The Muppet Christmas Carol is my favorite Christmas movie (Sorry, Santa’s Slay). It’s been a long 27 years so I’m not sure if I saw it in the theaters in 1992 or if I only watched it for the first time on VHS in 1993. What I do know is that the Ghost of Christmas Future terrified me and I watched most of their scenes behind my hands until I got a little older. For a movie that is meant for kids it sure did hit a lot of emotional pressure points that really got to sensitive lil ol’ me and still gets to sensitive big ol’ me.
We all know the famous story of miserly old Scrooge getting his ass haunted and being filled with the spirit of Christmas as a result. Redemption, “God bless us, everyone”, roll credits. The Muppet version should not exist for a plethora of reasons: Jim Henson was dead, Dickens is dry and boring for a child, and the idea of an old miser getting schooled by ghosts is hard to take seriously on a good day but throw in the Swedish Chef and all pretense of gravitas flies out the window. And yet, despite ALL of that, despite Gonzo the narrator, singing melons, and the impossible genetics of Kermit and Piggy’s kids the movie is a masterpiece.
I think two things go a long way to the success of The Muppet Christmas Carol:
First, and in my opinion the most important, is that Michael Caine played Scrooge completely straight. He treats the Muppets around him like co-actors, not bits of felt and yarn. He has few jokes, as befitting his role, but when he does get to deliver a laugh line it does not depend on his breaking character and doing something Muppety.
Second, and only slightly less important than the first, is that the movie isn’t written for children. Yes, it’s a bit simpler than Dickens and Lew Zeland isn’t in the source material, but the movie doesn’t shy away from using big “dictionary” words (covetous, omniscient, and avarice were the ones that really stood out upon rewatching). The Muppets don’t – generally – dumb things down for kids. Had they done so for a Christmas movie I’d understand why but I am forever grateful that they did not.
I don’t think I am alone in admitting that The Muppet Christmas Carol scared the hell out of me when I first watched it. It’s not, on balance, a scary movie but when it chills you, it chills you to the bone. When Jacob Marley’s Muppety visage appears in the door knocker and wails at Scrooge, I cowered behind my hands. The whole “Marley & Marley” number is objectively terrifying to a child. The Marley Brothers (portrayed by those cranky old dudes, Statler and Waldorf) appear as transparent apparitions, laden with chains, singing about how they put orphans out in the snow while they were alive and LAUGHING ABOUT IT. And then there’s the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come.
Pretty sure I didn’t watch this sequence in full until I was a young adult. It’s cold and it’s cruel. Then, to top it off, Tiny Tim is dead but all London cares about is robbing Scrooge’s still warm bed. It is truly devastating. But then it’s all fine! Scrooge wakes up, it’s Christmas morning! He sends Bean Bunny off to get the prized Christmas turkey, buys gifts for everyone, donates to charity. He arrives at Bob Cratchit’s house with an entire feast, Tiny Tim – who did not die – sits at Scrooge’s right hand during the final song, “When Love is Found” and that brings me to my next point.
During the Ghost of Christmas Past sequence, we learn that Scrooge met and fell in love with Fozzywig’s niece, Belle, during Fozzywig’s Christmas party. We jump forward in time, Belle tells Scrooge he doesn’t love her anymore since he keeps pushing back their wedding for lack of money to throw a big party (apparently even Victorian London was beholden to the wedding industrial complex), she gets up and leaves him. Rizzo is devastated, Scrooge is crying and we go on our not-so-merry way while a bit of ambient music plays over Scrooge returning to his bedchamber to wait for the Ghost of Christmas Present. But it’s not a random bit of score is it? It’s a coda to a song that has been cut.
“When Love is Gone” is an emotional gut punch that was, according to interviews, cut from future releases of the film because kids don’t like ballads. But when you know that song is supposed to be there, a number of things feel off about the rest of the movie. The ambient score at the end of the Ghost of Christmas Past sequence, the emotional devastation of Rizzo the Rat, Scrooge being moved to tears… hot dang the entire final number is a reprise of “When Love is Gone” and it all feels rudderless without having that song for context! I don’t think the movie is irreparably harmed by the absence of “When Love is Gone” but I do think it is made better by its presence.
Before I wrap this up, I just want to highlight Steve Whitmire for a moment. This was the first major studio release from Jim Henson Productions after Henson’s death. Steve Whitmire was handpicked by Brian Henson to put his hand inside the puppet head and take the mantle of Kermit the Frog. I can only imagine the pressure he must have felt throughout this entire process despite having been a veteran of the Creature Shop (He’s Rizzo the Rat and Wembley Fraggle!)
The Muppet Christmas Carol has endured for nearly 30 years and is rightfully considered a Christmas classic. The film delicately balances the needs of its audience as deftly as it ever has: simple enough for a kid to understand but with enough emotional maturity for an adult to connect with it as well. But it does leave one key question unanswered: Why does Bunsen Honeydew need glasses when he has no eyes?
Amy Bilancini is an attorney who lives in Park Slope, Brooklyn, with two stupid cats and a stupid husband. She enjoys running races that start very early in the morning. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter, and follow her dumb cats as well.
If you’d like to own The Muppet Christmas Carol for yourself, the Blu-Ray is very well done. 80s Baby owns and recommends it (By the way, according to the Internet the Full Screen Non-Blu-Ray version apparently contains “When Love is Gone”). 80s Baby may receive a commission.
Great job Amy! Makes me want to watch it again.
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