The thing is, on paper nothing about the Muppets Christmas Carol should have worked, the Muppets taking the beloved classic by Charles Dickens and doing their own very unique take on it. A pretty ambitious task, since this was their first adaption, of any classic work.
You have Brian Henson, a Director, who had done everything else involved with the Muppets since 1981, but who was only 28 years old, never directed before and grieving for his father, Jim Henson who died two years earlier.
Jim Henson who wasn’t only the creator of the Muppets, but also the voice and operator of the figurehead of the company. Kermit the Frog, easily the most recognised of all the Muppets.
No pressure there then.
Then there was the sad complication of the loss of veteran Muppet performer Richard Hunt who had passed away in 1992, the film is dedicated to him and Henson.
Steve Whitmire, was given the opportunity has to voice Kermit, Rizzo and Beaker, while Statler well Marley was taken on by the great Jerry Nelson. Even if the story is straightforward, the drama behind the scenes must have been anything but.
You have a Muppeteer who had been with the company since 1978, but who had never performed Kermit in such a capacity. He had the job of filling some seriously big shoes while making Kermit the Frog his own.
In hindsight, you can safely say that even if the reason he left the company is unknown to fans of the Muppets, Steve Whitmire nailed his performance. Though there were subtle differences in Kermit’s voice
Jim was the definer voice role but played it as more of an everyman, yet Steve Whitmire was slightly more jaded and soulful.
Then there were the decisions made, instead of using the traditional Muppets in the roles, because it would be too distracting. Though Gonzo as Christmas Future would have been interesting to see. Instead, they made the decision to create new distinctive Muppets, to play Past, Present and Future. Which also managed to embody the images made famous by John Leech, the illustrator of the original A Christmas Carol. It is touching that they went to so much effort.
So, new Kermit, fresh director and their take on the beloved novella by Charles Dickens. What Brian Henson needed to do, was make the Muppets grow up, and embrace a semblance of maturity. They may be taking the subject matter seriously, but they are not taking this as sacred, which I will get to further along.
A Christmas Carol is an enduring story told and referenced over 100 times in 100 different ways. There is Scrooged, the one with Kelsey Grammer, the one with Patrick Stewart, the animated versions, Jim Carrey’s CGI nightmare. Barbie has one, even Doctor Who got one.
I even wrote my own, postmodern version a few years ago, making Scrooge’s archetype a woman. It’s very meta and a very geek-centric. The link below, shameless plug, it’s Christmas.
A Christmas Carol is considered the quintessential Christmas story, it helped pioneer Christmas as a time of celebration and giving, and “God bless us, everyone”. It entered the zeitgeist, and everyone knows the story even if they haven’t read it…which is in the public domain, so there is really no excuse not to. It’s only 26’000 words after all, and even Gonzo requests that you do!
But this is the story in a nutshell. Ebenezer Scrooge is a miserable old sod with a vague job, but who has a lot of money, who treats his employee Bob Cratchit like dirt. Then on Christmas Eve, his old boss Marley shows up telling him that he will be visited by 3 spirits. They are Past, Present and Things to Come, who do just that. He becomes a better person and Tiny Tim; the representation of hope and joy doesn’t die.
I think the reason I love this film so much, is that I hate Tiny Tim, I love the story of A Christmas Carol, but I hate Tiny Tim the character. Like many Dickensian characters, he’s too good for this sinful earth, and even though his death could promote social change. I think it’s also because of this line.
”He (Tim) hoped the people saw him in the church, because he was a cripple, and it might be pleasant to them to remember upon Christmas Day, who made lame beggars walk, and blind men see.”
So sayeth Bob Cratchit and Kermit the Frog, a more cynical take on this is. Tiny Tim went to Church, and because he was a cripple, basically guilt-tripped people, because he’s so pure and innocent and dying of tuberculosis, and possibly rickets.
In most versions of A Christmas Carol, Tiny Tim is such a sweet child, and so damn cheerful. So, I don’t care if he lives or dies. But this film cast Robin the Frog, you can’t hate Robin the Frog. He represents the goodness and the child at heart which is at the centre of the Muppets. Wow, I think he’s the only Tiny Tim I can stand.
