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So, is me reviewing a different version of A Christmas Carol every other year going to be a thing? Mind you I’m not complaining, each iteration has something interesting worth discussing, but if I had a nickel for every time I revisited the story for the blog on a consecutive even-numbered year I’d have three nickels.

“…which isn’t a lot, but it’s weird that it’s happened thrice, right?”

But enough memery, let’s go back to 1990, a magical year marred only by the passing of Jim Henson. Much like Walt Disney, the studio he founded was at a loss without their main creative driving force. Could the Muppets and the brilliant people who brought them to life go on without him?

The short answer, yes.

The first idea Jim’s son Brian had was a Halloween special. But when plans for that fell through, he turned to adapting classic literature with that singular Muppet charm. That in turn would charter the course the Muppets would take throughout the 90s and even affect them to this day.

Released through Disney since this was in that grey area before they outright bought The Muppets, The Muppets Christmas Carol was overshadowed at the holiday box office by another Disney feature, Aladdin, and one that they would eventually own, Home Alone 2. But the generation that grew up with annual viewings of this movie had the last laugh. It has since been reevaluated as a holiday classic and one of the best screen adaptations of A Christmas Carol. Yet…for the longest time I just didn’t get it. People claiming THIS was the best version of A Christmas Carol? I was convinced it had to be a nostalgia thing. To be fair, my early memories of the film weren’t exactly positive. Anything involving Muppets was a gamble for baby Shelf; there was a 50-50 chance of it being enchanting fun and games or pure nightmare fuel, and in this case it was the latter due to one scene in particular. But in 2016 I finally gave it another chance, and…

Guys, I am a Muppets Christmas Carol stan. Despite my lack of childhood sentiment, I understand what makes it such a beloved holiday fixture. When Muppets fans say this is their favorite movie in the franchise, I can smile and say “Good choice, it’s easily in my top 3-4, natch*”. Heck, for the past several years it’s usually the first Christmas anything I watch come December. Brian Henson and the Muppeteers brought their A-game as well as some familiar names in their repertoire to give it that classic Muppet feeling. Jerry Juhl returned to write the screenplay and Paul Williams, who previously wrote the songs for The Muppet Movie, crafted the ones heard here. This might be a controversial opinion, but The Muppets Christmas Carol has the best soundtrack out of all the Muppet features. Though the music in each film is usually top-notch, there’s always that one song I have no qualms skipping over (“Never Before Never Again”, “There’s Gotta Be Something Better”, you get the idea). Muppet Christmas Carol, however? Every song is perfect, and to lose any of them would be a huge detriment to the viewing experience.

And I mean any of them. Oh yeah, I’m going there.

Right away the influence this movie had over its successor, Muppet Treasure Island, is unmistakable. We soar over the model rooftops of Victorian London to a medley of Christmas tunes as the credits roll. But this is a very different kind of London, one where the street vendors hawk talking food and boomerang fish, and the capitalist pigs are literally pigs. Then we’re welcomed into the story by our narrator, Mr. Charles Dickens himself.

Okay, we all know that’s Gonzo accompanied by Rizzo in the first of their many legendary pairings. Making Gonzo “Dickens” is genius casting as he’s shown a love of culture and the arts in addition to his wacky stunts. Rizzo acts as the audience surrogate, voicing questions and giving opinions that young first-time viewers might have. Together they form a greek chorus that cleverly works in more of Dickens’ excellent prose near-verbatim. It’s a method I’m surprised other versions of A Christmas Carol haven’t utilized. In addition, their commentary lightens the proceedings when they’re needed most, giving us that perfect amount of Muppet joviality to balance out the darkness of the source material.

Gonzo kicks things off with a variation on the story’s famous opening line: “The Marleys were dead to begin with” (Yes, Marleys, plural. Put a pin in that). He introduces us to the Marleys’ surviving business partner Ebeneezer Scrooge, played by Academy-Award winning actor Michael Caine.

A lot of people have opinions on Caine’s take on Scrooge, some disparagingly so, and that’s fine. They have a right to be completely wrong. Caine is brilliant, and his Scrooge is one more highlight in his enviable career. He deliberately approached the material as if he were working alongside the Royal Shakespeare Company, playing it as seriously as possible, and by god it works. I know some critics clamor for tongue-in-cheek performances when working with the Muppets, but Caine’s dedication to his technique succeeds on multiple levels. First, the humor. In virtually all forms of comedy you need a good straight man to bounce jokes off of. If Caine were as goofy as the rest of the Muppets or winking at the audience, it wouldn’t be funny. Second, this is still a serious emotional tale that requires a grounded, focused actor as the lead. You buy that Caine is a wretched covetous old sinner who lives in a world where anthropomorphic felt creatures are commonplace but ghosts are out of the norm. He leaves his mark as one of the more imposing Scrooges from the moment he steps onscreen.

