• Nick Karner

The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992)


I’ve spent several winters shooting productions of ol’ Chuck Dickens’ 1843 holiday yarn and the results vary depending on the theater company. Some are lively and touching; others stodgy, boring, and amateurish. In North Carolina, one particular iteration of the seminal tale stands above the rest both for its popularity and impressive staying power. Since 1974, Theatre in the Park has presented A Christmas Carol and suddenly the nearly 200-year-old ghost story becomes the hottest ticket in town. It’s literally been cited as “one of the most successful shows in North Carolina theatre history,” and I happened to be cast in its grand 25 anniversary production in 1999. One of my onstage antics was an unexpected one to say the least. The lead, artistic director and perennial Scrooge, Ira David Wood III, would hop on my shoulders and I would proceed to dance a little jig while he covered my head and torso with his cloak. This would create the illusion of an eight-foot-tall Scrooge. I’m just glad I never toppled over and killed the star of the show. The production retains the original story’s structure but adds song and dance as well as topical pop culture references. The year before I joined the cast, I saw a performance which referenced Monica Lewinsky. The joke killed at the time but was abandoned the next year after it failed to get more than a chuckle during the first week of the run. In Brian Henson’s directorial debut, The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992), the iconic felt puppets are shockingly faithful to Dickens’ original prose, although as is customary in a Muppet movie, there are more than a few meta moments which remind us that we are indeed watching a movie.

Ceaselessly grumpy Sam the Eagle informs Young Scrooge: “You will love business. It’s the American way!” Gonzo the Great (Dave Goelz), playing the role of Charles Dickens alongside his always ravenous friend Rizzo the Rat (playing himself, in a cheeky credit reference. Oh, and he’s Steve Whitmire too), has to remind Sam that the story of the greedy old miser who hates Christmas and changes his ways takes place in England. Being a Sesame Street and therefore American-based creation doesn’t result in awkward translations since the Muppets transcend cultural boundaries. This was made obvious in 1981’s delightful The Great Muppet Caper, where their usual wacky antics played quite well against the London backdrop. Little bits like Gonzo, errr...Dickens claiming his whispered dialogue is for “dramatic emphasis” and Rizzo commenting that the air gets colder as Scrooge approaches are an effective way of allowing them to be omniscient, a word Gonzo himself describes himself as since Rizzo questions how he knows everything that’s going on. The rest of the cast play their classic characters relatively straight, with Kermit’s little nephew Robin being an ideal choice to play Tiny Tim. There are still some nice twists: Miss Piggy (voiced, as always, by Frank Oz) as Emily Cratchit is a bit feistier and having Statler and Waldorf be the sarcastic and antagonistic Marley Brothers is a stroke of genius. They’re heckling remains, although even that gets a nice re-do, thanks to their about-face after insulting, then praising Fozziwig’s (isn’t that cute?) extremely short speech. Still, does anyone else find it weird that Ma Bear appears as Fozzie’s wife but in A Muppet Family Christmas (1987) she was his mother? It’s like when Penny and Garry Marshall played a married couple in Hocus Pocus (1993). The real deal, however, is the casting of two-time Oscar winner Michael Caine as Ebenezer Scrooge.

