Released: 11 December 1992
Director: Brian Henson
Distributor: Buena Vista Pictures Distribution
Budget: $12 million
Stars: Michael Caine, Dave Goelz, Steve Whitmire, Jerry Nelson, Frank Oz, Jessica Fox, and Meredith Braun
On Christmas Eve in 19th century London, the cantankerous and cold-hearted moneylender, Ebenezer Scrooge (Caine), is visited by three spirits in a desperate attempt by his deceased former partners, Jacob and Robert Marley (Nelson and Goelz), to teach him the true spirit of Christmas and save his soul from eternal damnation.
So…spoiler alert but The Muppet Christmas Carol is my absolute favourite Christmas movie of all time. Ever since I was a kid, it’s become a Christmas tradition to watch this film on Christmas Day and it’s a custom that I have absolutely no intention of ever changing. The Muppet Christmas Carol was the first Muppets movie to be made following the death of the legendary Jim Henson and the directorial debut of his son, Brian, which adapted Charles Dickins’ classic 1843 novella A Christmas Carol into a musical featuring the classic Muppet puppets in major and supporting roles. The Muppet Christmas Carol was the fourth theatrical Muppets movie and Jim Henson’s colourful and influential puppets had been consistently popular thanks to The Muppet Show (1976 to 1981). Filming took place right here in the United Kingdom (at the famous Shepperton Studios), where an elaborate set was constructed to allow the Muppets and the human actors to appear on equal footing and renowned actor Michael Caine was cast in the iconic role of Ebenezer Scrooge and made the genius decision to play the entire thing completely serious and straight. Upon release, The Muppets Christmas Carol received mostly positive reviews and, despite not quite living up to Disney’s expectations at the box office (it made just over $27 million) thanks to stiff holiday competition, it has gone on to be regarded as one of the quintessential Christmas movies…and rightfully so since, for me, it’s easily the best Christmas movie ever made.
The Muppet Christmas Carol is told to us through the presence of physically omniscient narrators, in this case Charles Dickens (Goelz as the Great Gonzo) and Rizzo the Rat (Whitmire); the two introduce the film and guide us through Scrooge’s journey, in most cases acting as both comedic relief and paraphrasing lines of Dickens’ literary classic. Although you could make the argument that their roles are largely superfluous since it’s pretty obvious what is going on and what characters are thinking and feeling without it being spelled out to us, they add so much charm and whimsy to the film that their inclusion is genuinely one of the highlights, from Dickens’ mischievous and adventurous spirit to Rizzo’s cynicism and goofball antics, their involvement perfectly encapsulates the film’s truly fantastic balance of humour and pathos.
Of course, any adaptation of A Christmas Carol lives and dies with its interpretation of Scrooge and Caine delivers a phenomenal performance as the grouchy old miser. Despised and vilified by the whole city, Scrooge is a cold, pessimistic, greedy and down-right vile moneylender who cares little for the frivolities of others or the condition of the less fortunate (“Scrooge”). The best part about this, as alluded to above, is that Caine plays the part completely straight; it’s like watching a dramatic play or theatrical production of the story with the conviction and gravitas Caine brings to the role. At the same time, he’s able to showcase a variety of conflicting emotions throughout Scrooge’s journey, showing that the character, for all his wickedness, is a bumbling old fool at heart and a tragic, haunted figure.
Surrounding Caine are, as you might expect, a smorgasbord of incredibly talented and charismatic Muppet characters, chief among them Kermit the Frog as Scrooge’s head bookkeeper, Bob Cratchit (Whitmire). Cratchit is a destitute and somewhat timid fellow when at work but retains both his Christmas spirit (“One More Sleep ‘Till Christmas”) and commands a great deal of respect from his co-workers for his position as Scrooge’s right-hand man (frog?), essentially acting as a go-between between the two parties. Though Scrooge is largely indifferent towards all of his employees, Cratchit is able to convince him to close the business for the entirety of Christmas Day by talking to him in a language he understands (i.e. money). During Scrooge’s journey through the past, present, and future, we learn more about Cratchit’s home life; he lives in a poor part of town in a tiny house filled with his large, loving family. The patriarch of the family, Cratchit is loved and appreciated by his children and wife, Emily (Oz as Miss Piggy), and even though they are paid a pittance by Scrooge and his children and wife vehemently despise his employer, Cratchit is still good enough of a
man frog to raise a glass to his boss and to keep the spirit of Christmas alive even though they are basically slowing starving. Emily is a bombastic and out-spoken woman in both her affections and her opinion of Scrooge, making her brief appearances a constant highlight as she jumps at the chance to give Scrooge a piece of her mind only to be flabbergasted by his generous change of heart.
Of course, the most significant member of the Cratchit family apart from him and his wife is poor old Tiny Tim (Nelson as Robin); lame and deathly sick, Tim retains his enthusiasm and positivity, and basically embodies the spirit of Christmas as much as the actual spirits we see in the film. While Scrooge previously treated such poor children with disgust and apathy, his heart is visibly broken by Tim’s bleak condition and the knowledge that the boy is doomed to die unless their fortunes turn around is the first real step towards Scrooge’s redemption. This is, as is tradition, the entire point of the film; after dying, Scrooge’s old partner Marley and Marley visit Scrooge as gruesome, haunting visions and warn him of the impending visits of the three Christmas spirits (“Marley and Marley”). This is, honestly, one of the more haunting (no pun intended) parts of the film as Statler and Waldorf are shown weighed down by hideous chains and doomed to pay for all eternity for their sins of avarice and greed.