His entrance is largely shot at low angles, his frame cutting a formidable silhouette with his face deliberately kept in shadow or out of frame. It builds the menace and mystery surrounding him. He remains this way throughout the first song, appropriately titled “Scrooge”, up until his dramatic reveal on the final note. The song itself is great too, a shining example alongside Beauty and the Beast’s “Belle” as a fantastic opening number that establishes our main characters and their world. Everyone and everything Scrooge passes sings of the hardhearted misery he spreads (even the vegetables don’t like him). But one glare from the mean miser is enough to shut them up quick. His utterance of “Humbug” isn’t rage-filled but has an almost world-weary resignation to it. It’s his way of saying that if the world is constantly telling him to screw off, then they can jolly well screw off right back.

That callousness extends to his long-suffering employees Bob Cratchit (played by Kermit the Frog) and the bookkeepers (all rats, of course), though it leads into a perfect example of this movie’s sense of humor. They ask Scrooge to spare some coal to heat the chilly office (“Our assets are frozen!”) and when he makes it clear that any more requests will result in termination, the rats do a 180 and start singing “Island in the Sun” in hula skirts.

Scrooge’s misanthropy continues as he turns down his nephew Fred’s invitation to Christmas dinner, and Bunsen Honeydew and Beaker when they come collecting donations for the poor. Even Bean Bunny gets the bum rush while caroling outside. I’m telling you, this guy is a bad mutha –

“But I’m talkin’ ’bout Scrooge!”

At the end of the day, Cratchit convinces Scrooge to give him and the bookkeepers Christmas off. Scrooge reluctantly does and leaves them to close shop, leading into the next musical number, “One More Sleep ‘Til Christmas”. It’s a sweet magical song, it’s got skating penguins (which are second in awesomeness only to dancing penguins), and it’s the source of the meme that appears every December.

The scene is also an excellent showcase of Steve Whitmire’s talents. He took over the role of Kermit after Jim Henson until 2017, but I shan’t sully this review with a recount of his messy departure. Though under tremendous pressure to live up to Jim’s legacy, Whitmire pours all his warmth and spirit into the world’s favorite felt amphibian.

But then we come to the moment that cued little Shelf to nope on out of here for nearly 25 years. Scrooge’s door knocker warps into the head of Jacob Marley and doesn’t just eerily intone Scrooge’s name – it bulges forward SCREAMING at him.

It’s still a bit unnerving if I’m being honest, even creepier than the Ghost of Christmas Future, and that’s supposed to be the scariest thing in the feature. I can’t be alone in being traumatized by this scene, right?

Scrooge spends the next few tense-filled minutes searching his flat for more signs of paranormal activity. It’s only when he sits down with some grub that some old friends pay him a visit.

Statler and Waldorf as Jacob and Robert Marley –

Robert Marley…

BOB Marley. I see what you did there, Jerry Juhl.

Anyway, I’m still shocked that something that once scared me is now one of my favorite parts. The Marleys are equal parts funny and foreboding. They do a good job warning Scrooge of the terrible fate that may befall him, but still manage to crack jokes like the curmudgeons they are. They even treat us to a delightfully spooky song and dance, one I’ve come to love as my appreciation of the macabre has grown. It ends with them being dragged back to the bad place, but they’re dragged by adorable singing chains and lockboxes providing backup vocals. The tonal shift between humor and unease would be jarring in less skilled hands.

Scrooge settles into a fitful sleep while Gonzo and Rizzo provide some exposition and shenanigans climbing up to his window. When the bell tolls one, the first ghost arrives and awakens Scrooge. The original plan was for the Ghosts to be played by familiar Muppet characters: Scooter would have been the Ghost of Christmas Past, flamboyant diva Miss Piggy would have filled the Ghost of Christmas Present’s oversized shoes, and the Ghost of Christmas Future would have been a terrifying figure up until we got a good look at Gonzo’s nose sticking out of his hood. While this might have worked fine for The Muppet Show or a TV special leaning towards parody, making the Ghosts wholly original puppets in line with their book counterparts doesn’t take you out of the story and keeps the adaptation faithful while still allowing some creativity in the designs. For example, here’s the Ghost of Christmas Past:

You know that spot in the uncanny valley where you can’t quite tell if something’s charming or unsettling? That’s where this Ghost sets up shop. This ethereal yet childlike spirit feels like it came right out of The Storyteller. It was filmed underwater so the constant zero-gravity movement of its hair and robes double its unearthliness.

