The Muppet Christmas Carol

Elf

11/12/2020

Apple TV

It’s Christmas… or, as Noddy Holder would put it, ‘It’s Christmaaaaaaas!’

It is a fact universally acknowledged that lots of people have favourite Yuletide movies, ones they return to again and again in search of that warm, fuzzy feeling… and it’s also true to say, that there are many such films that I just haven’t got around to watching yet. But I’m gradually ticking the boxes.

Last year, for instance, I finally caught up with The Muppet Christmas Carol and was very glad that I did, because it turned out to be an utter delight from start to finish. True, I got to see it in an actual cinema, but we’ll let that one go, before I start sobbing uncontrollably.

For years now, friends – people whose judgement I generally trust – have repeatedly urged me to watch Elf, assuring me that it belongs in the same category as TMCC and, for the same number of years, I’ve been stolidly ignoring their advice. Maybe it’s the Scrooge in me. But in 2020, locked down and listless as I am, I no longer have a credible excuse not to catch up with it.

And, yes, my friends were right. It’s easy to see why this film remains a perennial favourite. It’s the story of Buddy (Will Ferrell), who, as an orphaned baby, inadvertently winds up aboard Santa’s sleigh and finds himself whisked off to the North Pole. He grows up alongside Santa’s elves, under the tender care of Papa Elf (Bob Newhart), who acts as narrator for the tale. Of course, being human, Buddy soon towers above his workmates and begins to realise that he’s not like the others. (Buddy clearly isn’t the brightest – I can’t help wondering, what took him so long?)

When he finally overhears the truth about his origins, he’s understandably dismayed. Where has he come from? Where are his roots? Santa decides to send him back to New York city in search of his real father, hard-bitten book publisher, Walter (James Caan).

It’s probably pointless to list the plot in any more detail, since the film came out in 2003 and I’m way behind the wave on this one. It’s interesting to note, however, that the film is directed by Jon Favreau, long before he became the influential actor/director he is today, and that most of the effects utilised here are of the low budget, ‘forced perspective’ kind: simple, but effective. What makes Elf a winner, though, is the brilliant idea that lies at its core. Buddy is an innocent, a naive man-child who’s never been given the opportunity to grow up. His reactions to everything that happens to him in the big city are therefore priceless, genuinely disarming and often laugh-out-loud funny. Ferrell has, of course, enjoyed a varied career in the years since this film, but I doubt he’s ever been more appealing than he is here. Just the sight of him ambling around in that costume is enough to make a viewer smile.

What else do we have? Zooey Deschanel as Jovie, who works as a department store elf and whom Buddy falls for at first sight. Peter Dinklage plays hotshot kids’ author, Miles Finch… and, of course, Favreau can’t resist giving himself a cameo as Walter’s doctor. You want fuzzy feelgood? It’s here in abundance.

So, I admit it. I should have watched this sooner. Anybody who has recommendations for other Christmas movies I might not have seen, please feel free to let me know about them.

There are other boxes yet to be ticked.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

The Muppet Christmas Carol

18/12/19

Most film fans have those puzzling gaps in their backlists – movies they’ve always meant to watch but, somehow, have never gotten around to. Over the years, I’ve gone to considerable lengths in my attempts to rectify such situations. (I’m the guy who sat doggedly through the six hour silent version of Abel Gance’s Napolean, just so I could say I’d seen it.) But, until yesterday, I had never seen The Muppet Christmas Carol. And neither had Susan. Admitting to it on social media unleashed a stream of comments from people who have long cherished it as a yearly festive treat. What were we thinking of? Were we crazy?

It’s not that I have an aversion to the Muppets. Far from it. I loved their TV series back in the day, I’ve seen most of Jim Henson’s cinematic offerings (including The Dark Crystal) and, as a former drummer, whenever I see Animal’s leering countenance, I find myself smiling in something like recognition. But, nevertheless, I missed the film on its initial release in 1992 and, after that, never cared to watch it on the small screen. So, when I see it listed as one of the Cameo’s Christmas offerings, I resolve to finally put the matter to rest.

And of course, my friends are right. It’s an absolute charmer, a retelling of Dickens’ classic tale that sticks very closely to the original, even incorporating many of the great writer’s own words. It simply swaps some of the key characters for cuddly puppets and throws in several jaunty songs by Paul Williams. What’s not to like?

There’s something so right about Kermit playing Bob Cratchit that it’s hard not to cheer – while turning Fezziwig into Fozziewig and having him played by Fozzie Bear is little short of genius. Dickens himself makes an appearance, played by The Great Gonzo and aided by his friend, Rizzo the Rat. It’s always been a wonder to me how Henson’s simple creations seem to come alive in front of the cameras, but they absolutely do. I even shed genuine tears over the scene where Bob and his wife, Emily (Miss Piggy), mourn the passing of their son, Tiny Tim. And yes, I realise I’m crying over a few scraps of green felt, but I can’t help myself.

It’s more than just the puppetry, of course. The delightful production design by Val Strazovec gives the film an enchanting visual flair, and I love the supernatural elements, particularly the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come, who looks like he’s crept out of a movie by Guillermo del Toro.

Best of all is Michael Caine’s accomplished performance as Scrooge, resolutely refusing to tip a wink or give a nudge to the audience, playing the role with absolute gravitas. It’s this serious element at the heart of the story which makes all the buffoonery around him resonate. Caine has made many movies over the years, but this surely ranks as one his finest achievements.

So yes, I’m glad I finally ticked that box. The Muppet Christmas Carol is a heartwarming delight. And it’s only taken me twenty-seven years to come to that opinion.

4.6 stars

Philip Caveney