Cinematic Soulmates: Scrooged and The Muppet Christmas Carol

It’s Christmas time in Hollis, Queens (and other non-Run-DMC approved locales), so in honor of this most beloved of holidays, Cinematic Soulmates will turn its attention to a couple of films that (at the time) put a fresh and fun spin on the most famous Christmas story of them all, Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.  Both Scrooged (1988) and A Muppet Christmas Carol (1992) follow the basic template of the original tale (though the latter is much more faithful to the source material), but both films manage to mine the humor that is inherent in the premise, even if it is not entirely obvious.  Thus, while both movies carry a whiff of the familiar, they also manage to feel new and distinct thanks to the playful and, at times, wicked sense of humor that pervades each film.

Directed by Richard Donner, Scrooged is not only a delightful and hilarious retelling of Dickens’ beloved tale, but also a wickedly pointed satire aimed right at the heart of that most deplorable of decades, the 1980s.  Frank Cross (Bill Murray) is the youngest network president in the history of IBS, and a living embodiment of Reagan era ideals.  He is greedy, materialistic, and totally career driven, and he doesn’t really care all that much for other people, not even his loving brother James (John Murray).  As a way of further cementing his legacy, Frank is determined to mount a star-studded, multi-million dollar adaptation of A Christmas Carol (erroneously referred to in the film as Charles Dickens’ Scrooge) that will be aired live on Christmas Eve.  However, the night before this epic production is to take place, Cross is visited by the decaying spirit of his old boss (John Forsythe), who informs Frank that unless he changes his wicked ways, his soul will be doomed for all eternity.   Frank tries to convince himself that he just drank a little too much, but the spirit’s visit leaves him shaken, so much so that he calls his old girlfriend, Claire (Karen Allen), whom he hasn’t spoken to in years.  The next day, Frank is visited by three familiar spirits who take him on a whirlwind tour of his past, present, and future, and he is made to realize that maybe his single-minded pursuit of money and a career has cost him the things that truly matter.  Soon enough, Frank, infused with the spirit of Christmas, renounces his evil and avaricious ways in front of a huge, nationwide audience, and then follows it all up by leading the rest of the cast in a cheesy but heartfelt rendition of “Put a Little Love in Your Heart”.

Scrooged is far from a perfect film, and there are times when it gets a little creaky and threatens to fall apart completely.  However, despite the occasional flaw (most of which come in the form of weird editing choices), it nevertheless stands as a worthy successor to Dickens’ original story, and deserves to be recognized as a perennial holiday classic.  The fact that the film is able to so pointedly criticize the excesses of the 1980s without making all that many changes to the original story is a testament to the timelessness of A Christmas Carol, and it just goes to show that we as a society have yet to take the moral lessons espoused in the tale to heart.  The whole film rests on the shoulders of Bill Murray, and thankfully he is up to the challenge, giving a hilarious yet heartfelt performance while at the same time engaging in what looks like some truly challenging physical humor.

The film is played very broad pretty much right from the beginning, but Murray is totally convincing as a self-centered man who soon realizes that all the sacrifices he made to get to the top may not have been worth it.  His journey is totally believable, and because of this, the audience manages to remain invested throughout the film’s brisk running time. Even without that strong emotional investment, the film would still be worth watching, however, as it is uproariously funny, and does some pretty inventive things with the three spirits (Carol Kane practically steals the entire movie as an abusive yet thoroughly adorable Ghost of Christmas Present).  Scrooged is not necessarily the most faithful adaptation of A Christmas Carol ever made, but therein lies its strength.  It’s able to slap a fresh coat of paint on a well-worn (but nonetheless great) chassis, making it feel new and original again.

On the other side of the coin we have The Muppet Christmas Carol.  Directed by Brian (son of Jim) Henson, this movie  is a much more slavish adaptation, even going so far as to use dialogue and narration taken straight out of the book.  By now you know the story; Ebenezer Scrooge (Michael Caine) is a mean and miserly old man who hates Christmas and everything associated with it.  With his trademark cry of “Bah, humbug!” Scrooge sets about to make sure that everyone around him is as miserable as he is.  One Christmas Eve, ol’ Eb is visited by the ghost of his dead partner (or in the case of this movie, partners, played by venerable Muppet hecklers Statler and Waldorff), who tells him that he must change his wicked ways or suffer an eternity of torment.  To that end, Scrooge is then visited by three spirits who show him the errors of his past, the cruelty of his present, and the horrors that await him in the future if he refuses to become a better man.  By the end of the story, Scrooge has become a new man, one filled with love and a charitable spirit, and he sets out to right all the wrongs he has done to those around him, starting with his put-upon employee, Bob Cratchitt (played by the one and only, Kermit the Frog).

While the film is a very faithful adaptation of the book, it nevertheless manages to avoid some of the stuffiness of the original tale by injecting a healthy dose of the Muppets’ trademark brand of whimsy.  By casting The Great Gonzo as Charles Dickens, and pairing him up with Rizzo the Rat, the filmmakers are able to keep the humor coming, even when the film is dealing with the story’s more heartbreaking moments (the death of Tiny Tim, for example). The light tone, in combination with the usual Muppet inventiveness, makes the tale feel totally fresh and modern, even though they barely deviate from the original text.  The great thing is, despite the fact that the film is now 20 years old, it is still relevant to a whole new audience, thanks in large part to the Muppet resurgence that is currently taking place.

With A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens crafted a story that has become a part of the collective pop culture unconscious.  Even people who have never read the original story know all the important details.  It embodies nearly everything that is Christmas, and from the day it was published, it has pretty much informed the way that those of us living in the West relate to the holiday.  Both Scrooged and The Muppet Christmas Carol capture the spirit of the story, and bring to it a sense of novelty and playfulness that is missing from other, more straightforward adaptations.  More than that, though, they show us that the moral lessons that Dickens was trying to impart are still relevant, and that if we would just open our hearts to the true meaning of the holiday (and not just on that one day of the year, but every day of our lives), then the world would be a better place.  In fact, while both movies are now over 20 years old, they remain relevant to this day.  Indeed, the ever widening gulf between the rich and the poor just goes to show that we still have a lot to learn from Dickens’ classic story.

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