After the passing of Jim Henson in 1990, the future of the Muppets was left in doubt. Henson’s son, Brian, was there to take the reins, however, and lead the most beloved puppets of all time into a new era. Despite the astronomical expectations, Brian Henson delivered one of the most beloved Muppet films of all time with The Muppet Christmas Carol, his feature directorial debut. The film has since become a holiday classic thanks to its blend of warmth and humor.
As he reflects on his legacy with the Muppets and looks ahead to future projects, Brian Henson, who now serves as the chairman of The Jim Henson Company, was gracious enough to talk with Uproxx about what made The Muppet Christmas Carol such a gem.
Can you tell me a little bit about the process of picking which Muppet would portray each Dickens character? Kermit was obviously the only choice for Bob Cratchit, but Gonzo’s probably not the first one that would come to mind for our narrator. Can you tell me a little bit about that process of finding a part for everybody?
Our first approach to it was to make it a little bit more of a comedy. At that point, we were going to put Miss Piggy in as the Ghost of Christmas Present. Robin the Frog I think was … I think it was Robin. I’m just not sure. I think it was Robin, was going to play the Ghost of Christmas Past. Gonzo was going to play the Christmas Yet To Come. It was a funnier, sort of lighter approach to the whole thing. Then, we fell more in love with the material and wanted to do something a little bit more sophisticated.
When we did that, we realized, you know what? The Ghosts really need to stay as Dickens describes them. Then we put Kermit in as Bob, and then we put Piggy in as Mrs. Cratchit, and then had all of their girls are pigs, and all of their boys are frogs. We just thought that was ridiculous. Of course, then obviously it made sense that Tiny Tim was Robin, which is why I’m thinking … I’m not sure that Robin was the Ghost of Christmas Past to start with. I can’t remember now. It might’ve been Scooter was the Ghost of Christmas Past.
Then, when we said we’re going to take a more respectful and kind of more sophisticated approach to the movie, then we put Kermit and Piggy where we put them, and that felt really right. Some of the others went because just the name just made you … Like, Fezziwig? Oh, it’s got to be Fozzie. Fezziwig? It’s not uncomfortable casting, because Fezziwig in the book is a gentle boss, but he’s a real boss, whereas Fozzie’s a little bit hapless, so our Fozziewig is a little bit of a mess in the way he’s running the business. You get the feeling his mother’s really the one running it.
What to do with Gonzo and Rizzo, that happened early on when Jerry Juhl was so in love with the book, and he came to me and said, “What I want to try,” which he didn’t really think had ever been done, and I don’t think it had ever been done. His feeling was, look, the Dickens dialogue is absolutely fantastic, as we all know from all the movies and stage shows, but the Dickens prose, when Dickens describes a scene or describes a character, it’s so, so good. He said, “I want to put a character in that is Charles Dickens.” Then we thought, “Who’s the least likely?” in order to make it funny, because we’re like, “Okay, that could be a kind of dry choice to do that. What makes it interesting and unexpected, and therefore better fulfills the promise of Muppets doing Muppet Christmas Carol? Gonzo was basically the least likely choice to play Charles Dickens, and then we put Rizzo with him just as his ridiculous little sidekick.
Then, pretty much almost everything that Gonzo says is straight out of the book. Probably 95% of his dialogue is Dickens prose, and maybe 5% are little asides and quips that we threw in there. That was, I think, a really genius choice that Jerry Juhl took in writing the piece. The truth is, there aren’t a lot of roles; Scrooge’s nephew needs to be a person, and some of the other roles. It’s true that there’s very little presence of some of the Muppet characters that people love, because there aren’t a whole lot of roles, but Kermit and Piggy, Gonzo and Rizzo, and Fozzie, they really get the biggest roles of the Muppet casting in there.
The way Michael Caine approached it was great … In the very first meeting he said, “Brian, I’m going to play Scrooge like I’m acting with the Royal Shakespeare Company. I’m going to never wink to camera. I’m going to adjust my performance at all because it’s puppets. I’m going to pretend that this is a very, very sincere, dramatic telling of A Christmas Carol, because I think that’ll be the funniest choice.” He’s absolutely right. That’s one thing that makes this film work so well, is Michael plays it absolutely real.