Christmas movies have, over the years, taken on a kind of mythical, magical quality that expands beyond their box office take. Generally, they tend to fall into one of two categories: the “classics,” which can range from anywhere between the iconic It’s a Wonderful Life or White Christmas, to National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation or the dastardly Tim Allen abomination, The Santa Clause trilogy; or the schmaltzy stuff that we catch on the Hallmark or Lifetime Channels with titles like Merry Kissmas, A Christmas Prince, or Do You Take This Snowman? -- the latter of which being a title I’ve just made up, but as you can see, it tracks pretty well, proving my point.
Although few of these movies have become blockbusters during their initial theater release — even the more iconic modern titles and remakes like How the Grinch Stole Christmas or 2019’s Last Christmas; the original Home Alone from the early 1990s being a rare exception to prove the rule — they are, nonetheless, go-to movies for millions of households all over the globe every year, and never manage to be entirely forgotten in the gap between the holiday seasons. Their staying power is truly something to behold.
When you line them all up in a row and take a deep look across the board — acting quality, set, plot, pace, lighting — where does everything fall? If there was a ranking of the most perfect holiday movies, I can’t say for certain what the entire list would be, because that would be too subjective for me to try and hammer in all by myself. I can, however, definitively tell you that whatever the rest of the list might be, it falls in line directly behind 1992’s The Muppet Christmas Carol.
An adaptation of Charles Dickens’ 177-year old novel of the (almost) same name, it’s not hard to imagine that grimness and “humbug” are easy to come by. The story — for those living under a rock and aren’t familiar — is about Ebenezer Scrooge, a miser and hard-hearted businessman for whom Christmas is a dark and unforgiving holiday. When he’s not wishing death upon the poor (“to decrease the surplus population”, of course) and hounding his meek bookkeeper Bob Cratchit (played by Kermit, and voiced by Jim Henson protege Steve Whitmere), Scrooge wallows in his anger and counts his riches — smattering those around him with a “Bah, humbug,” if he’s feeling generous.
On Christmas Eve, however, Scrooge is visited by the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Yet to Come, all in the hope of changing Scrooge for the good by showing him the error of his ways, so that he may become a beloved man with a heart full of love to spread Christmas joy all year round, instead of dying empty, soulless, and alone.
The first film to come out of the Henson Company since its founder Jim Henson’s death from pneumonia two years earlier, the movie is, for all intents and purposes, something born of heartache. Directed by Henson Sr.’s oldest son Brian, the film gave the company new life during what was arguably the darkest time for the Muppets as a property and an idea. Much like the story at the center of the movie itself, however, the darkness looming over the film during production, and the process of adapting Dickens into a Muppet story, gave way to something permitting the anguish while bringing a silver lining to follow right behind it.
Dickens’ original A Christmas Carol -- originally published in 1843 with the subtitle Being A Ghost Story of Christmas, in order to ensure that audiences knew exactly what to expect -- is perhaps the most iconic seasonal story next to that old chestnut about Jesus showing up in a manger. It’s arguably even more suited to the contemporary understanding of the holiday than the Bible story, replacing any religious connotations with a central idea that asks for kindness and understanding during the season, with Scrooge’s final destination being the common refrain of “goodwill and peace towards men” made flesh, mixed with an undercurrent of the rejection of worldly goods in favor of spiritual and moral good that the proposed son of god would certainly approve of. Dickens knew what he was doing, to say the least.
Even the idea of giving The Muppet Christmas Carol the title of “best Christmas Carol adaptation'' isn’t something that should be considered lightly. After all, over the past 100+ years, there have been dozens and dozens of iterations including Scrooge performances from Reginald Owens, George C Scott, and the great Bill Murray! (The 1988 Scrooged is a deeply underrated movie, for all its flaws.) Despite the incredible performances that fill earlier adaptations, though, seldom few of those movies brought the gothic nature of Dickens’ original Victorian tale of goodwill and growth to light successfully enough to provide the necessary magic and understanding for modern audiences to parse — especially children.
In Muppet Christmas Carol, the manic energy of the Muppet universe never detracts from the Dickens magic, but instead enhances it. This is, fittingly, due to Henson Studios’ playful penchant for pointed banter and fun show tunes -- we’ll get back to that later -- and, even more so, a perfect straight-man performance on behalf of the great Michael Caine.
Playing the iconically curmudgeonly human at the center of events, Caine plays arguably one of the most refined roles throughout his lengthy filmography. (That Christopher Nolan failed to get similar results raises the possibility of jokes about comparisons between the acting talents of Christian Bale and Gonzo the Great; I know where I fall on that particular subject.) Having gotten attached to the project, Caine argued the idea to studio heads that he play the role through the lens of proper Shakespearean theater, with the final result speaking to the wisdom in what might have initially seemed a potentially pretentious notion not in keeping with the spirit of the project.
The dry, harsh, and somewhat intimidating way Caine paints Scrooge ultimately acts as a stable focal point amid an appropriately cartoonish Muppet background, with Gonzo playing the role as narrator Charles Dickens alongside his much beloved sidekick, Rizzo the Rat, with the running commentary and story exposition offered by both throughout the movie only providing the comic relief audiences expect from a Muppet movie, but also room for Caine’s character to fulfill the angry miser role without bringing the mood of the entire project down.
