The Muppet Christmas Carol came out nearly three decades ago. Today it is considered a classic among Christmas movies, a must-watch film season after season in the same vein as It’s a Wonderful Life and Christmas Vacation.
The movie was the first Muppet production after the untimely death of Muppet creator Jim Henson and its production carries countless stories that make the movie even more inspiring.
The story, of course, begins long before a Muppet was ever known – with Charles Dickens in 1844.
~ What the Critics Said When It Came Out ~
It may be unfair to movie critics to review them for their reviews of any movie.
How were they to know that The Muppet Christmas Carol would be a hit and go on to enjoy cult classic status as a perennial must-watch film of Christmas?
Said the Baltimore Sun in 1992: With a few sprightly moments and some satisfying illusions, the movie is nevertheless far too slow and overpopulated with blue-headed fur balls to work any emotional magic on an audience.
Roger Ebert was more kind. He said, “It could have done with a few more songs than it has, and the merrymaking at the end might have been carried on a little longer, just to offset the gloom of most of Scrooge’s tour through his lifetime spent spreading misery.”
The LA Times was Scroog-iest of them all with their review:
“Die-hard Muppet fans may get a boost from the film (citywide) but Dickens lovers will fare less well. Somewhere along the way–’round about the Ghost of Christmas Past stuff–the magic has fallen out of the story. The treacly score by Miles Goodman, with songs by Paul Williams, doesn’t help. The Muppets are at their best when they’re anarchic, without all this soggy whimsy.”
How could the critics get it all so wrong?
Two reasons: they do not know Dickens and they do not realize the Muppets are not just for kids.
In fact, if most people, let alone movie critics, knew not only the story of the creation of A Christmas Carol but also the dialogue as written by Charles Dickens they would immediately agree with one very small supposition:
Charles Dickens would have loved the Muppets telling his story of Scrooge.
~ Other Productions of A Christmas Carol ~
A Christmas Carol had been tried many different ways long before the Muppets came along. We will mention just a few of them, working backwards.
It was just a few years previous that a dark comedic version of A Christmas Carol was released with Bill Murray in the lead role. The modernized tale was called Scrooged.
While Scrooged too has gone on to some renown as a repeat of each Christmas season it never has enjoyed the popularity of The Muppet Christmas Carol.
Sharp, blunt humor was never Dicken’s way and it does not work for Bill Murray’s version of the story.
In fact, there seems to be just as many haters Scrooged as there are fans.
Though clever in parts (anything with Lee Majors in a cameo role is bound to be clever) the tale is just dark and lacks the real redemption we love the character of Scrooge for.
A Christmas Carol as a musical is another difficult call.
It was famously done in 1970 in a film starring Albert Finney and titled Scrooge.
Roger Ebert mused about why the movie was so enjoyable and he settled on this reason: “…So if all of these things are wrong, why does “Scrooge” work? Because it’s a universal story, I guess, and we like to see it told again…”
Where Scrooge really failed, however, came in trying to remain true to the darker parts of Dicken’s tale.
There was a public outcry in 1970 when Scrooge is introduced to hell in the movie musical. There Marley serves as Satan’s clerk and Scrooge sees his fate as completely doomed. He’s not only dead – as the book merely suggests – but he continues to suffer beyond death, beyond chains, and beyond merely being alone.
How were the Muppets to deal with these heavy themes?
The truth is that The Muppet Christmas Carol kind of evolved.
It was first to be just a TV movie for ABC.
As the script was first being conceptualized each of the Muppets would take a starring role – from Scrooge to Tiny Tim, every part would be played by a Muppet.
And the Muppet version would be a farce – a parody of the first order, as most of their movies are. That parody would include, as always, clever music to help tell the comedic tale.
But then something happened to change all that.
Jim Henson, the creator of the Muppets, suddenly died.
~ Let the Muppets be the Muppets ~
The passing of Jim Henson shook the Muppet world like nothing else had.
Would all those associated with his brilliant productions now be out of a job? Or could they continue to create and build Henson’s legacy?
Henson passed in May of 1990. It created an identity crisis for nearly everyone. If they were to move forward they not only had to get past the grieving of their partner and inspiration but they would need a vehicle strong enough to work behind the scenes as well as on the screen.
Jim Henson’s son, Brian Henson, at just 28 years of age and now in charge of his father’s Muppet empire, was advised to pursue A Christmas Carol.
Knowing that everything of the Muppet future rested on the success of the project Henson collaborated with the best talent known to his father’s team and was wise beyond his years in allowing their creative instincts to take over.
Of course, many associated with the Muppets were taking on new responsibilities. Steve Whitmire had the unenviable task of becoming the voice of Kermit the Frog, a distinction that belonged before to Jim Henson himself.
He was more than right to be worked up about it. But he later famously reported that on the night before recording songs for the movie he had an odd dream. “I don’t know if it was more of a visit than a dream,” Whitmire reportedly said. During the experience Henson told him his nerves would pass.
But besides the ever present absence of Jim Henson in this production there was something more that was present that gives The Muppet Christmas Carol its magic: Charles Dickens.
Director Brian Henson and screen writer Jerry Juhl considered previous film versions of the story. They realized nobody had actually captured Dicken’s prose as part of their productions.
In this vein they saw opportunity with Muppet characters adapting straight storytelling, much as Dickens wrote it. The Muppets would not be the stars of the movie – they would be the storytellers.
