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Walt Disney Home Video presents
Charles Dickens: And with that, the spirits of Scrooge's partners vanished into the darkness, leaving him once again alone in his room.
DVD ReviewWhen it comes to DVDs, Disney usually treats its titles with supreme respect, but the studio blundered badly when it released the first DVD edition of The Muppet Christmas Carol in 2002, outraging the movie's devoted fans by offering only a pan-and-scan version of this beloved holiday musical. Each December, as my family dutifully popped the disc into our home theater system, we griped about the shoddy video treatment, and expressed dismay over Disney's idiotic decision to compromise the original film. Well, after three long years and a deluge of consumer complaints, the studio has finally righted that wrong, and the new "Anniversary Edition" boasts a beautiful anamorphic widescreen transfer that does its best to erase any lingering ill will. (For those stubbornly clinging to 4:3 TVs or possessing a sick sense of nostalgia, the disc also includes the previous fullscreen print.)
Sadly, though, this new release is not perfect. Some dodo in Disney's DVD division decided not to include the film's sole deleted song in the widescreen version. Yet in a maddening ironic twist, that heartbreaking melody, When Love Is Gone, still resides on the pan-and-scan version! So rather than allowing disgruntled viewers like me to forget the nightmarish fullscreen fiasco, Disney—intentionally or not—rubs our noses in it, forcing us to revisit that subpar form if we want to see the film's director's cut or access the deleted footage. Sure, it's easy enough to switch between the two formats, but it's the issue's principle that sticks in my craw. I'm beginning to think "dumbo" isn't just the title of a Disney movie, but a euphemism for the company's employees.
In deference to the holiday season, however, I will put aside my rancor, and concentrate on the charming, clever, and tuneful nature of The Muppet Christmas Carol, one of the most satisfying family films with a yuletide slant. Take it from me, there's no better way to introduce your kids to Charles Dickens' immortal tale than through the humor and warmth of Kermit the Frog, Miss Piggy, Gonzo the Great, Rizzo the Rat, and Fozzie Bear. Purists and stuck-up literati may cry foul, believing it a crime to monkey with a beloved classic, but The Muppet Christmas Carol reveres its source and remains surprisingly true to the original story of Ebenezer Scrooge (Michael Caine), a grumpy old miser who abhors not only Christmas, but all mankind. Late one Christmas Eve, three spirits pay him a visit, and force Scrooge to objectively view his past, present, and uncertain future in the hope such visions might alter his outlook and convince him to change his selfish, sour ways.
Of course, it's initially jarring to see Scrooge's mild-mannered employee, Bob Cratchit, played by a felt frog, but within no time we accept the oddities of the Muppet world and enjoy the puppets' unique perspective. Director Brian Henson infuses the film with plenty of Muppet wit, but never trivializes or cheapens the story's message. By inserting the character of Charles Dickens (played by Gonzo the Great) into the action as a narrator, screenwriter Jerry Juhl takes a bit of creative license, but the addition helps younger viewers get a better handle on the plot. Along with sidekick Rizzo the Rat, Dickens provides comic relief and a soothing presence when events take a spooky, mildly scary turn.
At first glance, Caine seems a bit young for Scrooge, but he brings palpable emotion to the oft-performed role, and never seems uncomfortable interacting with the Muppets. He also possesses a pleasant singing voice that helps sell such lilting Paul Williams melodies as It Feels Like Christmas and the aforementioned When Love Is Gone. In fact, the entire score is first rate, featuring a hummable array of original tunes that appeal to both children and adults. They also beautifully augment the story's themes and fit the 19th century English atmosphere.
The Muppet Christmas Carol was the first Muppet film produced after Jim Henson's untimely death, and it seems a fitting tribute to the beloved puppeteer. Though serious in tone, this delightful musical retains the trademark Muppet whimsy while telling an unforgettable tale of redemption and spiritual renewal. Kids can always benefit from a little culture, and this marvelous production doles it out in terms they can understand and appreciate.