Despite the duality and contrast between Caine’s Scrooge and the zany nature of a nearly all-Muppets ensemble around him, the film manages to deliver a surprisingly faithful and serious version of A Christmas Carol, complete with the cast of famously empathetic background characters brought to life by Henson’s Muppet Studio. Even setting aside the note-perfect joke of Waldorf and Statler — the infamous Muppet Show hecklers — playing the newly-expanded role of Scrooge’s deceased business partner Jacob Marley and his previously non-existent but also deceased brother Robert, the additions of the newly created Muppets for the ghosts of Christmas past, present, and future show exactly the breadth of talent behind respect for the original Dickens story while giving a whole new Henson-patented look.
With each visit, not only does the audience get to connect further with the Henson influence on the iconic Christmas story, but gets to see a visible change in Caine’s hardened performance as it shifts through the undeniably clever and ever-colorful Muppet backdrop. The ethereal Ghost of Christmas Past, the eerie, seemingly-malevolent Ghost of Christmas Future, and, most memorably, the Ghost of Christmas Present — a towering puppet of joy and light made life with Michael K Frith and voiced by Jerry Nelson — fit the descriptions of Dickens’ all-important spirits to the tee, but with the added Muppet flair of exaggerated movements and delightfully bombastic dialog. (There is no way to watch the movie and fail to be won over by the forgetful, cheerful Christmas Present, living entirely in the moment.)
Beyond the newly-designed Ghosts, the consideration of pre-existing characters was clearly something that did not slip the designers minds, casting Kermit the Frog — forever humble, level-headed, and well-meaning — as Bob Cratchit, along with Miss Piggy as his fussy, opinionated wife, Emily, who is more than happy to give a remorseful Scrooge a piece of her mind in true Miss Piggy fashion. With additions like Kermit’s nephew Robin as the sickly Tiny Tim, Fozzie Bear as Fezziwig (a play on the original Fozziwig), the little orphan boy being played by the cutest bunny muppet on the planet, and hosts and hosts of familiar Muppets playing different party guests, the tone is one that sways and rocks with the story as it climbs from bleakness into a message of hope.
Though A Christmas Carol is originally a prose story traditionally adapted into a straightforward theater production, The Muppet Christmas Carol flips that idea on its head, throwing the idea of being a musical into the mix as well, just for good measure.
With a score by Miles Goodman and song lyrics by Paul Williams — the man responsible for writing the famous “Rainbow Connection” song that brought tears to the bayou for the original Muppet Movie from the late 1970s — there was hardly a way for the musical production aspect of the film to go wrong. Goodman’s overtures and ambient music between scenes provides the traditional Dickensian feel of somber or subdued tones that mimic the cold set and drab color palette. Meanwhile, Paul William’s lyrics — obviously sung by the ensemble of incredible Muppeteers — slice through the period music with a playful exposition that sets the audience up to know exactly what is ahead of them.
One the best examples of this is with one of the opening numbers, “Scrooge”, where the chorus of Muppets lining the streets sing about Scrooge as he thunders with purpose through the cobblestone streets on his way to his bookkeeping business. As much as the lyrics have been kept simple for younger audiences — “There goes Mr. Humbug, there goes Mr. Grim! If they gave a prize for bein' mean, the winner would be him,” says the song. “Oh, Scroogey loves his money 'cause he thinks it gives him power, but if he became a flavor you can bet he would be sour!” — the message finds itself in the hearts of adults who are easier able to recognize the years of hardness and greed that Caine’s Scrooge has withstood and hardened to.
Almost every song follows this formula of providing a complex subject of mortality, love, loss, and empathy in a way that is easy for the youngest minds to understand and absorb while never sacrificing the desire to deliver a heartwarming message to adults as well.
Although one least expects a sentiment so strong to come from a movie about singing, dancing Muppets and a grumbly British man, A Muppet Christmas Carol is nothing short of a transmuting property of joy. Not only delivering an iconic Christmas classic with the utmost respect and dignity that it deserves, but adding a breath of lightness and extra magic into the already magical story, the movie manages to become something entirely new while never leaving behind the intent that Dickens wrote for it.
Having literally worn out the VHS tape of my family’s copy of A Muppet Christmas Carol by the time I was thirteen, I’m a little more than biased on this subject. What I will argue, however, is that for every person who calls themselves a Dickens purist saying that the Muppets could never deliver an accurate and meaningful representation of Dickens’ seminal story, there is someone who understands to story of A Christmas Carol because of the Muppets adaptation. For all that Dickens was a staunchly Victorian writer, he was also a populist ready and raring to get his words and stories into as many hands and hearts as possible, and there’s no denying that everything that the Henson company did was firmly within those rules. With a music score, a smashing cast, and the family friendly vibe of Jim Henson’s much-beloved creations, A Muppet Christmas Carol arguably brought Dickens’ story into more minds — ranging from young to old — than ever before. When it really comes down to it, delivering the literary classics and offering the message of Christmas being solely rooted in kindness is a combination that continues to change and mold the hearts of audiences each December. And I can think of no movie — modern or classic — that better facilitates the idea that Dickens sent forth into the world:
“Come in! come in! and know me better man!”