What is the true meaning of Christmas circa 2020? Bustling street markets? Nope. Carol singers at our doors? Nope again. Seeing friends and relatives, giving them a hug, and wishing them all the best with a good meal and some drinks? Nope, nope, and nope again, we’re not doing any of that this year, and it’s not for lack of interest in these activities. The virus, unimagined this time last year, has made Scrooges of us all in appearance; the trick will be to retain our love of Christmas in our hearts, and to this end, The Muppet Christmas Carol should be piped, free of charge, into every home, orifice and vein to aid our muted internal festivities.
And who better to lead the charge than the venerable Michael Caine as Scrooge? We need to see a transformation, from a life half-full to one overflowing with the milk, bread and cheese of human kindness, and no-one is better outfitted that Caine to embody that Christmas miracle. Caine plays this role straight, talking intensely with the Muppets as if they’re the thespians he’s always dreamed of acting with. Caine’ s attitude plays towards one of the Muppet’s biggest strengths; since their 70’s tv show, based around the idea of them putting on a weekly music hall/tv show, Kermit the Frog has led a Bergman-esque repertory company of reliable performers, who are billed not by their puppeteers, but as if they were real. “With Kermit the Frog as Bob Cratchit’ runs an opening credit’.
As Scrooge squares up to the three ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future, there’s plenty of great roles to go around, Fozzie Bear is particularly well-cast as Mr Fozziwig, the bumptious good-time merchant who presides over the jolliest of festive soirees. But the real breakouts here are the often underused Great Gonzo and Rizzo the Rat, who bring genuine character and verve to their portrayal of Charles Dickens and his rodent friend as our unreliable narrators. “This is culture’ Gonzo/Dickens explains in a burst of self-awareness that cultural commentator Marshall McLuhan would be proud of, and he’s right; Michael Caine, Charles Dickens and The Muppets are all part of our culture that we know and love, and gathering all three together for one project is a tonic for any tired mind.
The songs are serviceable, if not outstanding, and Brian Henson leans successfully into the traditions of both the original story and the Muppet lore, with Jerry Juhl, something of an éminence grise when it comes to Muppet projects, contributing a notably literate script. Waldorf and Stadler make a perfect Jacob and Robert Marley, all clanking chains and hearty malevolence, while it’s a joy to see Sprocket, the beloved lighthouse-keeper’s dog from Fraggle Rock, appearing on the side-lines.
So perhaps we don’t have the Christmas we want, but maybe we can fashion the Christmas we deserve. Like Scrooge, we have to put the disappointments of the past behind us and accept they cannot be changed; we recognise our closeness to our own mortality, and understand, like Scrooge, that it might be closer than we think. So let’s wish ourselves a Merry Christmas, and hope that next year is not summed up by a Tiny Tim’s lonely crutch by the fireplace. Played by Kermit’s nephew Robin here, he sums up an appropriately humble sentiment when he says ‘God bless us every one.’