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My preferred version of A Christmas Carol is the 1951 Alistair Sim starring classic, but The Muppet Christmas Carol comes in at a very close second. I know it seems silly of me to match the heartwarming, yet often eerie tale with an iteration of Charles Dickens' classic that stars none other than the Muppets, and if you've never seen the Muppets take on the wintry holiday, I certainly can't blame you for thinking so. I myself admit I wasn't a fan of their previous theatrical outings, and I found The Muppet Show to be a consistently hit or miss experience. These productions acted as an excuse to allow Kermit and his friends to entertain us, and although they do entertain on a level of pure, mindless fun, they just weren't my cup of tea. That being said, The Muppet Christmas Carol isn't just the best Muppets movie I've ever seen (although I have yet to see their latest romp), it's earned its place amongst some of the finest holiday film traditions of our time.
I'm sure recapping the plot of A Christmas Carol would be an exercise in redundancy, so I'm going to skip the formality and get right to it. The main reason why this film works, is because it closely follows the plot that Dickens penned and published in 1843. Of course, the Muppets add some gentle comedic relief as to keep things from being too creepy for the kiddies, and even spins its moving parts into a musical web, but the original source is still very much intact. Needless to say, this was a wise decision by Screenplay Writer Jerry Juhl and Director Brian Henson. I mean, I don't know about you, but when I heard the Muppets were set to tackle this classic piece of literature, I thought the final product would have been little more than some throw-away parody. Oh, how very wrong I was with that assumption. Yes, there's gags and songs galore, but they're tastefully woven into a package that has a surprising amount of warmth and a wide variety of emotions throughout. For me, The Muppet Christmas Carol defied all odds and actually excelled as a holiday film, as it culminated an eyebrow raising formula into something... magical.
But, how were the filmmakers able to pull it off? Well, the answer unfortunately comes with the death of Jim Henson, the man who had a massive influence on Sesame Street and eventually transitioned his own Muppets to the big screen. He passed away just two years before The Muppet Christmas Carol premiered in theaters, and I can only imagine how much that affected anyone who worked with him behind-the-scenes on any given day. After all, he was the major creative force behind the franchise and even did puppeteer work for the most notable Muppet of all, Kermit the Frog. I can only assume the future of Henson's legacy was looking dim at first, but long story short, his son Brian saved the day by stepping up to make his directorial debut with this film. The Muppet Christmas Carol is pieced together poetically as a result - The themes inherent to A Christmas Carol deal with the passage of time bringing forth loss and regret, not taking for granted what you have before it's gone, and even doing what one can to leave a legacy of smiling faces behind them. The notion of 'it's better to give than it is to receive' seems to sum up Jim Henson's legacy just fine, and the heavier themes dealing with loss seemingly echo what must have been going on in the hearts and minds of everyone involved with the production, especially Brian. Even the cinematography often broadcasts their mourning - There's a sequence where Kermit the Frog is looking up at a beautiful night sky, seemingly reflecting on life while simultaneously looking towards the future. As he looks longingly into the evening, the visual says - What are we doing here, and why must we endure tragedy? At least there's hope, as the beauty of the night implies it. Everything must happen for a reason... That's not to say that the film is a downer, because it's most certainly not. This film merely illustrates how much attention and care was paid to creating something that has real morals and values to teach us, which is the best tribute this film can pay to Jim Henson, as his entire profession was built around entertaining kids while also helping to shape for them a better tomorrow.
Despite the attention that was paid to the behind-the-scenes stuff, this film could have flopped if the role of Ebenezer Scrooge had been miscast. Plenty of talented actors have put their stamp on A Christmas Carol over the years, but I rarely found any of their performances to resonate with me. The Muppet Christmas Carol gives Michael Caine a shot at delivering the perfect Scrooge, and his portrayal of the nasty bah-humbugger is definitely one of the most memorable I've seen to date. He's truly a chilling soul when we first meet him, but as he's visited by the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future, he undergoes a slow but steady transformation where we can almost see his icy heart melting away.
But, the theatrical cut, the cut that is available on this Blu-ray disc, isn't perfect despite such wonderful storytelling and superb acting. Yes, this version of The Muppet Christmas Carol has a glaring omission that actually makes the final product feel incomplete. There's a very important song, When Love Is Gone, that fully fleshes out the story between Scrooge and his former love, Belle. It also provided greater insight as to when Scrooge's transformation from inspired chap to cold and heartless finally took its toll, but Disney execs felt it wouldn't appeal to children and decided it needed to be axed. Fortunately, it made its way to home video releases after the fact, but this release once again has the song missing. It's not even available as a standard def supplement. This is heartbreaking, for sure, and it's going to be an unfortunate deal breaker for many. I can't for the life of me figure out why Disney decided to regress the film back to its 'unfinished' state - Once introduced to the masses on home video, the sequence was highly regarded and praised for improving the film.
