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The Muppet Christmas Carol

There's a metric sleigh-load of Christmas movies on the shelves, ranging from virtually unwatchable dreck like Christmas with the Kranks and the Olsen Twins' To Grandmother's House We Go to darkly comic fare like The Ref and Bad Santa, as well as must-see holiday classics such as It's a Wonderful Life, Miracle on 34th Street, and Die Hard. But the story that gets adapted, tweaked, parodied, and bastardized the most is Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, with every holiday season seeing yet another film or TV-movie adaptation. Past versions have starred such freakishly diverse talents as Rich Little, Mickey Mouse, James Galway, The Flintstones, Martin Sheen, George C. Scott, Rowan Atkinson, and Mister Magoo. But there are a couple that stand out as truly iconic — the 1951 version starring Alistair Sim and 1992's A Muppet Christmas Carol. The truly marvelous Muppet version was the first film made by Jim Henson's crew after Henson's death and the first directed by Henson's son, Brian. By all rights, it ought to have been awful. But the film is so remarkably faithful to Dickens' text and Michael Caine, as Ebenezer Scrooge, turns in such a complex, spot-on performance (never once letting on that he's playing opposite fabric animals manipulated from the rear by crouching puppeteers) that the original work is given its due while the Muppets breathe fresh life into this well-trod territory. Helping to keep the movie grounded in its literary past, the film's narrated by Charles Dickens himself in the person of The Great Gonzo. He's joined by Rizzo the Rat, and the pair serve as both storytellers and Greek chorus as Muppets and humans interact in this distinctly off-kilter version of Victorian London. Muppets play most of the main characters — Kermit is Bob Cratchit, Miss Piggy is his wife, Fozzie Bear plays "Fozziwig," and one of Kermit's nephews plays the poor, afflicted Tiny Tim. A great deal of the dialogue is taken straight from Dickens, and that which is added for Muppet-y flavor is appropriate — far from being a wacky re-telling of the classic, Henson and his puppeteers honor the original work even as they lighten this very dark story just a little with gentle asides and some very good tunes by Paul Williams, including the funny "There Goes Mr. Humbug" and Scrooge's change-of-perspective song, "With a Thankful Heart." It's a charming take on a much-loved classic, and a real delight for both children and adults.

*          *          *

Buena Vista, via its "Disney DVD" imprint, offers The Muppet Christmas Carol in a very clean, very crisp anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) from a source-print that's occasionally a little grainy but otherwise quite good. The DD 5.1 audio is decent, but unexceptional — everything comes across just fine, but there's no real "surround" feeling, with the front speakers doing most of the work. Extras include commentary by director Brian Henson (available only with the pan-and-scan, full screen option, which hasn't been cleaned up as well as the widescreen and not only looks very dirty but features more substandard sound) in which he uses the word "Dickensian" more than necessary — but his remarks are actually very interesting, with wall-to-wall trivia and background on the technical aspects, the writing, and in-jokes enjoyed by the Muppeteers (for example, adorable Bean Bunny is famously hated by the Muppet folks, because "he's so obnoxiously sweet that everybody didn't like him.") There's also an "on-set gag reel" (3 min.) hosted by Rizzo and Gonzo (who points out that "every mistake is painstakingly conceived and executed by our top-notch creative team") offering various amusing flubs and ad libs during shooting; a not-terribly-amusing featurette "Gonzo: Portrait of the Artist as a Young Weirdo" (5 min.) with sound-bites from his Muppet co-stars and clips; and "Christmas Around the World," in which Rizzo and Gonzo discuss holiday traditions in foreign lands (3 min.). Keep-case.
—Dawn Taylor

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