET IT?) They sing a good song, put in some of their trademark zingers. It’s a good time for all. The one thing that bugs me is that when they do the face in the door knocker bit, only Statler is there. You’d think they could have put Waldorf’s face on the doorknob or something. They float in the air, which kind of makes the chains seem like not such a big deal, but the chains multiply and lengthen during their extremely groovy song, and that’s such a neat touch I’ll let it slide. Also to note: Statler and Waldorf were originally played by Richard Hunt and Jim Henson. Now their characters are ghosts. SPOOOOOOOKY. Of course, Kermit and Beaker turned out fine, so they’re 50/50.


PAST - I’ve never seen The Dark Crystal. This is partly because the opportunity has never really presented itself*, and partly because the Gelflings really freak me out. And so does the Gelfy Ghost of Christmas Past. It just sort of floats around amorphously, twitching its horrid mouth and scaring the fuck out of me. It looks like a fetus.

*This is a lie. My girlfriend did suggest we watch it once, but I decided I’d rather see Labyrinth again. If I’m going to watch something Henson/Froudy, I’d rather it have David Bowie, Jennifer Connelly, and David Bowie’s huge unit in it. And I’m not fixating on it, but seriously, that bulge deserves third billing. It practically had backstory and motivations. It probably has fan fiction about it. Probably? Who am I kidding? Hey, this footnote is longer than the main bit!

(You ever notice how no one ever bumps into them?)

PRESENT - Present is my favorite, and a huge part of that is that while still modeled after the Dickens description, he looks Muppety and is voiced by Jerry Nelson, one of the classic Muppeteers. He gets a musical montage. Christmas present is made for a musical montage. There are five musical adaptations I am aware of, and I’ll bet there’s a musical montage in the Present scene of at least four of them. Ignorance and Want (Who, by the way, are the second freakiest things Dickens ever wrote up, after Miss Havisham.) do not appear, which is too bad, since they could have been great in spooky Muppety form. Or they could have been Lew Zealand and the Swedish Chef, which would be even better.

("It only hurts when I do this.")

FUTURE - To everyone’s surprise, it’s a tall guy with a big black hooded robe. WOW. It’s a cool one, though. The robe looks more like a shroud, and his neck and arms are crazy long, and his legs are tiny. If he has legs. He sort of glides. Actually, he looks like a really skinny 14-foot-tall guy who’s had his legs amputated and now moves about by means of personal hovercraft, hiding his shame in a big cloak. And since they never say he’s not, I plan on assuming he is. It alleviates the bleakness of a ten-minute stretch of film without any jokes.

(Kermit is the most well-dressed Cratchit ever. I guess being naked since 1955 helped him save up.)

CRATCHIT - Continuing our tradition of the nice guy corporate icon playing Bob, here we have Kermit the Frog. He does well, but Cratchit relies too much on nice-guy Kermit. The reason I love Mr. The Frog is because of his short temper and razor wit. In the old Muppet Show episodes, he can be downright mean to Piggy, Fozzie, and Gonzo, not that they notice. By the time the movies started, he had calmed down a lot, but still cracked jokes at a rapid pace and could get all fired up when the need arose. Since about the third movie, and especially since Jim died, he’s been more and more mellow and more and more the straight man. And playing a role like Bob Cratchit makes him all meek and submissive. Kermit ain’t no wimp! Kermit’s the boss! Emily Cratchit is played by Miss Piggy, which fits because Dickens wrote Mrs. C. as kind of a crabby firecracker, and because she‘s the only major female Muppet, and as such, is required to be Kermit‘s love interest in every movie. They have four kids, of which the boys are frogs and the girls are pigs. That is not how biology works! I would have liked to have seen some baby figs, along the line of Kermit and Fozzie’s dad from the Great Muppet Caper. But then we wouldn’t have…

(When they say Tiny in this movie, they mean it.)