Gonzo and Rizzo hitch a ride on Scrooge as the Ghost flies him into his past. Scrooge’s joy at seeing his old classmates again turns to despair as they pass through him and leave his younger self alone on Christmas. Scrooge insists that his isolation during the holidays meant more time for studying, but the pauses in his delivery and the quiver of his lip aren’t fooling anybody. The first cracks in his icy veneer are forming.

Time flies and teenage Scrooge is apprenticed by his headmaster, Sam Eagle, to a reputable rubber chicken factory run by the Fozziwig family. Only The Muppets could get away with that kind of pun. Fozzie and his mom set the mood in spite of the Marley brothers heckling, and The Electric Mayhem Band (or would it be Steampunk Mayhem for the 1800s?) livens things up drastically. For a Christmas party thrown by Muppets, it’s as lively and silly as you’d expect. Only young adult Scrooge has his mind on business, though that changes when Fozziwig introduces him to the beautiful Belle. It’s love at first sight for them both. Yet all too quickly the Ghost takes him to a Christmas nowhere near as happy as the previous one.

Year after year Scrooge has delayed his marriage to Belle. He insists it’s so he can give her the life she deserves, but she sees through his excuses. His greed has replaced her in his heart. Belle acknowledges that they did love each other once, but they can’t continue this charade anymore and breaks their engagement.

And then we get one of the most beautiful and heartbreaking interpretations of this point in the book, a tragic ballad called “When Love is Gone”.

Zounds! Is this a hot take I spy?

No beating around the bush, folks. I think this is a good song, a brilliantly executed scene, a relevant factor going into the finale, and a highly important turning point in Scrooge’s development. What really nails it for me is that it captures the heartbreak on both sides of a breakup. I’ve been Belle, whose dreams became too painful to cling on to and had to move forward alone. I’ve also been Scrooge, left behind, repressing the sadness and guilt now that crossing that bridge together is no longer an option. And then we have our Scrooge standing right between them, singing Belle’s words back to her, the full weight of his regret crashing down on him so hard that he can’t even finish the verse. I rarely get through it with dry eyes. Get the tissues ready and give it a watch to see what I mean.

Now some of you might be wondering why you don’t remember this scene in the movie. That’s because it was removed from the original theatrical cut. The VHS and laserdisc releases of Muppets Christmas Carol kept the song, but it was nowhere to be seen once the film came to DVD and blu-ray because uh-oh-spaghettios! Disney only held on to a good print of the theatrical version. In a bit of tragic irony, “When Love is Gone” was indeed gone for good, which begs the question of who in their right minds would want to edit out such a stirring emotional sequence in the first place –

Wait, don’t tell me.

Fucking Katzenberg.

Apparently having not learned his lesson from almost cutting “Part of Your World” from The Little Mermaid, Jeffrey Katzenberg insisted on axing “When Love is Gone” because he thought it would bore the children. I do know some fans who found the song dull when they were kids – but that does NOT justify its removal. Without it, the scene goes by too quickly. To cut to Rizzo sobbing his heart out after Belle walks away robs us of the sadness we’re meant to feel in this moment. You don’t buy that Scrooge is inconsolable over reliving his one true love abandoning him when it all happens in under a minute.

Credit to Brian Henson, he hounded Disney for decades trying to find the master print retaining “When Love is Gone” despite them insisting it was lost forever. All that persistence finally paid off when he got the call last year that they found it. Now the complete Muppets Christmas Carol is fully restored in pristine condition and available to watch on Disney Plus (albeit in the Extras section, but at least we no longer have to pause the film to look up the song and play it separately).

Almost immediately following the saddest part in the picture we jump into the happiest, the Ghost of Christmas Present.

He’s the shot in the arm of good cheer we and Scrooge need. Because he’s performed in a suit with a remote control face, he looks like a living plush toy. The Ghost is so full of the here and now that he has a funny tendency to repeat himself. Coupled with the warmth of Jerry Nelson’s voice, he’s the most approachable of the three ghosts. Nelson seemed to have a thing for playing Muppets who took any excuse to break into laughter.

His jollity quickly rubs off on Scrooge, even prompting him to make his first non-mean spirited joke (“Eighteen hundred brothers? Imagine the grocery bills!”) The Ghost escorts Scrooge onto the sunny streets of Christmas morning and the best song sequence, “It Feels Like Christmas”.

