‘The Muppet Christmas Carol’ Turns 25! Looking Back on Making the Holiday Classic
By Joe Bergren
Walt Disney Pictures / Jim Henson Productions
“All my friends have worked with the Muppets. Everybody I know has done a thing with the Muppets and I always felt a little bit left out,” Michael Caine told ET in 1992 on the set of The Muppet Christmas Carol, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year. “But they only did half-hour television shows and I got to do a two-hour movie, so it's great.”
While Caine donned the trademark robes and night cap to portray Ebenezer Scrooge, the reimagining of the Charles Dickens classic also featured Kermit as Bob Cratchit, Fozzie as Mr. Fozziewig (modified from Fezziwig), Miss Piggy as Mrs. Cratchit and Gonzo as Dickens, who hilariously narrates the story with Rizzo the Rat. Despite the recognizable names and faces, some voices of the characters would sound a little different to Muppet fans.
Two years prior, at the happiest place on Earth, no less, there was excitement for a new partnership and the creative collaborations that it would surely produce.
“We're just getting into the relationship between my company and Disney. I think it's going very well,” Jim Henson told ET while filming a Muppets TV special at Walt Disney World in the spring of 1990. “We've got a lot of interesting projects to work on, both in the parks and in television and movies. I think it's going to be really nice.” Sadly, it was ET’s final interview with the genius behind such pop culture treasures as The Muppet Show, Labyrinth, Sesame Street, and countless other productions that were inspired by his talent.
On May 16, 1990, Henson died after a short battle with a rare bacterial infection that caused rapid deterioration of his lungs. He was 53. Before his death, he had been working with Disney on a Muppets 3D attraction for Disney World, Muppets-themed restaurants for the parks and new films featuring the Muppets to be produced by Disney.
The Walt Disney Company had actually been in negotiations to buy The Jim Henson Company at the time, but Henson’s death put a halt to the negotiations. While they didn’t end up acquiring the company until 14 years later, Disney remained committed to being in business with the Muppets and produced The Muppet Christmas Carol as their first film together. Brian Henson, Jim’s son, helmed the movie that would exhibit his father’s legacy with the authenticity and presence he instilled in the beloved characters, while Steve Whitmire, a veteran Muppeteer, took over as Kermit.
“The actual puppets are so real, and with such definite character, that, I mean, I treat them as if I'm playing with the Royal Shakespeare Company or something,” said Caine, back on set in 1992.
A generation of children would be surprised to learn that the man they associated only with this role was actually a world-renowned cinema star. Seven years later, Caine won his second Oscar, for The Cider House Rules, which kicked off a long succession of films popular with American audiences. “And I am playing Scrooge kind of differently from the way he's been played before, but very, very seriously. I mean, when he cries, he cries. There are no concessions made to the fact that it's a film for children or I'm with the Muppets.”
While portraying pop culture’s most well-known curmudgeon, Caine knew it would be vital to the ensemble’s success for him remain the straight man throughout the story. “I'm a sort of rock in the middle that all the Muppets bounce off. They are funny intrinsically, and if I was to try and be funny, it wouldn't be funny. So, the more realistic I am, the funnier it is,” said Caine.
When you act with the Muppets, you’re acting high off the ground. “It's the most difficult film I've ever worked on,” said Caine. In addition to closely monitoring the quick turnover rate of his character’s emotional beats, he had to do it all on elevated platforms that required frequent changes to accommodate his co-stars. “I'm standing up here and the Muppeteers are all down there with a Muppet on their shoulder so they're at the same height as me. And so every time you do a shot, you have to fill in the hole in the floor where they were walking and then build another hole on the other side. So everything takes forever.”
Among the film’s highlights are songs from prolific composer and frequent Muppets collaborator Paul Williams, who co-wrote the famous ballad “Rainbow Connection.” The movie happened to be the first time Caine had ever sung on screen, and he admitted to being nervous upon stepping inside the recording studio. “I looked up through the window of the place where I was and there were like 30 people there, and they all obviously turned up with the idea that I wouldn't be able to sing it,” said Caine, who also presumed that among the crowd were singing teachers and breathing experts hired by the producers. “But I carried it off much to their surprise. And mine, I must admit.”
The movie was followed by two other Muppet movie adventures: Muppet Treasure Island in 1996 and 1999’s Muppets From Space. Before Jason Segel and Amy Adams helped the characters find mainstream and box office success again with The Muppets in 2010, the group’s take on the time-honored tale of redemption through the power of Christmas remained their crown jewel among their post-Jim Henson productions. While a brief dedication was shown in the movie’s opening frames, the best tribute to Henson came from his characters and their embodiment of his humor, personality, and heart -- all of which could still keep a master thespian on his toes.
Caine explained, “I mean, people say: ‘Never make pictures with animals or children.’ They ought to try Muppets. They are the biggest scene stealers of all.”