'Muppet Christmas Carol,' despite classic Caine, hums along slowly

December 11, 1992|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

Bah, Muppetbug!

Jim Henson's beloved plush menagerie of feltheads and polyesterpusses sadly overreach themselves in "The Muppet Christmas Carol." As sturdy and nearly indestructible as the classic Dickens story is, the Muppets and co-star Michael Caine never quite seem to come to terms with each other and the delicate balance such a proposition obviously requires. With a few sprightly moments and some satisfying illusions, the movie is nevertheless far too slow and overpopulated with blue-headed fur balls to work any emotional magic on an audience.

Caine makes a wonderful Scrooge; an extremely likable man, he's always had the capacity to play ugliness under the pleasant face, as those who remember him as a whoremonger in "Mona Lisa" can testify. So when his face knits up in a mask of pure contempt when forced to confront the concept of the poor, it's easy to believe him; and it's just as easy to believe when those big eyes leak globules of glycerin out of the steamy bliss of self-forgiveness. Best of all, there's no sense of camp to his performance; it's earnest professional British film craft of the highest nature. He even gamely pitches in with a little dance and a little song at the end.

But even without arguing the strangeness of the overall conceit -- humans and muppets, some of whom are human and some of whom are animals and some of whom are vegetables and all of whom talk and sing, co-existing in a slightly surrealistic universe -- I can't quite endorse the movie. Children will grow restless and adults positively homicidal as it trills drably along, propelled by a few icky songs.

Bad decision No. 1: to embody "Charles Dickens" in the form of the Great Gonzo as a narrator who comments on the action and frequently interrupts it for low-rent physical comedy with Rizzo the Rat ("as Himself," the credits say). These two grow very irritating as the movie wends onward.

Bad decision No. 2: Three words -- Muppets, Muppets, Muppets. The director, Brian Henson (the great Jim's son) never gets enough out of them. Yes, as spectacle they're quite amusing for maybe seven or possibly as many as eight seconds; but the faces are so blanched of nuance and texture and the eyes are dead as buttons -- hmmm, they are buttons! -- that one can't make much emotional contact with them. You're left with this eerie impression of gigantic Michael Caine wandering in befuddlement through a carpet remnant store gone bananas.

Kermit is the best, as Bob Cratchit, perhaps because his meek body is well-defined and the puppeteer is able to manipulate his facial muscles well enough to give him the illusion of reality. But a frogling playing Tiny Tim, one of the sublime tear-jerkers in Western literature, is oddly inert. Miss Piggy has an overbearing cameo as Cratchit's wife, and it certainly upsets the delicate chemistry of the Cratchit household. Bob seems far more victimized by her than he does by Scrooge.

It seems to take Henson forever to get his story moving, but once he does, he isn't patient enough to give us the big moments the great Dickens so carefully embedded in the tale. The first two spirits and the first two nighttime journeys are well done enough -- I held out some hope through them -- but the climactic journey under the guidance of the Spirit of Christmas Future is pretty mundane. I want opera! I want apocalypse now! I want the poetry of damnation and infinite regret! But no: Henson shies away from the connotations of Scrooge's brush with a bitter death to conjure up a mere effigy in a country churchyard. The last spirit is from the planet of papier-mache; he just doesn't have any oomph.

And who couldn't bring the house down with an explosively optimistic and tender "God Bless Us, One and all!" from the mouth of game little Tim, saved from death at the end. Henson butchers this too, since he hasn't really sold us on Scrooge's empathy for the crippled frog and he hasn't made the thing a creature of much pity or sadness.

The Muppets really weren't cut out for this sort of gig: In previous movies, they've been anarchic, campy presences, sprites from the superego, kidding themselves as much as the universe that spawned them. Yoked into a "classic" they seem oddly inert. They need a new agent.

'The Muppet Christmas Carol'

Starring Kermit the Frog, Miss Piggy and Michael Caine.

Directed by Brian Henson.

Released by Walt Disney.

Rated G.

**

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