Revisiting 'The Muppet Christmas Carol' 25 Years Later

Too few adaptations of Charles Dickens' iconic A Christmas Carol are gimmick-free. Though a couple of stellar versions exist that focus squarely on Dickens' story of redemption during the holidays, focusing on a nasty moneylender, the majority of adaptations are defined by their unique and extra hook. It's A Christmas Carol — but as a modern comedy starring Bill Murray! It's A Christmas Carol — but in motion-capture animation with Jim Carrey playing multiple roles! It's A Christmas Carol — but as a big, splashy musical starring a young Albert Finney! And so on.

This month marks the 25th anniversary of another Christmas Carol adaptation, and one with a pretty obvious gimmick: The Muppet Christmas Carol. Remarkably, though, The Muppet Christmas Carol features one of the best-ever Ebenezer Scrooges on film, often to the point where it feels like a better Christmas Carol adaptation as opposed to being a good Muppet movie.

The reasons why The Muppet Christmas Carol feels a little different from its predecessors, or even the sillier, more anarchic Muppet films to come in the late 1990s and beyond, are not hard to spot. This movie opens with a brief dedication to Jim Henson, the impresario behind the Muppets, who tragically passed away in 1990; and Richard Hunt, another key Muppeteer who passed away during this film's pre-production phase. Henson and Hunt were among the most vital and recognizable people to work with the Muppets; even if audiences couldn't tell the difference between how one person or another manipulates the felt creatures' limbs, we all know how characters like Kermit the Frog, Statler and Waldorf, Rowlf, Scooter, and Sweetums sound. Though Steve Whitmire, the performer who took over as Kermit for 25 years (until his firing earlier in 2017), had been featured in a CBS special commemorating Jim Henson's life as the heroic amphibian, The Muppet Christmas Carol was the first major reintroduction that audiences had to Kermit and the rest of the Muppets.

Parts of the film work exceptionally well. Michael Caine plays Scrooge with a fierce commitment, even more so considering that it's not just that he's threatening other characters in Dickens' tale. He's threatening the Muppets. When Scrooge tosses a wreath at a cheerful young caroler, it's mean; when Caine throws that wreath at the cuddly Bean Bunny, it feels downright evil.

Caine, according to Henson's son (and the film's director) Brian, was very clear on what he would bring to the production: "One of the first things he said was: 'I'm going to play this movie like I'm working with the Royal Shakespeare Company. I will never wink, I will never do anything Muppety.'" Caine lives up to that promise when you watch the movie, even 25 years after the fact. Caine has sometimes made movies just for the paycheck, phoning in the performance (as when he couldn't accept his Best Supporting Actor Oscar for Hannah and Her Sisters because he was filming Jaws 4, a film whose check he has since glibly stated paid for his house). Remarkably, that's not the case here. He's taking the work very, very seriously, and is easily the best part of The Muppet Christmas Carol.

Of course, that's kind of the problem. A movie called The Muppet Christmas Carol should have, as its best element, something...Muppety. The film, like other Muppet movies, has songs, this time from songwriter Paul Williams, who co-wrote "The Rainbow Connection" for The Muppet Movie in 1979, as well as that film's other tracks. While The Muppet Christmas Carol is chock full of songs, the best one is a mid-film showstopper called "It Feels Like Christmas." (I'm not just saying that because it features one of the Greatest Moments in Film History™, in which Caine...dances with the Ghost of Christmas Present. But that does help.) And seeing as this is a Muppet movie, there are flourishes such as the Great Gonzo narrating on-screen as Charles Dickens (with Rizzo the Rat as his sidekick), two, not one, Marleys as played by the always wisecracking Statler and Waldorf, and the Swedish Chef showing up at Fozziwig's Christmas celebration. (See, because Fozzie Bear plays Fezziwig. Fozziwig.)

But those flourishes feel much less valuable to the film, which is otherwise trying to be a more straightforward adaptation of Charles Dickens' work than you might expect considering the title. While the Great Gonzo does play the famed author here, most of his dialogue is either straight out of the book or written in such a way as to suggest Dickens' prose. (Any attempts to suggest that Gonzo might not, y'know, resemble Dickens that much are dismissed quickly: "Dickens was a 19th-century novelist! A genius!" "Oh, you're too kind.") Basically, a lot more of Gonzo's dialogue than you might expect sounds like a non-Muppet could be saying it.

The same goes for the linchpin of the Muppets: Kermit the Frog. Kermit plays the always beset-upon Bob Cratchit in this Christmas Carol, with Miss Piggy as his devoted, fierce wife (the latter only appearing in two brief scenes in the second half). There are aspects of Bob's story that are different: in an early song, he ice-dances around with some penguins. But much of the adaptation, written by Muppets stalwart Jerry Juhl, treats Bob seriously, even if Bob is played here by a frog. This Bob Cratchit still suffers the loss of his ill son Tiny Tim, he's still meek in the face of his tyrannical boss, and he's still plainly goodhearted to the very end without displaying much of a personality.

