Christmas is a time for getting together with your loved ones and doing things that have meaning to you, like singing carols and making cookies and punching someone at toy store on Christmas Eve so you can get the last Wobblebot or whatever off the shelf and keep the next morning from turning into a chaotic mess of tears and shouting. Also, movies. It’s always great to sit around and watch Christmas movies, preferably with a fire raging in the fireplace and the tree up in the corner, hopefully a safe distance from the raging fire, for reasons related to the aforementioned tears and shouting. And there are so many of them. You have an almost endless supply of choices.
One that I watch every year is The Muppet Christmas Carol, released in 1992. I had it on VHS as a kid and I’ve tracked it down in other forms over the years. This year it’s on HBO Go. I really recommend you watch it if you haven’t, especially if you have kids or can borrow some. It’s adorable, and funny (like, legitimately funny in parts), and it captures the spirit of the season about as well as any movie can. I could talk about it for an hour. But since finding each of you, individually, to discuss it would be pretty inefficient, I guess I’ll just write about it. That seems simpler.
Let’s talk about The Muppet Christmas Carol.
1. The plot of The Muppet Christmas Carol is the same as any version of the original story written by Charles Dickens, in its broad strokes. Scrooge is a cheap uncaring creep, Scrooge is visited by three spirits on Christmas Eve, Scrooge wakes up a new man and starts throwing money and turkeys around town on Christmas morning. (I mean, spoilers, but…) The fun of it all is in the execution. And seeing Michael Caine interact with Muppets. Michael Caine shouts at so many Muppets. We’ll get to that in a bit, but it’s important to have a baseline from which to begin. That’s all we’re doing in point number one.
2. This brings us to Gonzo. The film is narrated by Gonzo, as Charles Dickens, who pops up on screen periodically to explain what’s happening and why, and who is accompanied by Rizzo the Rat. Rizzo is the best. His purpose in the film is to serve as a kind of Greek chorus, pointing out the absurdity of the more absurd moments and repeatedly questioning Gonzo’s claimed identity. He also gets injured. A lot. He flies over fences and gets lit on fire and at one point Gonzo smashes him into a window and wipes him back and forth to clean off a layer of grime, as though a Dickensian street rat is a squeegee. The two of them make a really fun comedy team and it turns the whole familiar story maybe 30 degrees to the left, just enough to make it original. More films should be narrated by Gonzo and Rizzo. Like, the next John Wick movie, maybe. I’m barely kidding.
3. As we discussed earlier, Michael Caine plays Scrooge in The Muppet Christmas Carol, which raises two important questions: One: Why would we let anyone other than Michael Caine play Scrooge? Two: We should not. Admittedly that second thing is not a question. But it’s still important. He just so good.
A big part of that is the way he plays the role. He’s dead serious throughout. Director Brian Henson explained it in an interview with The Guardian: “When I met Michael Caine to talk about playing Scrooge, 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. I am going to play Scrooge as if it is an utterly dramatic role and there are no puppets around me.’”
It’s important here to note that Scrooge’s bookkeepers, the castmembers he is treating like the Royal Shakespeare Company, in addition to Kermit the Frog as Bob Cratchit, are played by wiseass mischievous rats. And it’s also important to note this from a recent GQ interview with Caine, which is just fun and I want you to see it.
Have your grandkids seen it?
Oh yeah, yeah. They’ve seen it. They loved it. They can’t believe it was their grandpa—and me singing! People say to me, Have you ever sung? I say, Yes, I sang in a movie. They say, Who with? I say, Kermit the Frog.
4. The film replaces Jacob Marley with “the Marleys,” plural, which one can only assume was an excuse to have Statler and Waldorf roast Scrooge. A great decision, regardless.
5. Spirits in The Muppet Christmas Carol, ranked:
- Present – Big fat forgetful guy who loves food. These kinds of dudes are my people.
- Past – Creepy partially translucent young girl who insists on making you go back and relive your biggest regrets. No thanks.
- Future – Faceless reaper who shows you your own grave instead of cool future stuff like flying cars and Roombas. Come on, guy.
You will never change my mind on this.
6. It is and always will be a little hilarious to me that the two best movie adaptations of A Christmas Carol feature Michael Caine shouting at Muppets and Bobcat Goldthwait chasing Bill Murray around a television studio with a shotgun.
7. If I have one complaint about The Muppet Christmas Carol, it would be this:
Now, the issue of if and how Kermit and Miss Piggy can ever have children has been around as long as the first overly inquisitive viewer saw a pig lusting after a frog and arched an eyebrow, so much so that there’s an entire page devoted to it on Muppets Wiki that opens with a declaration that the question “has been the subject of debate and turmoil throughout the years.” But what in the barnyard hell is happening here? All the male children are frogs and all the female children are pigs. That’s… that’s unsettling. I get that Disney and Henson Studios probably didn’t want to frighten its mostly young audience with some sort of terrifying cross-species abominations bouncing all over the house. And I get that there’s probably no “right” answer or simple way out of it once you establish that a pig and frog are in a monogamous relationship. But I just have so many questions. So, so many. So many that if I find someone who can answer them I will keep going until they have security drag me away as I shout “BUT CAN YOU MAKE BACON FROM THE FROG-LOOKING ONES THEN OR WHAT, FOR THE LOVE OF GOD?”
And do you know who else has questions about all of this? Guess. Did you guess Larry King? You probably did. It makes sense. Anyway, I really must insist that you watch this entire video.
This aired on CNN in primetime in 1993. You could make a very good argument that this was the best thing that ever happened on cable news and that the whole industry hopped on a bullet train straight to the crapper as soon as the credits rolled on this episode. Also, picture them on, like, Hannity, today. “Drain the swamp” has never been such a personal threat.
8. Speaking of things that could be sad and disturbing to children, here’s a fact: The home video version of the movie, the one I practically wore out on VHS, contains a song titled “When the Love Is Gone,” sung by Scrooge’s girlfriend during his trip back to the past. It is a little devastating. It’s all about how he’s choosing money over love and it ends up being the pivotal moment in him becoming an old miserly crank. It’s some heavy stuff for a kid’s movie. Which is why Disney’s then-CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg demanded it be removed and replaced with something lighter for its theatrical release. And yet, the frog/pig children remain. Hypocrites, all of them.
9. That decision didn’t help much at the box office, though. The Muppet Christmas Carol got smoked, coming in sixth in its first week, behind A Few Good Men, Home Alone 2, The Bodyguard, Aladdin, and The Distinguished Gentleman. Nothing gets you in the mood for the holidays quite like Jack Nicholson yelling at Tom Cruise and Eddie Murphy playing a con man who gets elected to Congress. I have always said this.
10. Okay, let’s take a quick second to discuss The Muppet Christmas Carol’s place in the Christmas movie genre. I maintain that it is the best Christmas movie. But to be fair, let’s look at some other contenders:
- Home Alone: Good, but not narrated by a tiny blue monster and a talking rat
- A Christmas Story: Overrated, Michael Caine does not yell at Muppets
- Die Hard: Okay, look, if we’re going to do the whole “action movies that just happen to take place at Christmas count as Christmas movies” thing, then that’s fine, but we have to have a long talk about whether Die Hard is really better than the first Lethal Weapon movie, which also takes place at Christmas and ends with Gary Busey fighting Mel Gibson to the death in Danny Glover’s front yard
- Lethal Weapon: Also not as good as The Muppet Christmas Carol