Roundtable: Christmas: The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992)
Anders: The Muppet Christmas Carol has been a part of our Christmas viewing since we were kids. The combination of Jim Henson’s Muppets and Paul Williams’ music with Charles Dickens’ immortal classic works way better than it has any right to. But what actually works about this movie? Is our affinity for the movie more than nostalgia? What do you brothers think?
A Christmas Carol adaptation and Muppets movie
Anton: The movie is first and foremost great because it manages to blend a fun Muppets movie with a well-made Dickens adaptation.
This is actually a very solid adaptation of Dickens’ classic. It’s streamlined yet effective. It has enough of the back material to make Scrooge’s moral transformation understandable and believable.
Anders: The Muppet Christmas Carol is probably my second favourite Muppet movie after the original film, though there are days I like it the best. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Paul Williams wrote the songs for both films. But it is partly, as you say, because it is such a good adaptation of Dickens’ story. Most of the changes that they make are related to the effort to make it Muppet-centric.
Aren: I think it’s better than The Muppet Movie.
Anton: it’s been years since I watched the original, so with that in mind I concur with Aren.
Anders: Take, for instance, turning Jacob Marley into a pair of brothers, Jacob and Robert Marley, so that those infamous hecklers, Statler and Waldorf, can take on the roles (also, it’s really amusing that the new Marley brother is named Robert a.k.a. “Bob” Marley): it’s a change that works very well, while preserving the core of the story. I also love Gonzo’s beginning the narration with the altered line of the book: “The Marleys were dead to begin with.” Also, the decision to have Scrooge end his post-transformation Christmas day at Bob Cratchit’s house, rather than his nephew Fred’s home, is purely about audiences wanting to make the story more Kermit centric. It’s a continuation, though I would also say an improvement on, Mickey’s Christmas Carol being Mickey-centric.
Other changes can be chalked up to modernizing and streamlining the story, such as excising Scrooge’s sister, Fan. Modern culture is more romance-centric than family-centric, thus Belle plays a more prominent role. It’s possibly one issue I take with the film, though a minor one.
Anton: Yes, but the Belle subplot is very small in the existing Blu-Ray version. They cut out the song she sings on the winter morning when they part. That scene was on the VHS copy we always watched as kids, and it added a lot of emotion to the Belle-Ebenezer romance.
Aren: Getting rid of Fan is the main knock I have against the film. Scrooge’s relationship with his nephew, Fred, is more important than his relationship with Bob, even though that relationship between employer-employee is the most significant demonstration of how Scrooge has changed as an individual. What I mean by this is that there are plenty of awful businessmen in the world that love their families, but are terrible to their employees, so showing Scrooge embrace both his family and reward his employee for loyalty is important. However, I think that by heavily favouring the Cratchit family over Fred, the film missteps. That being said, it’s not a dealbreaker. It’s just why I’ll always consider the Alastair Sim Scrooge to be the definitive and best adaptation.
Anders: Well, I think that goes without saying, but we’re exploring the merits of the Muppets, not finding the best Scrooge adaptation.
Anton: Exactly, Anders. Alastair Sim’s Scrooge is the correct answer for best adaptation, but none of us are saying The Muppet Christmas Carol is the best. Just that it’s actually a smart adaption, and one of the better.
Anders: What do you think of the casting of the Muppet characters in their respective roles? I think Gonzo as a “blue, furry Charles Dickens” is brilliant, as is Rizzo as a kind of Greek chorus. “Fozzy-wig” is just too great a pun to pass up. And of course, Kermit is perfect as Bob Cratchit, and Miss Piggy as Mrs. Cratchit does a great job of portraying her disdain of Scrooge.
I also like the unique Muppets created for the film, especially the Ghosts. The Ghost of Christmas Present might be my favourite though. A genuinely appealing version of the character as he is described in the book.
Aren: I love Gonzo and so of course I love that he’s Charles Dickens. I’m a huge fan of narration in general, so I like how well The Muppet Christmas Carol blends narration into the film and captures the Victorian form, while also having fun with Gonzo and Rizzo’s interactions.
The puns are great and I too love the Ghost of Christmas Present. I find the Ghost of Christmas Past kind of creepy, but the Muppet does a great job of capturing the ethereal nature of that part of the story.
Anton: I think the Muppet ghosts are one aspect of the adaptation that actually might be an improvement on all previous versions. The Ghost of Christmas Past is eerie, Present actually jolly and appealing, and Yet to Come genuinely unsettling. They all work and seem spirit-like, rather than like humans in funny costumes.
In terms of other distinguishing features, the film has generous portions of humour and song, but such that they don’t overwhelm and derail the story.
Aren: Say what you will about the Muppets as a cultural icon, but their use of song is exceptional compared to most film and television.
Anton: Particularly most children’s films.
The lyrics also preserve some of the book’s touches of faith. I mean, Dickens’ story is a secularized morality tale, but there are still Christian aspects, and it’s nice to see a Christmas movie that doesn’t excise all those elements.
Aren: But it doesn’t lean into the Christian aspects as much as the book or Scrooge, especially in how the Ghost of Christmas Present refers to Jesus.
