A Muppets Christmas Carol as a Cultural Artifact

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again (right now): if somehow almost all media from the last fifty something years were to be wiped out, The Muppet Christmas Carol should be the movie that survives. Not because it is a fantastic movie (though it is a fantastic movie) but because the thought of future people trying to dissect what the hell is going on in the movie just tickles me silly.

The Muppets have always existed in an interesting realm of meta-culture to me, and I guess almost any Muppets movie would do for a real good “what the f**k?” down the line. The Muppets are strange because they are performers, and they have a number of “tiers of reality” they operate on: they have their acting personas (Kermit, Gonzo, Fozzie, etc.) which are (obviously) fictional characters, but then they also often assume roles (in this case, for example, Kermit assumes the role of Bob Cratchit). The lines between these realities are always fuzzy: Kermit, in this movie, never breaks character while Gonzo is often times called out for the fact that he is not in fact Charles Dickens.

But even fully understanding that requires some sort of foreknowledge of what the hell the Muppets are. The movie is never explicit about the fact that Kermit the Frog has taken on the role of Bob Cratchit. It is never explicit as to who the hell Gonzo is, or why the hell he is trying to trick his friend Rizzo the Rat (who keeps his regular identity) into thinking he is Charles Dickens. This requires a familiarity with the rest of the Muppets’ body of work. You need to know what Muppets are going into the movie because if you don’t, it will never ever be clarified for you. You need to know that they’re a troupe of characters with their own idiosyncrasies that often bleed into the characters they assume. They hop up a (second) tier of reality by assuming that their audience comes already equipped with some knowledge from the real world, and the Muppets themselves (the performer tier) often recognizes that THEY are also characters playing characters, seemingly catapulting them into our tier of reality (though in actuality they are creating yet another “between” tier).

So any Muppets movie left as a standalone artifact would be truly bizarre, both because of the strange multi-level-meta knowledge required, to say nothing of the uncommented upon and seemingly arbitrary intermingling of puppets and humans. But what truly elevates their Christmas Carol is the interchanges between Rizzo and Gonzo, and their relationship to the movie.

As I said before, Gonzo occupies a particularly strange place in the movie. He purports to be Charles Dickens, but his friend Rizzo knows this isn’t true. Without knowing who the Muppets are, this would be confusing. But even their relationship to this movie exists on multiple tiers of reality. Beyond their relationship (Gonzo and Rizzo tier aka the performers tier) they take on the role of dual-narrators. Furthermore, they experience the film in real time, and can interact easily with the environment, placing them on the lowest tier, the story within the movie tier. All of this, as well as their knowledge of cultural icons from our world (Charles Dickens) makes their actual placement hard to decipher. It’s another trick that the Muppets pull a lot, but it would be confusing to the uninitiated.

The final bizarreness would require a bit of a trick, which would be that A Christmas Carol’s original version would have to survive. Those familiar with Charles Dickens but unfamiliar with the Muppets would have an even harder time making sense of this adaptation, primarily because it’s a damn good adaptation. Other than the free intermingling of the puppets and humans and the strange choice as a blue alien to play Charles Dickens, the base level reality (the telling of A Christmas Carol) is faithful to the source material as well as a technical masterpiece. Michael Caine delivers an earnest and delightful performance, all three ghosts are masterfully realized, and the sets are gorgeous and evocative. The contrast between a serious take on the work would only make the meta narrative more confounding.

For that reason, I hope that somehow in the future some cultural anthropologist is left to boggle over a masterfully crafted but truly strange telling of A Christmas Carol. And best of all they’d be getting a great movie out of the deal!

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