Rating for Style: A-
Rating for Substance: A
Image Transfer Review: Disney has done a great job with the widescreen transfer of The Muppet Christmas Carol, far outclassing the shabby effort of the previous pan-and-scan release (see below). Almost spotless source material, rich and vibrant color, excellent contrast, and fine shadow detail all combine to produce a smooth, film-like presentation with no evidence of digital noise. Fleshtones are stable and natural (even Kermit's lime green skin looks perfect) and black levels remain deep and solid during the many nocturnal scenes. It's such a treat to finally see this delightful movie in its original aspect ratio, with a superior image that surpasses expectations.
The pan-and-scan transfer from the previous DVD, however, just won't die. Disney includes it again, and hasn't bothered to upgrade or restore it. A grainy softness dulls the picture quality, and a number of nicks and scratches lend this 13-year-old film an unfortunate antiquated look. When one factors in the additional limitations of pan-and-scan, it's hard to imagine anyone watching this version—except to briefly view the deleted scene.
Image Transfer Grade: A-
Audio Transfer Review: Disney employs the same 5.1 audio track from the previous release, and it provides clean, beautifully modulated sound. Although surround effects remain limited, the dynamic track still fills the room, with musical numbers benefiting from fine fidelity and marvelous depth of tone. Dialogue is always clear and understandable, and no surface defects or distortion mar the presentation.
Audio Transfer Grade: B+
Disc ExtrasFull Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 10 cues and remote access
7 Other Trailer(s) featuring Lady and the Tramp, The Wild, The Shaggy Dog, The Muppet Show: First Season, The Muppets Wizard of Oz, Kronk's New Groove, JoJo's Circus, Disney Princess Sing Along Songs, Volume Three, Disney Princess Learning Adventures: The Enchanted Book of Letters
1 Deleted Scenes
1 Feature/Episode commentary by director Brian Henson
Packaging: generic plastic keepcase
That exception is Pepe Profiles Presents—Gonzo: A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Weirdo, a five-and-a-half-minute tribute to the lovable Muppet "performance artist" who portrays Charles Dickens in the film. Interviews with such colleagues and pals as Kermit the Frog, Miss Piggy, and Rizzo the Rat, as well as clips and stills from Gonzo's career, highlight this pleasant puff piece. Pepe calls Gonzo "an enigma wrapped in a conundrum," and that just about says it all.
Director Brian Henson provides an informative and relatively engaging commentary, in which he discusses the complex logistics of filming scenes with both Muppets and live actors, and divulges some of the ingenious tricks used to seamlessly present the story. Henson believes The Muppet Christmas Carol is the most faithful screen adaptation of Dickens' renowned novel, because most of its dialogue is lifted "straight out of the book." He also anoints Paul Williams as the best Muppet composer, and marvels at how Michael Caine immediately embraced the delicate comic dynamic between Muppets and people.
Gonzo and Rizzo introduce a two-and-a-half-minute reel of carefully orchestrated "blunders and bloopers," all of which—in the grand Muppet tradition—are clever and amusing. The pair also hosts the rather bland three-minute featurette, Christmas Around the World, which briefly touches upon yuletide traditions in such countries as France, Sweden, and England.
A slew of Disney sneak peeks complete the disc extras.
Extras Grade: C+
Final CommentsMove over, Rudolph. For kids, The Muppet Christmas Carol just might be the ultimate holiday movie. Brian Henson's tuneful romp adheres to Dickens' original, while adding enough Muppet twists to keep young viewers (and their young-at-heart parents) enthralled from beginning to end. Though this Anniversary Edition is far from perfect, at least it contains the long-awaited (and exceptionally rendered) anamorphic transfer, which at last presents this festive musical in its proper screen ratio. If you're a fan of this film (and who isn't?), an upgrade is a must. Recommended.
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