Although Scrooge is characteristically dismissive and sceptical of his friends’ warnings, he is equally horrified when the three spirits do actually appear; even the child-like appearance of the Ghost of Christmas Past (Jessica Fox) puts him on edge and he is overwhelmed by the spirit’s ability to make him literally fly into his long forgotten past. The pain of reliving his childhood and subsequent heartbreak as a young man agonises Scrooge and the events witnessed go a long way to explaining why Scrooge became the man he is; he spent all his time at study, without the influence of a loving family, and was realised to believe that one’s time should be spent being productive and profitable, which cost him both friends and the love of a woman, Belle (Braun). Scrooge’s subsequent journey towards redemption comes to be about reconciling the metaphorical ghosts of his past and learning to appreciate the present whilst living for the future rather than dwelling on heartache and cantankerous greed.
Obviously, what sets The Muppet Christmas Carol apart from other adaptations of the book are the inclusion of Muppet characters and puppets; a good, what? 97% of the cast is made up of Muppets and puppets? And all of your favourite characters get, at least, a cameo role if not play a significant part in the film (Fozzie Bear makes an amusing appearance as the younger Scrooge’s (Raymond Coulthard) employer, Fozziwig (Oz), and Sam Eagle does a delightfully amusing turn as Scrooge’s schoolmaster (ibid). the city is also populated by all kinds of amusing puppet co-stars, from singing fruit and donkeys to shivering, staring little mice, all of whom have a role to play in breaking London to life, contributing to the ensemble songs, and emphasising how hard life is for those less fortunate.
The city really comes to life when Scrooge encounters the boisterous and magnetic Ghost of Christmas Present (Nelson/Don Austen), a full-size Muppet who resembles Father Christmas and teaches Scrooge the wondrous joy of the Christmas season; Scrooge is uncharacteristically and immediately taken by the spirit’s infectious good-nature and whimsy, laughing and even having a bit of a dance as the spirit conveys to him the true nature of the season (“It Feels Like Christmas”). This sudden rush of exhilaration for Scrooge is quickly tempered by his dismay that his nephew, Fred (Steven Mackintosh), mocks him behind his back for his cold and belligerent ways and when the spirit throws his own words back at him when he sees the condition of Tiny Tim. Still, it’s through the Ghost of Christmas Present that Scrooge realises how marvellous the season can be and he’s pretty much convinced at the appeal of Christmas and to change his ways through that interaction alone, such is the influence of the spirit’s unabashedly good nature.
The lesson doesn’t end there for Scrooge, though, who is forced to accompany the third and final spirit, the most gruesome and terrifying of them all, the Ghost of Christmas-Yet-to-Come (Austen), on a truly disturbing journey into the near future. Here, Scrooge sees that he has died hated and alone, with the citizens callously selling off his possessions, regarding themselves as better off without him and, most devastating of all, that Tiny Tim has died and the Cratchit’s normally vivacious good nature has been noticeably subdued. Scrooge approaches the majority of this last journey with a desperate denial and it isn’t until he sees his own ominous tombstone that he truly repents for his wicked ways and vows to turn his life around, to life in the past, present, and the future, to avoid meeting such a unsympathetic and desolate end.
Accordingly, Scrooge awakens the next day and begins to make good on his word; he’s pleasant, polite, and generous, greeting others amiably, donating to charities, and leaving gifts for those closest to him (“Thankful Heart”). In the film’s finale, Scrooge resolves to pay off Cratchit’s mortgage, raise his salary, and fully commits himself to amending his damaged reputation by being the most generous and caring man the city has ever known, thus salvaging his soul, ensuring that he is remembered as a kind and loving man, and sparing Tiny Tim from death. It’s an amusing and heart-warming end to the film, especially because of the bemused and shocked expressions on everyone’s faces at Scrooge’s change of heart, and Caine, bless him, gives it his all when he is required to sing.
As I’ve already mentioned, The Muppet Christmas Carol is easily my favourite Christmas movie of all time; it’s a tradition for me to watch the film every Christmas day while eating Christmas lunch and opening presents, joyfully singing along and wondering if Scrooge will learn the same lessons year after year. It’s remarkable how faithful the film is to the source material, especially considering it’s a Muppets film, and the beautifully constructed sets and whimsical puppets only add to the film’s charm and appeal. Add to that the gravitas and magnetism of Michael Caine, who treats the film as seriously as anything produced by the Royal Shakespeare Company, and you have an adaptation that is truly special, full of allure, humour, and some unsettling moments as Scrooge learns his traditional lessons about letting go of the pain of his past and applying himself towards the greater good to ensure a better life for everyone, including himself.
What do you think about The Muppet Christmas Carol? Where does it rank for you against other Christmas and/or Muppet movies? What did you think to Michael Caine’s performance, the puppets, and the sets featured in the film? Which song from the movie is your favourite? Have you read A Christmas Carol and which adaptation is your favourite? What are your plans for Christmas Day today? Whatever your thoughts, feel free to comment down and have a great Christmas!