TINY TIM - Played by Kermit’s nephew, Robin. I’m actually not as bothered by Kermit having a nephew as I am with the Disney guys. I think it’s because Kermit is more like a real person. We know what his job is, for instance. He’s MC and stage manager of a variety show. What does Mickey do? Who the hell knows? So it’s easy to imagine Kermit has a brother or a sister. Anyway, Robin, like Kermit, loses his edge playing a Cratchit. He was always a cute little guy, but with a sort of resentment at being the cute little guy. As Tim Cratchit, he plays the cute card to the max, and does it well. Jerry Nelson’s cute little guy voice is marvelous, and his gimpy puppeteering is excellently pathetic. What pisses me off is that Scrooge steals his classic line. At the end, he says “God bless us,” and Scrooge says “Yes! God bless us, every one!” Fuck you, Scrooge. I thought you’d learned your lesson. You wanna go back in the ghost-hole? I WILL THROW YOU RIGHT IN!

(Hey, dig it, it's the Acoustic Mayhem.)

FEZZIWIG - That’s Fozziwig, because if you can make an easy joke like that, why not? Fozzie is a natural fit for Fezziwig, because his one scene consists of him throwing a party, and he gets the opportunity to tell some stupid jokes. Mrs. Fezziwig is portrayed as Fezzy’s mother in this, because they probably hadn’t used the Fozzie’s mom puppet in 15 years or so. Oh, who am I kidding, it’s just Fozzie with a wig. Fezziwig’s profession is given in this version as rubber chicken manufacturer, which is a great place to imagine Ebenezer Scrooge getting his start, and I’d like to see that in a more serious adaptation.

(What is that, a scarf, or a curtain?)

FRED - Rather disappointingly played by a human. I was rather hoping for Scooter or something. I mean, the guy does a good job, but what with the ghosts being custom jobs, we need all the real Muppets we can get. But I guess there’s no human/Muppet crossbreeding allowed. The kid’s decent enough, in a British David Cassidy sort of clean-cut way.

("We're collecting for the mute and the possibly blind...")

CHARITY CASE - Played by Bunsen and Beaker, because there’s two of them, so hey, why not? There’s actually a wonderful moment with them at the end. After Scrooge gives them his donation, Beaker takes off his scarf and gives it to Scrooge as a gesture of gratitude. The look on Caine’s face is wonderful. This is the first Christmas gift Scrooge has received in a very long time, and it came from the heart. I love it when the wacky comedy versions of a story can do something better than the legit versions. Of course, if they’re going to do something that well, there’s tradeoff, and it comes from Bunsen leaning on Scrooge’s desk with his hand on cheek and swirling his finger on his other hand around in a manner that can only be described as flirty. It’s creepy, and wrong, and it makes me picture Michael Caine having sex with a chartreuse volleyball. Actually, it doesn't, but now you're seeing it. Ha ha.

(I started typing the same hat joke as last time, then remembered I'd already used that, and you know, I now have nothing to say about her.)

BELLE - There’s a video online called “How a Muppet Christmas Carol is meant to be watched” or something to that effect. It plays the scene with young Scrooge and Belle right up to where she starts singing, and then fast forwards past the rest. And that’s about the size of it. She absolutely grinds the film to a halt. There’s no Muppets in her big scenes. There’s not even any Michael Caine. And her song sucks. Would have been much better if she was a Muppet. I don’t know who, though. Probably Janice. Or Camilla. Now that would be hilarious. For the record, I didn’t have to watch the song. It was cut out of the theatrical version for pacing reasons, and put back in the home video release because Paul Williams’ mom really liked it. Or something, I don’t know. But my DVD gives me the option of watching the theatrical cut in widescreen, or the VHS edit in fullscreen. Since I have some taste and class, I chose widescreen and was rewarded with not having to watch this shitty song.

(When I get my teacher certification, I'm totally wearing that hat everywhere.)

