Home > Reviews > Grudge Match Review: “Scrooged” vs. “The Muppet Christmas Carol” vs. “Disney’s A Christmas Carol” – Rounds 1 – 5

Grudge Match Review: “Scrooged” vs. “The Muppet Christmas Carol” vs. “Disney’s A Christmas Carol” – Rounds 1 – 5

There are so many adaptations of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, it would be impossible for me to review them all, not to mention the fact that I’m sure many of you who read this would be bored by the endless barrage of adaptations of the same tale. As luck would have it, though, I’ve already watched three drastically different adaptations of the story this month, all with their own strengths and weaknesses, and each very unique. Rather than split these up into three separate reviews, however, I decided to do something different for this review: a grudge match! After all, what is the Christmas season without a little conflict, right?

The three adaptations for this review are, as I said, drastically different in tone, style, medium, and even decade.

Scrooged is the least literal of the translations and also the earliest film in this grudge match. Starring Bill Murray, Karen Allen, Alfre Woodard, and several other big actors and celebrities from the 80s, it is also the most “adult” of the three adaptations.

Next is The Muppet Christmas Carol, which, as you may have guessed, is a Muppetized adaptation. What is surprising about this adaptation, the first Disney-produced Muppet production and the first film released son after Jim Henson’s death, is that it doesn’t strictly star any of the recently revived puppets in the lead role. Rather, Ebenezer Scrooge is instead portrayed by a rather famous human actor, Michael Caine, with the Muppets instead taking on roles as the supporting cast.

Finally, we have what is currently the most recent theatrical release version of the film and the only one to bear the original Dickens name, A Christmas Carol, another Disney production and their first to star Jim Carrey. Director Robert Zemeckis used the same motion capture techniques he used in his first Christmas adaptation/motion capture production, The Polar Express. The film also features the captured performances of Gary Oldman, Cary Elwes, Colin Firth, Bob Hoskins, and Robin Wright Penn. Coincidentally, despite its high tech trappings, big Hollywood names, and Disney’s involvement, this is also the most serious and literal adaptation of the three films.

What I want to do here, though, is to breakdown the various aspects of the basic Christmas Carol story, from the roles and the actors, the presentation of the ghosts, the artistic styling, the music, the overall effect of each of the films’ presentation of the Christmas Carol message, that all time classic one about charity and compassion for others, and, of course, the overall quality of each film as a whole. Instead of addressing each film on its own, I will pit each of these films against each other in the various categories, and each category will have a definite winner. The final reviews, however, do not necessarily reflect an average of each category’s results, and are to be considered my final score for each film overall — effectively determining the winner, you might say!

I must add this disclaimer: I’ve committed the sacrilege of having never read the original story, so I apologize for my ignorance on this likely crucial bit of research on my part. Hehe… *ahem*

Round 1: The Scrooge

Bill Murray as Frank Cross; Michael Caine and Jim Carrey as Ebenezer Scrooge

The lead role of Ebenezer Scrooge is, of course, probably the most important casting choice in a film adaptation of the story. The actor in the role has to believably go from being a mean, greedy, selfish miser to a repentant, giving, and caring man literally overnight.

Being a sort of meta-adaptation, Bill Murray plays Frank Cross, a television executive who loves only himself, who defines his own last name as “a thing they nail people to” and then plasters that on his office wall just for added effect. Murray has made a career out of playing cynical, sarcastic, and arrogant characters, and his role in Scrooged almost feels like a prototype of his later role of Phil Connors is Groundhog Day. It’s his thing, you see, and he is very good at it, and Scrooged, being the most “adult” of the three adaptations, gives him plenty of room to show it off. When a stagehand asks for a suggestion on how to humanely attach antlers to some mice when glue doesn’t work, Murray is perfectly straightfaced and grotesquely funny as he asks back, “Did you try staples?” When he finally learns his lesson, Murray starts off as cartoonish in his glee, but, in his rather long closing monologue (which really could have used some editing), it’s actually pretty profound as you see Murray’s eyes actually watering and turning a bit red!