If there was ever a song that encapsulates Christmastime for me, it’s this one. The lyrics do a better job putting what I love about the holidays into words than I ever could. “It is the season of the heart, a special time of caring, the ways of love made clear/It is the season of the spirit, the message, if you hear it, is make it last all year”. The Ghost of Christmas Present gently guides Scrooge through the warmhearted revelry around him. You can see him slowly opening up to it, but he’s still hesitant. After the painful reminder of how terrible Christmas was for him, what are the chances that it could be something good? You can see how much he wants to join in yet can’t bring himself to. But it turns out all Scrooge needs is an invitation. The Ghost comes over and gets him to dance with him, and it’s the sweetest thing ever.

Yeah, I do the dance too, don’t judge me!

Feeling much more amenable to the Christmas spirit, Scrooge asks to see how others celebrate. They visit Fred’s party right as the revelers begin a game of Twenty Questions. Scrooge even gets into it despite no one else seeing or hearing him. But the reveal that the “unwanted creature” the others are trying to guess is him puts a pretty sad damper on his mood.

The Ghost overrules Scrooge’s pleas to see no more and takes him to visit the Cratchits. Miss Piggy may be Bob’s doting wife, but none of her sass is downplayed, which means more when she shows concern and affection towards her husband and Tiny Tim. Speaking of, Tim is played by Kermit’s nephew Robin. The character is a pure heartwarming bundle as is, but it hits tenfold when it’s Robin, “Halfway Up The Stairs”, “Just One Person”, singing “Over The Rainbow” in the middle of Alice Cooper’s Halloween Robin. Even when Piggy is reluctant to toast such a wicked and badly-dressed(!) man like Scrooge, Tim steps up to show him some gratitude. The sentiment touches Scrooge’s heart. Then the family sings “Bless Us All”.

What, you think I’m gonna talk about this one? You think I’m gonna talk about how it stops the film dead in its tracks and sounds like it was recorded with a single Casio? You think I’m gonna talk about how it just cuts back and forth between the singing puppets and Scrooge staring dewy-eyed at them? You think I’m gonna talk about how sincerely it’s performed and how sweet and wholesome the Muppets are and how it ends with Robin sickly coughing as a grim reminder that he’s not long for this world because it does not get me one bit, not one little bit…

Scrooge asks if Tiny Tim will live and the Ghost repeats what he said earlier about decreasing the surplus population, though not too unkindly. It’s at this time Scrooge notices the spirit is going gray at an alarming rate. Christmas Day is nearly at an end, meaning his time with Christmas Present is almost up and the last, most feared ghost will soon be upon him. Christmas Present remains cheerful to the end, encouraging Scrooge to “go forth and know him better, man”. But no sooner does he vanish than a huge ominous cloud of fog rolls in and chases after Scrooge.

Crap, Scrooge is in Silent Hill!

The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come appears from the mist, all silent and Grim Reaper-like. Even Gonzo and Rizzo know that there’s no humor to be derived from this horrifying scenario and quickly bow out. He allows the Ghost to whisk him to a dreary wet Christmas Day. Scrooge overhears some business-swine having a chuckle over some unlikable rich slob who died, then watches as his bed curtains and assorted valuables are pawned off. But because Scrooge is a little slow on the uptake, the Ghost returns him to the Cratchits. This time, however, the hovel is far from jolly…

Bob returns from visiting Tiny Tim’s grave and attempts to comfort his family with some touching words. I don’t know about you, but his mention of this being the first parting among them reads as Brian Henson and his team learning to cope after Jim Henson’s death. In fact, a lot of the movie shares this undertone. It opens with a sobering dedication to Jim Henson and founding Muppeteer Richard Hunt, who lost the fight with AIDS shortly after Jim’s passing. Statler and Waldorf, beloved characters that Jim and Richard played, appear as ghastly haunts. The final shot is a sweeping pan to the sky over dozens of Jim’s creations singing “The love we found we carry with us so we’re never quite alone”. And you know that clock heralding each ghost’s arrival? I’m not convinced that its resemblance to Jim Henson is coincidental. The race against time is a theme that pervades most of Jim’s oeuvre, especially if you’re familiar with his early short films. And in this sad case, time caught up with him too soon.

At last, the Ghost shows Scrooge his godforsaken tombstone. The buildup to the reveal is a nice change from other versions. This time, Scrooge knows exactly what he’s going to find the moment the spirit points him towards it, but in a futile effort to put off the inevitable he keeps asking if these future shades are predestined or not. And when he’s forced to wipe away the frost covering his name, it’s nothing less than a soul-shattering blow. Scrooge’s ensuing breakdown proves that he has taken his lessons to heart and Caine knocks it out of the park.