I’m glad I mentioned that.
Up to this point in the Muppet films, part of the attraction and appeal was how humans acted or reacted to the left-handed ones.
However, this being their 4th film, there was scope for development, but the only way to do it was to remove the humans. Part of the appeal in other films was playing “spot the celebrity cameo”. But by removing this, also gave the opportunity for the Muppets to stand on their own form of storytelling.
The only way they could do that, was by turning the Muppets into actors, keeping true to their characters, but making them inhabit different roles. Yet also being true to the vision of Charles Dickens, whose prose is being narrated to by Gonzo, who is breaking the fourth wall and addressing the audience, with Rizzo as the audience surrogate
Rizzo who just questions everything and claims he is there for the food. For a Muppet film the logic behind this method, which was created by veteran writer and co-producer Jerry Juhl was genius,
But more importantly, the Muppets are performing the way that gives respect to the text without mugging the camera. For 20 years up to this point, Statler and Waldorf have sat on their balcony and bitched at the Muppets, hating on everything and the world in general. They were born to play Jacob and Robert (Bob) Marley and provided their trademark wit and disdain with genuine terror. The song “Marley and Marley”, is part funny and horrifying.
When it comes to relationships, at least this film in the guise of the Cratchit family, and showed us a happy relationship between Miss Piggy and Kermit. Apparently, the wedding in The Muppets Take Manhattan didn’t stick!
They managed to stay true to the Dicken’s characters, use the correct dialogue, while never letting us forget their real personalities. Let’s face it, Miss Peggy was born to play Emily Cratchit, her indignation about the “founder of the feast”, rang true. Once again, a stellar performance from the now-retired legend that is Frank Oz.
Miss Piggy showed her human emotion, her heartbreak and gave us a glimpse of what could have been in the real world regarding her relationship with Kermit. As of writing this, they are still not back together.
This is the magic of this film, is that by subduing the normally, more egotistical, vocal, screen stealing muppets. Yet, giving prominence to ones who have been around since the early days, but never given much focus like Rizzo and Gonzo, which will be explained more at the end of this article.
Overall take away the humans, take away the jokes, take away Janice’s brilliantly inappropriate conversations to her mother. And there you have Muppets Christmas Carol. But what makes this film so beloved is the almost lack of humans.
Apart from Sir Michael Caine, his few family members, and Bella. The only time you see a human, they are out of focus and in the background, because if you look closely, most of them are the Muppet Performers, controlling the ones who draw the audience’s gaze.
When it came to Scrooge, he had to be played by a human, because otherwise, that honour would have gone to Kermit. Now, Kermit the Frog can portray sadness, anxiety and frustration. But there is no way he could characterise an uncaring bastard even if he is redeemed at the end. If they had done that, Steve Whitmire’s debut would have been his curtain call.
You needed an actor, with presence, directness, and I am so happy they asked Sir Michael Caine, who only agreed to do it so he could be in a film his daughter could watch.
Michael Caine, even with a diverse career, spanning since the 1950s. At this point in 1992, he hadn’t had a hit film in years, and been teetering on the edge of Hollywood for a while, not to say his films weren’t good, they were. But none of them was standout.
Then he got the gig of Scrooge, and I think we can all say he was fantastic, what he lacked in singing ability, he made up for with sheer enthusiasm. Also, it’s fascinating at how he played it, he didn’t change his accent, making Scrooge’s working-class origins more obvious and giving gravitas to the role. Though Scrooge in the original story was more upper class, the accent centred it more in the real world.
Scrooge may be a self-made man, but he’s still not the elite, however, his actions towards the end of the story where he impresses the charitable gentlemen played by Doctor Honeydew and Beaker, with his newfound altruism may propel him into a new social sphere.
Caine didn’t try to take over, and most importantly, he’s treating the Muppets, and by extension, the Muppet Performers with respect. In comparison to a lot of actors who don’t, they either underact or overact in a way to steal the gaze and typically failing. Caine is treating them as equals.