For the Muppet adaptation, you may think a more obvious choice would have been to place a Muppet character into the role of Scrooge, but the filmmakers wisely chose to instead use a live actor for the role, Michael Caine (undoubtedly also motivated by name recognition, too). None of the Muppets, save for maybe Miss Piggy is mean enough to fill those shoes, and that could have turned this enjoyable, if corny, adaptation into too much of a cartoon. As Scrooge, Michael Caine is good at giving stern looks and is possibly the most uncaricatured of the three Scrooges. However, I do feel as though Caine plays Scrooge as almost too friendly in the role. Casting one of England’s best known and loved actors in the role may have seemed obvious at the time, but I almost feel as though he’s just too likable, and the transformation at the end just doesn’t have the same payoff.

Having his performance captured in Robert Zemeckis’ animated adaptation of the film, Jim Carrey slips on the digital make up and becomes a very angry, hateful old man, crooked in appearance and morality. Judging by the trailers, I admit, I wrote his performance off as oafish and annoying. I fully expected him to be rocketed around by the ghosts with slapstick comedy and constantly shouting “Humbug!” as the teasers had him doing, but, in the actual film, Jim Carrey actually pulls off a very ideal performance here as a cartoonish but believable Scrooge. When he shouts in anger, you feel his wrath, and when he’s confronted with his sad past, his sins, and the pain of the world’s suffering, his remorse is genuine. Of course, being Jim Carrey, the filmmakers had to let him get some energy out, and his transformation is filled with almost the same level of silly glee as Murray’s, with Carrey’s penchant for silly voices and flailing about coming through. It does come off as Carrey being Carrey, and yet it also feels as though an old man has found his youthful love of the Christmas spirit once again.

This is a hard decision to make. I like all three actors, and yet Caine fell short in my eyes. Ultimately, it comes down to two comedic actors who both have a dramatic streak, and while I think Murray is fantastic in his role as Frank Cross, I do think Jim Carrey somehow edges him out in overall dramatic impact, and I’m just going to have to go with my gut here.

WINNER: Disney’s A Christmas Carol

Round 2: The Cratchits & Tiny Tim

Alfre Woodard as Grace Cooley; Robin (Jerry Nelson), Kermit (Steve Whitmire), and Miss Piggy (Frank Oz) as The Cratchits; Gary Oldman as Bob Cratchit & Tiny Tim (voiced by Ryan Ochoa)

Bob Cratchit and his family are the antithesis of Scrooge. They love the Christmas holiday and they are filled with the Christmas spirit, with Tiny Tim the most exemplary of them all. And yet they are almost destitute, unable to pay for Tim’s medical needs. Bob, of course, works like a horse for Scrooge for very little pay. His wife resents Scrooge and his practices, and yet Bob and Tim remain thankful for all that Scrooge provides the family, however little it is.

Scrooged takes the role of Bob and transforms it into the appropriately named Grace, the begrudging and under appreciated and underpaid secretary to Frank Cross. Her son, Calvin, witnessed his father get shot down years ago and hasn’t said a word since. The rest of her family remains joyful and in the spirit, of course, despite their poverty and living in such a bad neighborhood. Woodard has never been bad in anything I’ve seen her in, and as Grace, she is able to give the character the dignity and strength to be the single mother whose only source of income for her family is working for a tightwad. I really liked the genuine portrayal of these modern day Cratchit-surrogates, and the use of “God bless us, everyone” at the end of the film is one of the film’s best alterations to the original story.

With Miss Piggy as the sassy matriarch of the Cratchit family in her respective film, you might think that the Cratchits would loose some of their dramatic weight. And you would be right, of course, but it’s nonetheless entertaining, with Piggy not only criticizing Scrooge’s stinginess, but also, to her daughters’ shock, his fashion sense. Kermit, of course, is the perfect choice to fill in for Bob, and sings one of the film’s best, most cheerful songs, “One More Sleep ’til Christmas.” Robin, Kermit’s nephew in the Muppetverse, fills the role of Tiny Tim, who leads in the song “Bless Us All,” but it’s so syrupy sweet I almost couldn’t stand it. With a franchise that is known for having a sharp sense of humor, it was actually somewhat disappointing how syrupy it actually was.