What makes the choices in The Muppet Christmas Carol so fascinating and slightly frustrating is that the Muppets have been more anarchic when adapting famous stories in other media, as well as in film. Some episodes of The Muppet Show riffed on famous stories, with little hesitation in mocking them instead of wholeheartedly embracing them. But just a few years after The Muppet Christmas Carol, Walt Disney Pictures released another Muppet movie adapting a famous piece of British literature, with another big-name British star, lots of Muppets playing the familiar characters, plenty of song-and-dance sequences. That film managed to be very loose and free with the source material. That film, now over 20 years old, is Muppet Treasure Island.

muppet christmas carol

Comparing The Muppet Christmas Carol and Muppet Treasure Island might seem like a fool's errand, but they truly differ in only one way: the latter is vastly weirder, wilder, and funnier than the former. No doubt, the tragic passing of Jim Henson hung heavy on the production of Christmas Carol; even the music playing when the dedication to Henson and Hunt appears on screen sounds fittingly sorrowful. But many of the creative choices surrounding the Muppets recur in Treasure Island: Gonzo and Rizzo are once again thrust into the spotlight, as the cheery sidekicks of Jim Hawkins. Kermit is cast as the blandly goodhearted Captain Smollett, but the character gets far less screen time than other Muppets; his paramour Miss Piggy shows up late in the film as Benjamina Gunn (who is now Smollett's long-lost love in the goofy bastardization of Robert Stevenson's story). And the film's MVP is once again the human star: Tim Curry, in a bombastic, gleefully over-the-top, but never condescending take as Long John Silver.

Perhaps it's not even that one film is self-aware and willing to break the fourth wall, and the other is not; what seems clear is that the filmmakers behind Muppet Treasure Island (Henson directed again, and Juhl co-wrote that film) are more willing to throw caution to the wind. Within the opening minutes, one blind Muppet touches the long-haired, softer-voiced Hawkins and loudly proclaims him to be a "little girl!" That kind of humor is largely absent from Christmas Carol. The 1992 film is genuinely respectful to its source material, but that sense of respect saps the film of some of its life.

It's easy to wonder if any movie that followed the death of Jim Henson was going to work as well as possible. (My almost certainly unpopular opinion is that Muppet Treasure Island is the second-best Muppet movie, after the 1979 original.) Even the characters performed by Frank Oz get nothing more than glorified cameos in Christmas Carol – Sam the Eagle is so unavoidably shoehorned into a British story that one of his few lines of dialogue baldly acknowledges the oddness of his appearance. The Muppets are not incidental to The Muppet Christmas Carol, but many of the characters who people had fallen in love with for years feel as if they are used only in passing, lest the audience get a further reminder of which Muppeteers had passed away.

This is both understandable as well as a little unfortunate; if there are star Muppets, they're Kermit and Fozzie, the latter of whom only appears in one scene, and has a "speech" that lasts a single sentence. Leaving aside the old-favorite Muppets themselves, The Muppet Christmas Carol boasts some unique Muppet designs, such as with the Ghosts of Christmas Yet to Come, as well as moments that allow the Muppet performers to shine outside of their voice work. The ghostly Marley brothers, the wispy Ghost of Christmas Past, or even gags where Rizzo dives off a streetlamp into a bucket of icy water show off the performers' puppeteering talent, even if the humor feels a bit lighter and more reserved than may be necessary.

The Muppet Christmas Carol was not a box-office success upon its release in December 1992, having been heavily overshadowed by Home Alone 2: Lost in New York, A Few Good Men, and Disney's own Aladdin, which not only went on to be the year's highest-grossing film but also outgrossed the new Muppet movie each week of its holiday release. Since then, of course, being a product of the 1990s, the movie has recurred in the memories of many Millennials, whether in the form of sing-alongs or, say, GIFs of Michael Caine dancing. (Did I mention that this is one of the most wonderful moments in any movie, ever? I will brook no argument on this point.) Someone outside of the Jim Henson Company, and aside from me, will likely celebrate the anniversary of The Muppet Christmas Carol this week, as we approach a new Christmas Day.

The movie is likable, because the Muppets are themselves quite likable. Michael Caine, more than really any other human performer in prior Muppet movies, takes his role as one of the great British antiheroes so seriously and sincerely that he's almost too terrifying as Scrooge. But the Muppets, at their best, were not just likable. The Muppets could pal around with celebrities, or they could crack wise with little kids, but they rarely felt safe. 40 years later, it may be easy to forget that the pilot episode for what would become The Muppet Show was titled "Sex and Violence." You could wonder how much the Muppets changed when they started making movies through Walt Disney Pictures, but The Muppet Movie and The Great Muppet Caper balance between being family-friendly and being sharply, snappily funny in ways that adults will appreciate more than kids.

The Muppet Christmas Carol is a decent Christmas movie, and a surprisingly good adaptation of Charles Dickens' best book. It is, however, amiable more than anything else. 25 years later, it may be a welcome balm to spend 90 minutes in the comfort of a Muppet movie, but compared with other literary adaptations they explored on the big screen as well as previous movies featuring Kermit, Fozzie, Miss Piggy, Gonzo, and the rest, it doesn't quite measure up. The Muppet Christmas Carol, like every Muppet movie, is not without its charms, but cannot stand as tall as other Muppet movies. Here more than in future Muppet films, the cruel and untimely passing of Jim Henson just hovers too close to the final product.