Ebenezer Scrooge has been learning the error of his ways for 150 years now, but The Muppet Christmas Carol may mark the first time that frogs, pigs, assorted vermin, and pop composer Paul Williams have gotten in on the redemption of the world's most famous miser.
Charles Dickens still dispenses most of the wisdom in this inventive, high-spirited Carol, but the late Jim Henson, the spirit of Muppet movies past, has clearly left his mark, too. That's because son Brian Henson, the producer and director, learned his lessons well from the master puppeteer: The snow-dappled streets of old Londontown now teem with nameless top-hatted humans, animatronic vegetables and mice, armies of quill-scratching mouse-clerks and 300 new Muppet characters all making cameo appearances. For the first time, too, vain Miss Piggy and nice-guy Kermit the Frog play characters other than themselves. They are beleaguered clerk Bob Cratchit and his wife, Emily, of course, and their scenes of familial tranquility might be enough to warm Saddam Hussein's heart. Meanwhile, the always-ravenous Great Gonzo, nose fetchingly hooked, serves as our amiable narrator and guide -- Charles Dickens, humble author. His sidekick is Rizzo the Rat.
That leaves good sport Michael Caine to fend for himself in the Homo sapiens department. And if his dour, black-caped Scrooge does not quite equal the full-blooded incarnations of Reginald Owen back in 1938 or the great Alastair Sim in 1951, Caine holds his own against the dazzle of Henson/Frank Oz technology. That's not always easy: The ghosts of Christmas we meet -- the diaphanous, floating, white child-sprite of the Past, the burly, red-bearded blunderer of the Present, and the faceless, wintry shroud of Christmas Yet to Be -- tend to upstage the plucky Caine as they give him lessons in life. But he's too good an actor to let that bother him: He plays crusty old Ebenezer as if the future of the Old Vic itself depended on him, so the comic contrast between his dark gravity and the Muppets' anarchic high jinks remains always keen.
The movie's aimed squarely at kids, of course (it leads them by the hand wherever necessary, and a few places where it's not), but through the narrator, veteran Henson screenwriter Jerry Juhl throws a couple of sly asides at the literary set, which don't hurt a bit. The only humbug here, in fact, lies in Williams's come-as-you-are songs, as sweet as fruitcake and just about as digestible. The single exception is a cocky duet performed by the pale, bechained Marley brothers from beyond the grave, tweaking their old skinflint partner for his parsimony and meanness.
Crippled Tiny Tim, by the way, turns out to be a frog. But the Cratchits have also spawned a brace of twin piglets, apparently for equality's sake. The marriage won't last, however. Kermit assures us in the press notes that he's informed hot pursuer Miss Piggy: "It's only a movie."
So it is -- as charming and inventive a holiday offering as you'll come across this season. In their fourth full-length outing, the Muppets have outdone themselves.
THE MUPPET CHRISTMAS CAROL
Screenplay by Jerry Juhl, from Charles Dickens's novel; directed by Brian Henson; with Michael Caine and the Muppets.