By extension by treating them like humans, gives them more profound meaning according to IMDB
“Before production began, Sir Michael Caine told Brian Henson, “I’m going to play this movie like I’m working with the Royal Shakespeare Company. I will never wink, I will never do anything Muppety. I am going to play Scrooge as if it is an utterly dramatic role, and there are no puppets around me.” Henson replied “Yes, bang on!””
Caine is treating them like Shakespearean actors, has to keep his emotions in check, try not to look down since he’s walking on wooden planks for a duration of the film, wearing a dressing gown and keeping his dialogue sincere and without stealing the film.
The Muppets Christmas Carol has enough laughs for children and even some subtle jokes for us adults, for example, Beaker giving Scrooge the finger, earlier on in the film, then giving him a present afterwards. That was a nice touch, due to the sincerity of the scene.
Michael Caine is enjoying every second on screen and giving an epic performance, the cast and crew, are delivering to perfection. The film doesn’t have “Ignorance and Want”, since the Ghost of Christmas Future maybe “Culture”, but even I know you have to draw a line somewhere. Though Ignorance and Want, appear with Christmas Present, almost every version change that.
But what elevates it above most version of A Christmas Carol, it was probably the first musical version to take parts of Dickens prose, and not just work it into the dialogue but also the songs, all written by Paul Williams, with the score by Miles Goodman.
As I said before nothing is sacred, not even taking shots at Charles Dickens’s original dialogue. Just this line.
Jacob Marley: Why do you doubt your senses?
Ebenezer Scrooge: Because a little thing can affect them. A slight disorder of the stomach can make them cheat. You may be a bit of undigested beef, a blob of mustard, a crumb of cheese. Yes. There’s more gravy than of grave about you. Actual Dickens Prose
Robert Marley: More gravy than of grave? The Muppets prove that nothing is sacred.
Jacob Marley: What a terrible pun. Where’d you get those jokes?
Robert Marley: Leave comedy to the bears, Ebenezer.
Now I have to mention. “When Love Is Gone”. I swear when I saw the film 1991, it was there, but whatever. Jeffrey Katzenberg demanded it be cut because the children grew restless, even though we see Scrooge losing his last tentative link to humanity, and seeing his final transformation to the misanthrope he is at the start of the film.
It’s a beautiful song, full of regret, heartbreak and Scrooge’s mistake. Though Bella loved Ebenezer, they would have made each other miserable at this point. But here is the song in all its glory, and it does get a reference late on with “The Love We Found”. It was a shame to cut it, but they did. But we all love it and think that it needs to be restored on future releases.
The most important thing which brings it all together is the explicit trust the Muppet performers have in their own ability, even with so many performances on screen, they were all done by a crew of nine, and that’s it. With most of them performing multiple Muppet characters, all veterans had to put aside their grief for Jim Henson and carry on the legacy which he created.
Special mention has to go to Dave Goelz as Gonzo the Great. A veteran of the company since 1974, he became a Performer, it appears by accident by starting as a builder, dividing his time between the two until he asked to become a performer, with no formal training and “no voice”, according to his wiki page, he saw himself and Gonzo as a misfit, who didn’t belong there.
Quite fitting indeed that the Muppet with “imposter syndrome”, grew in confidence to the moment he addressed the audience in A Christmas Carol, as Charles Dickens and gave dialogue where about 95% of it was Dickensian prose.
Well done Mr Goelz, because for the first time Gonzo the Great was front and central, and has been that way up to now. Well done.
Not a success on its first release in 1991, though it got good reviews, it came out at the same time as Home Alone 2, which didn’t help. Even for those who don’t like the Muppets, but appreciate Gonzo the Great, advising the audience to read the original Novella, it’s a classic, it stands. It became a cult hit, and now is shown all over around Christmas in singalongs, which are fantastic, and I recommend you go to one. I just did, at The Grand in Clapham, and it was a tremendous night.
It’s fun, festive, but more importantly, doesn’t talk down to the audience in any way. Quite cleverly done, compared to most Christmas films. And even my heart is gladdened by Tiny Tim not dying. Which really is a Christmas miracle.
God Bless Us Everyone
And this the version of A Christmas Carol, which I wrote https://www.amazon.co.uk/Twisted-Christmas-Carol-Jodie-Portugal-ebook/dp/B017ON3VHE