That being said, the theatrical experience is still quite enjoyable. Again, Michael Caine's performance is worth the time, but I dare say the real star of the show this time around is everyone who worked on the film behind-the-scenes. It was their love and passion that, at least for me, transformed the Muppets from mere figures of entertainment into characters who could provide a good story with some depth. This is truly a fun holiday film that the entire family can enjoy, and if Jim Henson were alive to see this be the first step of the continuation of his legacy, I'm sure he'd be pleased to see what has been accomplished. This is quite possibly the best thing to ever come from the Muppets, so even if you don't care for them personally (as I never did), give this film a try. It surprised me, and it very well may do the same for you.
The previous DVD releases are ancient and badly needed an upgrade, and this 1080p, AVC encoded presentation (1.85:1) doesn't disappoint. Much like the theatrical cut of the film itself, this transfer is highly respectable but feels just a tad off. At times, the contrast seems a little weak, whereas other shots can even exhibit some black crush. For the most part though, this transfer does sport the inky blacks and solid contrast we've come to expect from Disney's home video department. The only other minor anomaly to report is some ringing, but this occurs even less than the noted shots of questionable contrast. Other than that, everything looks marvelous - Edges are sharp more often than not, with an occasional softness that only pops up because it was inherent to the source. Colors are fantastically bold, and detail is immaculate - The fabric that makes up the Muppets show an impressive amount of texture now, while hair, skin and clothing is remarkable (again, except for when the source sports inherently soft photography). A natural presence of film grain just further solidifies the fact that this transfer hasn't been badly tampered with digital noise reduction. There's also no banding or digital artifacting to report either. Although this film isn't likely to be enjoyed year round, Disney has delivered a product that won't disappoint.
The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track flawlessly replicates the source, but the sound source itself is the one aspect of the film's production that doesn't go out of its way to wow us. The design is predictably front heavy, even when it comes to the music. The rear channels do help lend the spacing of dialogue in any given space a bit more credibility, but sound effects are clumsily placed in the surround channels. The effects that do pop up from time to time don't provide any sort of precision, and environment ambience is practically non-existent. That being said, dialogue is crisp and clean, and the music sounds fantastic in the front of the soundstage. Again, this isn't anything to write home about, but I have no doubt that this is an accurate representation of the source. Just don't go into this with high expectations.
-Audio Commentaries - The featured commentary on this release is with Kermit, Rizzo, Gonzo & More, which is a neat novelty, but it doesn't provide any of the fun it should have. Thankfully, there's still the old commentary with Director Brian Henson, which more than makes up for the lackluster Muppet track. Brian Henson gives the goods on the task of adapting Charles Dickens classic tale for the Muppets, working with Michael Caine, the immaculate sets and much, much more. Henson's track is not to be missed!
-Frogs, Pigs and Humbug - Unwrapping a New Holiday Classic - This is a 22 minute behind-the-scenes featurette, hosted by Brian Henson and some of the Muppets. This was obviously supposed to be more of a promotional piece than anything, as it really goes out of its way to sell the film. Furthermore, Henson seems a little stiff on camera with the Muppets, which is a surprise considering how magnificent his Muppet-starring directorial debut is.
-On the Set - Blooper Reel - An average assortment of comedic outtakes.
-Pepe Profiles Presents - Gonzo: A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Weirdo - This is a look at Gonzo's 'life long' career with the Muppets. Again, it's another novelty, but it's actually entertaining.
-Christmas Around the World - Gonzo and Rizzo tell us about the variations holiday traditions that are celebrated around the world.
It's also worth noting that pausing the film activates an Intermission, in which various Muppet characters will sing you one of five Christmas songs - Jingle Bells, O Christmas Tree, We Wish You a Merry Christmas, Joy to the World and Deck the Halls. This feature is a stroke of genius - Need to get up to the restroom and don't want your kids to get into mischief? Just pause the film for the intermission - You can get up and do what you need to do real quick, and the kids will enjoy the intermission in the meantime. Priceless.
The Muppet Christmas Carol was quite the surprise as a solid retelling of Charles Dickens classic tale, A Christmas Story. The experience from beginning to end is simply magical, as it successfully combines music, laughs, morals and heart in an entertaining package that's likely to entertain the 'big kids' just as much as the little ones... and this is coming from someone who isn't even a Muppets fan. The Blu-ray presentation itself is an accurate representation of the source (although there's some minimal contrast issues along the way, and the sound design from 1992 wasn't too impressive), although the supplemental material leaves something to be desired. The only real downside to this release comes as more than a footnote, but rather a warning - This is the theatrical cut of the film, meaning the superior original cut containing When Love Is Gone is nowhere to be seen, and the song isn't even available as an extra. That means there's room for Disney to charge us more money in the future if they ever want to appease the fans, meaning a film that should come highly recommended can now only earn a hesitant recommended rating. For those of you who have never seen the film before (or the home video cut with the omitted song) or have children to entertain, or simply don't care about the additional scene, this should definitely find its way into your collection.