Caine has often been criticized for preferring a paycheck over artistic integrity, but I’ll admit that around the time I became an avid moviegoer, my theatrical exposure to Michael Caine was often of the classy variety. I was 16 years old (how would Caine’s iconic Jack Carter react to that age, I ask you?) when 1998’s Oscar-nominated Little Voice was released and the following year he’d win his second Oscar for The Cider House Rules and deliver one of the most lovely and gracious acceptance speeches in Academy history. After that, we got Quills (2000, lurid and fun, if a bit overlong), Miss Congeniality (2000, way better than it has any right to be), Last Orders (2001, deep and thoughtful), Austin Powers in Goldmember (2002, patchy, but still very funny), and then another Oscar nod for The Quiet American (2002). This guy was doing just fine, in my eyes, but Caine’s entire career seems to have been one long road which had enough successes to prevent derailment despite the many bumps along the way. Early on, he gets some heat from Zulu (1964) and breaks through big time with The Ipcress File (1965) and especially Alfie (1966). Yet afterwards, he appears in Hurry Sundown (1967) and The Magus (1968). No matter, because he’s got The Italian Job (1969) and Get Carter (1971), but look out! There’s X,Y, and Zee (1972), one of Elizabeth Taylor’s many flops of the 70’s. That same year, the brilliant Sleuth. All good. The rest of the 70’s were a mixed bag which included duds like Ashanti, Beyond the Poseidon Adventure, and the mega-bomb The Swarm, and yet he also does California Suite, A Bridge Too Far, and particularly, the spectacular The Man Who Would Be King. It’s wild how he just kept hitting and missing. The 80’s were pretty wonky too, since he won his first Oscar for Hannah and her Sisters (1986) and did great work in Dressed to Kill, Deathtrap, Educating Rita, Mona Lisa, and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, but hoo boy, are there some stinkers in here too, including Oliver Stone’s laughable directorial debut The Hand, the overblown The Island, the WWII POW camp soccer drama Victory, the hysterically awful Jaws: The Revenge, and the infamously dirty Blame it on Rio which, along with Jaws: The Revenge, were often what people pointed toward when referring to Caine’s sell-out status. The early 90’s wasn’t quite so up-and-down, with turkeys like Bullseye!, Steven Seagal’s ego-trip On Deadly Ground, and unfortunate failures like the above average Noises Off!, which is still a rare movie farce which mostly works. As Caine once sarcastically: “I’ve made an awful lot of films. In fact, I’ve made a lot of awful films.” As the mean, nasty old Scrooge, his decision to play the part straight and never wink toward the audience is the correct one. One wouldn’t think anyone could be cruel to a Muppet, but he manages to do so with relative ease.

It had been eight years since the last Muppet film, The Muppets Take Manhattan (1984); the de facto final film in the presumed trilogy that began with The Muppet Movie (1979) and continued through with Caper. After the death of Jim Henson, the devastation could have had Disney-level effects on The Jim Henson Company; meaning that the Walt Disney Company took years to recover its artistic footing after its founder passed away. Fortunately, that never came to pass. I’ve always been baffled by the diminishing box office returns following The Muppet Movie. Why is it that each film has made less and less money? Is it a question of kids aging out of watching puppets pretend to walk around and do crazy stuff? I would think that love, which likely came first from Sesame Street and then from the various television series, be it The Muppet Show, Fraggle Rock, or any of the other Henson productions, would carry over into box office gold. Yet the subsequent Muppet movies and Labyrinth barely made a dent at the U.S. box office. Even The Witches (1990), which is very much not a Muppet film, couldn’t pack theaters. The Muppet Christmas Carol represented a chance to get back to the basics and the film is notable for relying on the prior knowledge of these characters rather than having them go through something of a re-introductory phase as they did in Caper and Manhattan. These creatures are who they are and these are the characters they’re playing.

The film’s production values are top-notch, with impressive light and shadow work by cinematographer John Fenner, who’d worked on Henson’s The Storyteller, shot Steve Barron’s superb Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and would return for Muppet Treasure Island. Most of the green screen works quite well, particularly a vortex effect, and the passage of time for Scrooge’s transition from a hard-working boy to an industrious young man is economical, but efficient. The set is obviously a set, but the artifice works due to the Muppets being obvious puppets. Nowadays, with the magnificent Dark Crystal prequel series, lifelike puppet designs make it necessary to create a believable world for these creatures to live in. It’s important to note that the initial concept, whose screenplay credit went to one of the Muppets’ most important contributors Jerry Juhl (The Muppet Movie, Caper, A Muppet Family Christmas), was for the main Muppets to portray the ghosts. Robin or Scooter as the Ghost of Christmas Past, Miss Piggy as Christmas Present (which would’ve worked quite well if they were going for a Carol Kane beating the shit out of Bill Murray vibe) and Gonzo would play Christmas Future. Though the decision to abandon this idea likely doesn’t have anything to do with Caine, if it had been carried out, the film’s tone would be wildly uneven. It’s easy to imagine how those scenes would’ve played out and Caine’s internalized, deeply emotional performance would’ve clashed wildly with the madcap actions of the familiar cast members.