In an instant, Scrooge finds himself back in his room on Christmas morning feeling as giddy as a schoolboy and merry as an angel. Gonzo and Rizzo return as well, so you know everything is going to be okay. Scrooge makes it up to Bean Bunny by paying him well to deliver a turkey to the Cratchits, and donates a generous sum to Bunsen and Beaker. Beaker shows how grateful he is by giving Scrooge his scarf. And…dammit I promised myself I wouldn’t go on too long about Caine’s acting but his surprise and humble joy when he says “…A gift? A gift for me?” just gets me every time. It’s the first Christmas present Scrooge has ever received and the first splash of color he’s added to his wardrobe, marking it as a symbol of the changed man he is.

Scrooge is moved to express his gratitude through song. Caine’s no crooner but his sincerity sells “Thankful Heart”. He gets all of London swept up in his new giving spirit. Scrooge goes to the Cratchit’s and pretends to chew out Bob for not coming to work. It takes him some time to get to the part where he’ says he’s raising his salary because Piggy butts in multiple times on her husband’s behalf. Every version of A Christmas Carol has Emily Cratchit say she’d be more than happy to give Scrooge a piece of her mind regarding how he treats Bob, but this is the only one I know of where she actually gets to, and it’s pretty funny. Man and Muppet alike joins Scrooge and the Cratchits for a sumptuous Christmas dinner on his behalf. Gonzo informs us that he became a better man than London had ever known, and a second father to Tiny Tim, who did not die (thank goodness). Scrooge is even given the honor of saying the famous line “God bless us everyone” alongside him. They lead the cast in an uplifting reprise of “When Love is Gone”, now changed to “The Love We Found”, reflecting how much Scrooge has grown to accept love in his life. Told you it was relevant.

What else can I say that others haven’t already? The Muppets Christmas Carol is as damn near perfect a holiday film as you can get. In a humorous promotional interview, Gonzo stated that any kid who saw the film could do a book report on it, and he was right. It’s one of the most faithful adaptations of A Christmas Carol made all the sweeter with its Muppetational flourishes. The songs evoke classic Christmas carols in the melodies, always reminding you what kind of a musical you’re watching. Though it could be written off as a kid-friendly version of the story, not once does it lose sight of its grim themes or immortal message: hoarding material wealth to insulate yourself against the world’s cruelties is no way to live. A life showing generosity and compassion to your fellow man is a life well spent, not just on Christmas but throughout the calendar year. Keep that in mind going forward after your next viewing of this auspicious film, which I hope will be very soon.

Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, Peace on Earth and goodwill to all, and remember to light the lamp, not the rat.

Thank you for reading! Sorry for cutting it this close, but I hope you can see why it took me to the last minute to get the review out. I hope you all have a happy and safe holidays, and I’ll see you in the new year with a brief recap and the next Faerie Tale Theatre review. Special thanks to my generous patrons Amelia Jones, Sam Flemming and Robert Barnette. Anyone who joins the Patreon party can get such fun perks as sneak peeks of reviews, extra votes, movie requests and more!

*- Here’s a bonus gift, my Muppet films ranking in case you’re curious:
8. The Muppets Take Manhattan – Saw it the one time, thought it was all right, but the “Saying Goodbye” number absolutely destroyed me. I’m not ready to go back to that yet.
7. Muppets From Space – I haven’t seen it since I was a kid, but I remember it being fun. Apart from making Gonzo canonically an alien for a while, I don’t get why people seem to hate this one.
6. The Muppets (2011) – Now that I’ve watched most of The Muppet Show I can appreciate how much of a return to form this was, though Amy Adams and Jason Segel didn’t need that much screen time.
5. Muppets Most Wanted – Sam the Eagle and Ty Burrell deserve their own spinoff. I’ve never seen a more wholesome buddy cop duo since Andy Samberg and Terry Crewes.
4/3. TIE: The Muppets Christmas Carol/The Great Muppet Caper – The Muppets’ Sophie’s Choice: which do I love more, the holiday classic I just wrote an essay about, or the hysterical, endlessly quotable, fourth wall-smashing comedy? Don’t make me choose!!
2. Muppet Treasure Island – Hilarious from beginning to end, and it’s got Tim Curry. ‘Nuff said.
1. The Muppet Movie – It’s hard to beat one that started it all.