This allowed them to be close to Dicken’s original story while giving them great flexibility in adapting the story to general audiences. They would not need gimmicks like hell – they had Muppets.
~ The Human Element ~
With the critical decision made of making the Muppets the storytellers there was a need to find the right human element to take the lead in the story – the man behind the Muppet version of Ebenezer Scrooge.
Many were considered, including George Carlin. But in the end it was Michael Caine who was chosen.
Michael Caine only wanted to play Scrooge completely straight.
He told the director, ‘Brian, I’m going to play Scrooge like I’m acting with the Royal Shakespeare Company. I’m going to never wink to camera. I’m not going to adjust my performance at all because it’s puppets. I’m going to pretend that this is a very, very sincere, dramatic telling of the Christmas Carol, because I think that’ll be the funniest choice.’
Henson, who later claimed he was quite intimidated by Caine, agreed.
Interestingly, for Caine’s part, he claimed in an interview with GQ that one of his motivations for making the movie was his daughter, who was 7 years old when the movie came out in 1992. She had never seen one of his movies because everything previous was more for adults.
Now he watches The Muppet Christmas Carol, as many people do, every holiday season with his grandchildren.
~ Life Imitates Art ~
The Muppets are musical. Henson knew the Muppet version of A Christmas Carol needed to be musical as well. He knew it could work, based on the success of the 1970 musical version. But it needed to be done right.
He turned to an old friend of the Muppets, Paul Williams.
Paul Williams is nothing short of a musical genius. He wrote songs for many of the most popular artists of the 1970s including David Bowie, Three Dog Night, Helen Reddy and, most famously, the Carpenters.
He also had a pedigree in Muppet musical history, having written the Oscar-nominated song, Rainbow Connection for The Muppet Movie.
But Williams fell off the face of the earth, it seemed, in the 1980s when his personal and professional life fell apart due to substance abuse problems. By 1990 he got himself into rehab and straightened out.
“When I got sober, the career I thought I had was pretty much gone,” says Williams. “I just fell in love with recovery, I felt like that’s all I wanted to do, and I didn’t know if I was ever going to write music again. And then I was asked to write the songs for The Muppet Christmas Carol. Every now and then, the universe will line up to do something at the right time in your life.”
“I was longing to live life in a totally new way, one day at a time, trusting that what I needed was within me to get things done. And I’m sitting down to write these songs, and I’m writing about Scrooge: a man who’s learning to live life in a whole new way, who’s having a spiritual awakening [laughs]. It’s like, okay now, this is my inventory of dealing with where I am in my own life.”
~ There is No End to the Story ~
The Muppet Christmas Carol saw only modest success when released in 1992. However, it was up against both Home Alone 2 and Aladdin that Christmas season.
It was first released to home VHS video in 1993, then to DVD in 2002.
Unlike, other Christmas films such as A Christmas Story, The Muppet Christmas Carol has never enjoyed seasonal television broadcast play.
Its success has been fueled by video releases and now as a staple of streaming services such as Amazon, Netflix and Disney’s own Disney Plus.
The movie has transitioned well into the Internet age. It is frequently quoted and parts of the movie are shared via video and memes on social media.
There is even a mild controversy that is debated when Beaker, playing one of the characters seeking a donation from Scrooge, appears to maybe “flip off” Scrooge on his way out the door:
~ Fun Facts About The Muppet Christmas Carol ~
- Near the end of the film Scrooge and Company pass by a store called “Micklewhite’s”. Michael Caine’s real name is Maurice Micklewhite.
- The movie cost $12 million to make and was released for Christmas 1992.
- Michael Caine has said he considers his role as Ebenezer Scrooge to be one of his most memorable, and called it “stretching and difficult.”
- The Ghost of Christmas Past was shot in a tank of water. Director Brian Henson said “We wanted a character that was very beautiful, but also sort of ethereal, and sort of not playing by the rules of physics.”
- In the wonderful musical number “One More Sleep ‘Til Christmas,” Bob Cratchit stops in the middle of the city street to look up at a shooting star overhead. This gesture was an homage to The Muppet Movie, when Kermit sees the shooting star while he’s stuck in the desert.
- Kermit and Miss Piggy play Mr. and Mrs. Bob Cratchit, a married couple with children. Half of their kids are frogs and half of them are pigs.
- Inside the Muppet company, it was popular to love to hate Bean Bunny (the small rabbit who comes to the door asking Scrooge for a handout and gets a wreath thrown at him). The original idea for Bean Bunny was to create a character so obnoxiously sweet and sappy that everyone would actually hate him. This film gave them a chance to actually be mean to him, which was popular among Muppet crew members.
- Henson says the most difficult shot in the entire film was the close-up of Kermit locking the door at Scrooge’s office.
- When Gonzo calls Rizzo an idiot for climbing over the iron gate rather than walking through it, this was Henson tipping his hat at the puppeteers Dave Goelz (Gonzo) and Steve Whitmire (Rizzo). They often would rib each other, and it was not uncommon for Goelz to say to Whitmire, “You are such an idiot.”
- The song “When Love is Gone”, highlighting the breakup between Scrooge and Belle, was cut from the original screen version of the movie because executives at the studio felt it would bore children. The song was put back in to releases of the film on video in the past few years.