The only positive that can be gleamed from the regulars playing the ghosts would be the removal of the Ghost of Christmas Past, an absolutely terrifying combination of puppetry and digital effects. The design of the waifish, asexual alien-child thing is unnerving enough, but they achieved the floating, hazy look of this apparition by submerging it in baby oil during filming and then water. It’s creepy beyond belief. Imagine if this had been the Ghost of Christmas Future. It would be like the goddamn devil in The Last Temptation of Christ. The Ghost of Christmas Present, voiced by Jerry Nelson, is much more palatable. A new Muppet based on the traditional description of a large, jolly, boisterous type resembling a ginger Santa Claus. A jaw-dropping effect that still boggles the mind is the spirit’s ability to morph from giant to normal size. In a seemingly single take, he goes from a being who can barely fit in a large room to about the same size as Scrooge. He’s also quite good with the ‘dad jokes,’ particularly when Scrooge remarks “You’re a little absent-minded, spirit” and he replies: “No, I’m a LARGE absent-minded spirit!” The wise decision to make the Spirit of Christmas Future mute has been employed many times, including in Scrooged. The only time a speaking spirit has come even remotely close to working is when Pete the Cat played the role in Mickey’s Christmas Carol (1983), which also featured a bit of obvious casting when Scrooge-inspired Scrooge McDuck played the lead role. If the spirit did speak, I’d’ve liked the following exchange about the future city: “Why so quiet, spirit?” “Because we’re on the set of Angela’s Ashes.”

Diminutive Oscar-winner Paul Williams, last seen composing the Oscar-nominated music for The Muppet Movie, returns to pen both the music and lyrics for the nine original songs scattered throughout the film. Although I feel that Williams’ best work remains in the 70’s (The Phantom of the Paradise, Bugsy Malone, A Star is Born, The Carpenters), his songs are tuneful and bouncy. Scrooge’s theme song is a catchy opener that ably serves the plot well, with lyrics like: “There goes Mr. Skinflint, there goes Mr. Greed. The undisputed master of the underhanded deed.” Some songs merely act as filler for the brief 85-minute runtime, but songs like “It Feels Like Christmas” and especially “Marley and Marley” do an excellent job of conveying the central themes of the film and provide additional character development.

Then there’s the exclusion and later inclusion of “When Love is Gone.” Noted studio prick Jeffrey Katzenberg forced Henson and co. to remove the tragic ballad about Scrooge’s relationship with Belle (Meredith Braun) from the theatrical version, but it would be included in the VHS and laserdisc releases. Unfortunately, shit happens and the original negative was lost in the Disney vault (it’s always best to check near Walt’s frozen head). It gets extremely sticky from there. Early 2000’s releases of the film had dual versions, wherein the fullscreen (yeesh, remember fullscreen?) cut had the song since it was possible to re-insert the original VHS-grade footage, while the widescreen release couldn’t include the song because it was in the wrong aspect ratio. The original footage was found, ironically, in December of 2020, so presumably a future release will include the song in its full quality. Upon re-watching the film, I wasn’t aware of the missing song, yet I, like many others, did find that Gonzo and Rizzo sobbing wildly after the fairly tame breakup scene between Scrooge and Belle rang false and hollow. Clearly, this was due to the pretty and moving song being excised after the fact. The breakup, as it is in the cut version, isn’t anything special. Though Mickey’s Christmas Carol isn’t particularly imaginative, Scrooge McDuck’s brutal dismissal of Isabelle is far more harsh and therefore more upsetting.

The film’s use of many quotes and passages from Dickens’ novella works quite well and the gentle humor never offends, but admittedly, there’s a certain flat quality to many of the gags which may be due to the setting rather than the writing. The original trilogy took place in present day and allowed the Muppets to really cut loose; while this version, originally written as an ABC TV movie, feels very much like that: a television-based venture. It’s sweet and good-natured, I’d expect nothing less, and yet the film is missing that slight edge the earlier films had. Whether it’s Miss Piggy’s eyes bulging out and beating the shit out of her Mel Brooks’ Nazi-esque quack doctor, Peter Falk arriving from another planet to deliver an insane monologue, or Kermit’s memory loss, those previous films had an appealingly adult streak running throughout them. Hell, even Follow That Bird had scenes of genuine terror and sadness. The Muppet Christmas Carol’s look is suitably gloomy for the most part, but it doesn’t achieve the same level of charm and intrigue brought on by, presumably, Henson’s influence. Of course, Frank Oz was still around, as well as several original collaborators, but it’s worth noting that most of the subsequent Muppet films lacked a certain magic, and the only way the 2011 The Muppets ended up working was by heavily referencing the show and films of the Jim Henson era.

Still, the finale, which Gonzo and Rizzo jump back into after skipping the spooky Future segment, is a joy to watch and Caine’s behind-the-scenes humility about his singing abilities is appreciable. The lovely way he accepts Beeker’s red scarf and sits with all of the Muppets for the Christmas feast makes the world utterly believable. In the end, that’s what the Muppet movies are all about. Making a person believe these are living, breathing creatures who co-exist with humans and have thoughts and dreams. In that respect, Brian Henson and the talented crew of technicians succeed, as usual.