Anton: It has that nice touch of scary, but not too scary for kids. I actually thought the Zemeckis animated version did a great job of making A Christmas Carol a ghost story. This does so a bit, particularly when Scrooge returns to his home. And again, it’s remarkable that this is achieved in a movie with Muppets.
Anders: The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come is genuinely spooky, but not too spooky.
Aren: As a kid, I remember finding the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come terrifying. He’s basically a Nazgul.
Anton: Anecdotally, last Christmas we had this movie on a lot since the whole family was sick, and it captivated our children. It actually holds up really well to repeat viewing. And I mean like 20+ times.
Michael Caine as scrooge
Anders: Michael Caine considers The Muppet Christmas Carol to be one of his very favourite films he made, because he originally made it (nearly 30 years ago!) so that there would be a film his daughter could see with him in it. And now his grandchildren love it too!
The key is that he plays it straight, which works so well. Scrooge is a kind of counter to the Muppets doing all their goofy stuff, but he just brushes it off with a “Humbug!”
Anton: It’s true. He’s great because he does not play it as a kid movie role. And he isn’t phased by all the silly puppets.
Anders: Does Caine sell the transformation for you? Do you believe his Scrooge is a genuinely unpleasant fellow who has truly changed, or was he just a nice guy deep down? This is a question for what one wants in an adaptation of the story. I love Caine, but in the end I think Alastair Sim is a bit more wild in his transformation, which I like.
Aren: Alastair Sim is more deranged, which is exceptional, because it hits home the sheer madness of this kind of moral transformation. If someone actually did a similar about-face in real life, we’d probably think they lost their mind. Sim and the old film gets that.
Still, Caine is very good. As has been memed to wonderful effect in the Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon The Trip series, Michael Caine has leaned into his gentle cockney accent and big, watery blue eyes in his latter years. In The Muppet Christmas Carol, we see the first instances of him leveraging this for emotional effect. So when he learns that Tiny Tim has died in the Christmas Yet to Come, his cracking voice and watery eyes sell the heartbreak. I believe the remorse and the joy in his change. I think his joy is best exemplified by the song he sings on Christmas morning, which is maybe the most charming part of the entire film. I know that our dad loves this scene, and he points to it as a great example of loving Christmas.
under-appreciated formal prowess
Anton: There are a lot of touches to the film, its look and technique, that are actually wonderful. This is a competently made film. Jim Henson’s son directed the movie.
Anders: Oh, it’s really well made. I especially love the models. It’s in vogue to praise model work and trash CGI, but almost every film, fantasy or not, today contains significant digital work. This film is one of the last of an era where it was done entirely with special in-camera effects and optical compositing. It gives it a handmade charm, while still feeling professional.
Anton:, I’ve always loved the modelwork for the Victorian London, particularly the opening shot, dollying back over the city and downward. The models always reminded me of being like a great version of one of those Christmas villages people set up for decoration.
There are also nice touches of expressionism in the film’s design. The angles on the houses are wonky, and seem to be emphasized in the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come scenes, such as the weird angles of Bob Cratchit's house in the harsh winter light. And the final graveyard scene is deliciously Gothic, as is the Ghost himself.
Aren: The film is heavily indebted to German Expressionism. Not only are the canted angles straight out of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, but the model work and the view over the town that you referenced, Anton, has touches of Murnau’s Faust to it, with the opening of Death literally stalking over the town.
Anders: Excellent observations. It’s definitely expressionist in its visual mode.
Anton: There are some beautiful moments. I’ve always been fond of the shot of Kermit looking at the moon above a London square as a comet goes by (which is our featured image). That whole scene, song and atmosphere, does a good job of capturing that particular feeling of Christmas Eve, the anticipation and wonder that can tinge things.
Aren: Agreed. It’s one of the best evocations of Christmas Eve’s magical allure.
Anders: That’s a great image. I believe the trailer for the film ended with that one.
Anton: in general, the cinematography and lighting are excellent. With the choices of camera angles and such, it’s actually really well made, probably more sturdy than anything Brian’s father actually made (just in terms of formal technique).
I’ve also always been struck by how the film captures the different tones of a winter sky and slanted light of the season so well. I mean, this is a puppets movie, so we don’t expect it. But like stop-motion movies, the filmmakers can exert a lot of control, and they pour attention into such details. I think this is why it’s not only a good Muppets movie, but just a really good movie.
Anders: I guess what we’ve decided is that even if it’s not the definitive cinematic take on A Christmas Carol (it would be kinda weird if it was), the film has merit on its own as a great Christmas movie and not just an act of 90s nostalgia. From the excellent use of the Muppets and Michael Caine to Williams’ charming songs, The Muppet Christmas Carol has legitimately earned its place as a modern Christmas classic and a welcome part of our yearly Christmas viewing.
The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992, United States)
Directed by Brian Henson; written by Jerry Juhl, based on A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens; starring Kermit the Frog, Miss Piggy, The Great Gonzo, Rizzo the Rat, Fozzie Bear, and Michael Caine.