This was a similar problem that Robert Zemeckis’ film almost had with the Cratchits, with Gary Oldman being a good fit as Bob, but the wide-eyed child Tiny Tim (whose motion performance, in an interesting spin on “like father, like son,” is also eerily portrayed by Oldman,though he’s voiced by child actor Ryan Ochoa) is almost too cute in design and portrayal, though a bit more grounded than his puppet counterpart. The rest of the family isn’t too fleshed out, which I won’t fault the movie for, but it still doesn’t match the levels of characterization that went into Scrooged and even The Muppet Christmas Carol.

WINNER: Scrooged

Round 3: Jacob Marley

John Forsythe as Lew Hayward; Statler & Waldorf as Jacob and Robert Marley; Gary Oldman as Jacob Marley

The first spectral visitor, Jacob Marley was Scrooge’s business partner before he died. A great influence on Scrooge when he was still alive, Marley was essentially an enabler or, in some versions, the inspiration for Scrooge’s degradation into greed.

In Scrooged Jacob Marley takes on the form of Lew Hayward, Frank’s long dead mentor who, throughout his life, squandered his marriage, his riches, and his time on selfish pursuits that seemed like a good thing at the time but now, as an undead zombie/mummy-type monster, he knows was damning him in the afterlife. John Forsythe (The Charlie of Charlie’s Angels – yes, you’ve now seen him!) is good in his supporting role, popping up every now and then throughout flashbacks (sans makeup of course) and basically being Hugh Hefner if he was a TV executive.

As the only visitor to be played by established Muppets, there may have only been one obvious choice for the role — and that choice was actually a duo, Statler and Waldorf, the old men who sarcastically degrade everything they see. And so the role was split into two brothers, Jacob and Robert Marley (Get it?), and, as with most of the characters in this film, they, too, get a song, “Marley and Marley.” The lyrics are good enough, but the tune is kind of chintzy and showy, but there’s no doubt the song will be stuck in your head.

The Jacob Marley of the 2009 version has Gary Oldman pulling double duty as Jacob Marley, as well. Here, he starts off as a terrifying ghost that Scrooge does not initially recognize. Jacob here tosses his chains and their weights about, tortured by his damnation to roam in them for all eternity thanks to the sins of his unrepentant life. The whole thing is incredibly dramatic, with Oldman looking vacantly into the distance until Scrooge provokes him, but it does degrade a little in tone when his jaw snaps and tears from his face and he has to manipulate it with his hand for a while before adjusting it and making a funny face – no doubt to assure the terrified kids in the audience that he means no harm and, look at him, he’s making you laugh. Then it goes back into dramatic mode, with Marley flying out into the streets where a fleet of damned souls hover over the city wailing. An interesting end to the scene, but lessened in impact from the slapstick before it.

WINNER: Scrooged

Round 4: The Ghost of Christmas Past

David Johansen (a.k.a. "Buster Poindexter"), Robert Tygner (performer) and Jessica Fox (voice), and Jim Carrey

Here’s where the meat of the story comes in. The first spirit, the Ghost of Christmas Past, is the spirit that takes Scrooge, if you couldn’t tell, into the past, showing him a time when he was more innocent, when he was able to love, and, ultimately, the ways in which he has changed.

Musician David Johansen (alternately known under the stage name Buster Poindexter) plays a decidedly deviant version of the spirit. Where most others are gentle, emit a warming glow, and speak in soft tones, Johansen’s ghost is a gruff taxi cab driver with a Brooklyn accent and horrible teeth. The only glow that comes from him is the one at the end of his cigarette, and he’s even a bit of a voyeur. Still, his purpose is the same as all others, and with this more adult take on the traditional story, he seems to work. The movie even makes a point of having him come back towards the end, posing as a regular cab driver to take the love interest to Frank’s location, essentially bringing the past joy back in to Frank’s life. A small touch, but nice all the same.

The Muppet ghost here was an original creation, a childlike spirit, somewhat androgynous in looks (though not voice), and wiser and older than it would appear to be. There’s nothing ominous or severe about the character, as with the others, likely to make the character more kid-friendly, but this does have the effect of making the ghost feel dull by comparison, and Jessica Fox’s glum, monotone performance doesn’t help it. The transparency and wispy effects of the puppet, however, are very nicely done, as you would expect from the technical wizards at Jim Henson’s studio, but the characterization is not a strong point.

