THE MUPPET CHRISTMAS CAROL (1992)

  • Director: Brian Henson
  • Writers: Jerry Juhl, based on A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens
  • Starring: Michael Caine, Dave Goelz, Steve Whitmire, Jerry Nelson, Frank Oz, Don Austen, Jessica Fox, Meredith Braun, and Steven Mackintosh
  • Where to Watch: Stream with subscription on Disney Plus, buy or rent on Amazon Video, YouTube, or Apple TV.

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to all of our readers! If there’s one movie we’ll ever feature on this site about which I just cannot be objective and reasonable, it’s The Muppet Christmas Carol. It came out when I was eight, and I vividly recall seeing it in a movie theater. Ever since it came out on VHS, in my family we watched every year in the evening on Christmas Eve, then we would go to bed. Then we’d get up and in the morning there  would be an inordinate number of presents. This movie became an essential part of that process. Thus, I think there’s a pretty good chance that this is the movie I’ve seen the greatest number of times in my life. I also just love it, period. This is a movie with opening credits that include “Gonzo the Great as Charles Dickens” and “Rizzo the Rat as Himself,” but it is also, of the many versions I’ve seen, maybe the closest to Dickens’ original text. This seems like a bizarre thing to say, but a lot of the lines in the movie are lifted directly from the text. Michael Caine, as Ebenezer Scrooge, gives far and away the best performance by a human actor in any of the Muppet movies. It’s not just silly, it’s genuinely emotional and scary. If you’ve never seen it, I’m just going to put the opening song of the movie, introducing Scrooge, here. This is far and away the closest the Muppets, in their long history, have gotten to high art:

The Muppet Christmas Carol was the first major Muppet production following the untimely death of Muppet creator Jim Henson in 1990. The movie marked the major directorial debut of his son, Brian Henson, and marked a departure from the earlier work of the Muppets in numerous ways. It was their first feature-length literary adaptation, It was all on a created world on a soundstage (built at Shepparton Studios in London), unlike the previous Muppet films, which all involved the characters running around entirely in the “real” world. The whole thing is just this side of German Expressionism. It was the first Muppet movie to be produced by Disney, even though the mousy entertainment behemoth wouldn’t fully acquire the franchise until 2004. It’s also by far the most “serious” major Muppet production to date. Despite all the zaniness, this movie really does take the essential story of A Christmas Carol entirely seriously. That it can fit in Michael Caine crying over his own gravestone in the snow and “Fozziwig’s Rubber Chicken Factory” is, well, insane, but it works.

Not everyone believed that it would. After the initial theatrical run, Jeffrey Katzenberg, the head of Disney at the time, made the filmmakers remove the big ballad “The Love is Gone,” where young Scrooge is dumped by his girlfriend, on the grounds that “the kids won’t care about this.” Even today, it’s a crapshoot whether the version you watch will have this song in there. The movie is very open about its tonal shifts, having Rizzo at one point ask, “Are we sure kids should be watching this?” To which Gonzo/Dickens replies, “It’s OK, this is culture.” Even so, one of my favorite childhood memories in a movie theater came at the frightening moment with the Ghost of Christmas Future appears. Gonzo and Rizzo turn to the audience and say “Sorry kids, this is too scary for us, we’ll see you at the finale.” One of the younger kids in the theater screamed “NOOOOO!” and ran up the aisle toward the exit in terror.

Two-time Oscar winner Michael Caine gives an amazing performance, especially considering that in the majority of his scenes he is not playing against any actual human actors, and often had to walk on thin planks between the pits dug for the muppet performers to hide in. When Brian Henson offered him the role Caine replied that he would only take it on the condition that, “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.” And that’s what he does. Caine was in some great movies in his career and some bad ones, but he never acts like he knows he’s in something lowbrow. About his role in Jaws 4: The Revenge, he famously noted “I never saw the movie, I heard it was pretty bad. But I’ve seen the house it paid for, and it’s great.” I have a feeling he’s far more likely to have seen The Muppet Christmas Carol.

Compared to all other major Muppet media, Kermit, Piggy, et al., take smaller roles here. Kermit plays Bob Cratchit (his “nephew” Robin, who you don’t see a lot these days, plays Tiny Tim), with Miss Piggy as his wife Mrs. Cratchit. Compared to Caine and Gonzo, they get a smaller percentage of screen time, but their scenes are memorable, and this movie also features the appearance of their weirdo older children. My sister used to point out every year that it’s weird that the girls are pigs and boys are frogs. Shouldn’t they all be unholy pig/frog hybrids? I suppose if they were, we wouldn’t get the haughty pig twins, Bettina and Belinda, who even their mother can’t tell apart.

Oh, and it’s also a musical? I think this might be the only musical version of A Christmas Carol I’ve sat down and watched, though I’m certain there are others. As I said, one of the songs was cut from video releases, but the rest are all pretty great. Dozens of people try every year, but for my money there really isn’t a modern “Christmas is Great” song better than “It Feels Like Christmas.” That song is mostly sung by the Ghost of Christmas Present, who like all three ghosts is played by an “original” Muppet. There are a lot of unexpected and weird casting choices in the movie that turned out to be genius. Statler and Waldorf play “the Marley Brothers.” Beaker plays the charity worker Scrooge ends up giving his scarf to (“Mee mee MEE.” “You’re welcome, my friend.”). Perhaps best of all is Sam the Eagle’s cameo as Scrooge’s childhood schoolmaster, who proudly tells Scrooge that business is “the American Way.” Gonzo whispers in his ear, and he corrects himself: “It is the British way!”   

It have gotten the feeling lately that if you say your favorite Christmas movie is The Muppet Christmas Carol, people don’t take you seriously, but it 100% is mine, and I’m serious about that. And maybe the people who don’t take you seriously haven’t actually seen this movie, because it’s so good. It’s funny, it’s dramatic, the music’s catchy. I will always love it, and if you haven’t seen it, you definitely should.

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