OTHERS - Bean Bunny plays the young lad who tells Scrooge what day it is. In a nice bit of consolidation, they combine the part with the young caroler Scrooge refuses to give a coin to, and add pathos by showing him shivering in an alley shortly thereafter. The sight of Bean Bunny homeless and freezing is very funny in a very guilty way. Sam the Eagle cameos as Scrooge’s old teacher, and manages to be a patriotic American in 1800-ish England. The background supplies some classic Muppets, the best of which is Bobby Benson and his Baby Band as carolers. The major addition, though is Gonzo as the Narrator. Officially, he’s identified as Charles Dickens, but there’s no real reason for that. He shows up in a lot of odd jobs depending on the scene, so he’s sort of like D*ck van D*ke in Mary Poppins, except with a better English accent. Which is to say, no attempt at an English accent. He’s paired with Rizzo for the first time ever, for no real reason. Rizzo was barely more than a glorified extra before this, and I think they just needed someone for Gonzo to talk to, and wanted to get Steve Whitmire another big part. But hey, it’s worked out.

(Hey, don't blame me. That's the first Google result for the song title.)

A CHRISTMAS CAROL - Continuing our theme of sexual innapropriacy, let’s take a look at “Baby, It’s Cold Outside”. This charming little ode to date rape is a duet sung by a male, trying to get a woman to stay in his sleazy bachelor pad, and said woman, frantically making excuses to leave. The male and female voices are identified in the original sheet music as “The Wolf” and “The Mouse”, which I guess would make sense if wolves ate mice. Or fucked them, I suppose. The lyrics are… well, here’s a sample…

I really can't stay - But baby it's cold outside
I've got to go away - But baby it's cold outside

Okay, so far, not too creepy, but then…

My mother will start to worry - Beautiful, what's your hurry
My father will be pacing the floor - Listen to the fireplace roar

Oh, so she still lives with her parents. Nothing odd about that, but she also has a curfew… Well, that was probably more common in 1949, and there’s no reason to believe she’s 16.

I ought to say no, no, no, sir - Mind if I move closer?
At least I'm gonna say that I tried - What's the sense in hurting my pride?

AAAAHHHHH!!! Not cool, The Wolf! That might have worked in the back seat of your dad’s Austin 7 when you were in high school, but now… Well at least she’s only admitting this is maybe a bad idea, she’s not BLATANTLY saying no…

I simply must go - But baby, it's cold outside
The answer is no - But baby, it's cold outside

Damn it.

My sister will be suspicious - Gosh, your lips look delicious
My brother will be there at the door - Waves upon a tropical shore

I’m becoming convinced at this point that the reason her whole family is there is because they’ve reported her missing and are waiting to hear from the police. And The Wolf’s lyrics are quickly becoming nonsensical.

My maiden aunt's mind is vicious

Hee hee. Old virgins are mean and gossipy! This song won an Oscar, by the way.

You've really been grand - I thrill when you touch my hand
But don't you see - How can you do this thing to me?

Oh, yeah. It’s her fault. Everything this guy says is like an example from one of those pamphlets on keeping your virginity. Oh, and just when you think he can’t get anymore manipulative…

There's bound to be talk tomorrow - Think of my life long sorrow
At least there will be plenty implied - If you caught pneumonia and died

Of course, there is a reason she’s so susceptible to his greasy advances…

The neighbors might think - Baby, it's bad out there
Say, what's in this drink? - No cabs to be had out there

Flunitrazepam. Maybe GHB.

And so, with Wolfie’s final line (“Get over it”) we end it. And in case you’re wondering if there’s any circumstance where I’ll like this song, there is. If an effeminate Scotsman sings it to an elderly alcoholic and they throw in little one liners and trade parts halfway through. And that’s why I treasure my recording by Alan Cumming and Liza Minelli.

COMING UP NEXT : We'll see George C. Scott hating Christmas, and liking yelling! Also, I understand he played Scrooge at one point.