Jim Carrey plays each of the ghosts in his adaptation, and each of them is traditional and true to the original source material. The ghost is presented as a living candle with a cap. The effects used for the character are quite beautiful, though seeing Jim Carrey’s goofy face in the flame is a bit distracting, and it doesn’t help that he’s doing some kind of schtick with his head and facial expressions, opening his mouth widely when speaking, ticking his head back and forth as a flame would if caught in a draft, though it comes off as more of a nervous tick than a natural occurrence. It isn’t awful, and it isn’t dull, but this is actually the one time when Jim Carrey becomes a bit too distracting in the film.

Ultimately, this is one area where the subversive version overshadows the softer or the traditional ones, as Johansen’s ghost is thematically tied to Frank’s past.

WINNER: Scrooged

Round 5: The Ghost of Christmas Present

Carol Kane, Don Austen (performer) and Jerry Nelson (voice), and Jim Carrey as The Ghost of Christmas Present

The Ghost of Christmas Present’s purpose is to show Scrooge how the errors of his ways effect those around him and how ignorant he is about the suffering of the people he writes off as wasteful, useless, or even subhuman, showing him scenes from the present Christmas season. This ghost traditionally only exists for one Christmastime, and in the original story states that he has had 1842 brothers (all from Christmases past). When this one is over, he then dies with the now, giving way to the future.

The ghost of Scrooged however, must be the first time that a sister was born. Portrayed as almost a drunken fairy princess, the Carol Kane-portrayed ghost has a thing for illustrating pain and suffering of those present in Frank’s life that he could honestly afford to help now by inflicting it back upon him, even introducing herself by flying whimsically over to him and kicking him in the crotch. Kane is a funny actress, her high, manic voice and comedic timing lending the character a lot of amusing quirks, even if it’s not traditional. She doesn’t even age, but, then again, a lady never tells, right?

If tradition is what you want, the more family-oriented ones have you covered. Both match the jolly Father Christmas figure from the book in both looks and personality, though both offer much different takes on those same elements. The Muppets, for instance, created a giant puppet that requires an entire person to be stuck inside. This keeps him human-looking and yet still in line with the puppetry in use for each of the spirits. He’s also the only one of the three ghosts to get a song in the film, interacting with characters and singing around. It’s a cheerful song, inoffensive, not as good as the Kermit one (who, let’s be honest, is the only character who could get away with singing silly songs), and not nearly as uber-sweet as Tiny Tim’s, coming off as a generic version of “My Favorite Things” from The Sound of Music. It was impressive that Disney and Jim Henson Productions decided to age the character. I wonder if they used velcro or some other means to change the color of that giant puppet’s hair. In the end, this ghost is basically your grandfather in the jolly ghost’s clothes. Somehow he even gets Scrooge to dance along…

Of course, Jim Carrey once again plays one of the ghosts, and honestly, even more than Scrooge, this was probably Carrey’s best performance in the film. The ghost comes off as jolly, saintly, wise, and yet also very stern, throwing Scrooge’s cruel words back at him with compassion but also appropriate disgust. The design of the character and the room he appears to Scrooge in is truly gorgeous, and his scenes are the most dramatic and alive in all of the film.  This is one instance in the film where Carrey’s ability to overact and laugh jovially actually feels appropriate. Like with Carol Kane, you do kind of get the sense that this ghost has been “celebrating” for quite a while, living in the present as much as he can while he can. And yet, when it comes to Scrooge’s lack of compassion, the spirit is deadly serious about acting now, while there is still time. This is actually the first time I’ve seen a film show the spirit revealing to Scrooge the grotesque children representing Ignorance and Want, and Zemeckis did well to do so, lending this adaptation a much needed dramatic, almost nightmarish element that is missing from most others. This ghost’s scenes are the best in the film, and I can honestly say, the film easily wins this category.

WINNER: Disney’s A Christmas Carol

Part 2 >>



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