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Retroactive Thinking: ‘The Muppet Christmas Carol’ Turns 20 Today!

Monday 10th December 2012 by Saintmort

I will never understand people who hate Christmas. I know that they exist. I’ve had conversations with many of them. I just still don’t understand it. Maybe it’s the nostalgic person in me that fondly remembers Christmas holidays of the past. Curled up on the couch, fire in the fireplace and Christmas specials on TV.

For years, I’d eagerly await December, when I could watch Garfield’s Christmas Special, Christmas at the Playhouse and A Very Claymation Christmas. However, my favorite as a child (and as an adult) was the beautiful Muppet Family Christmas. It’s a genuine crime that this special has yet to get a proper DVD release (Little Shop of Horrors finally got a Director’s Cut release this year so I’m still hopeful that I’ll get my beloved Christmas special on DVD one day).

The Muppets and Christmas just seem like a match made in heaven. The Muppets are like Christmas 365. I’m forced to quote Walter from last years The Muppets film. “As Long as there are talking frogs and singing bears and swedish chefs and boomerang fish the world couldn’t be that bad a place. As long as there are Muppets. There is hope”

Behind the helm was Jim Henson. He had that magic “something” that made us believe anything was possible. He believed life was meant to be fun and dreamed to be a person who made the world a better place for having lived it. In the eyes of the world he fulfilled his dream and when he died the Muppets would die with him.

That’s what makes The Muppet Christmas Carol so important. The first Muppet film made without Jim as well as original muppeteer Richard Hunt the film would literally make or break the Muppets’ staying power. Henson’s son Brian would helm the director’s chair and Kermit would be performed by Steve Whitmire.

This mostly faithful (or as faithful as The Muppets could be) adaptation of Charles Dickens classic was the perfect way to show that The Muppets had not lost an ounce of their magic and power. The tale is filled with comedy (mostly presented by Gonzo’s performance as Charles Dickens and his sidekick Rizzo the Rat) as well as heartwarming (and occasionally heartbreaking) moments.

Michael Caine is brilliantly cast as Scrooge and makes the transition from mean-spirited, sorrowful and joyful so seamlessly that he forces you to go through all of these emotions along with him. Years later when I finally took the time to read the novella it was him that I visioned most out of every previous performance I’d seen.

Originally, it was proposed that the Ghosts would be performed by Miss Piggy, Scooter and Gonzo but the idea was scrapped when it was decided these iconic Muppet characters would only distract viewers from the emotional leverage of these ghosts. It was a brilliant idea. Each ghost has their own unique puppeteering style. Be it the weightless Marionette style of the Ghost of Christmas Past, the full body costume of the Ghost of Christmas Past or the frighteningly clocked Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, they have their own innovative touch of magic that only the muppets could produce.

However, while the performances, the puppetry and script all help drive the story, the most memorable moments come from the brilliant songwriting of Paul Williams. Much like when he wrote songs for The Muppet’s debut film The Muppet Movie, The Muppets Christmas Carol contains a wonderful blending of themes. Williams’ songs all have an upbeat feeling and themes about love and the magic of Christmas, yet he still allows them to have a hint of sadness to them.

While my favorite song of the film has always been “It Feels Like Christmas”, the highlight is “When Love Is Gone”, a song cut from the theatrical release because Disney studios found it to be too serious to keep a child’s attention. While Williams and Henson both fought to keep the song in the movie, it wasn’t until the Home Video release that the song was returned to the film (leaving the theatrical release with an awkward and obvious cut). In it, the farewell song from Scrooge’s lost-love Belle eventually turns into a duet between the girl of his past and Scrooge of the present. What I love about this is it implies that after all these years, Scrooge still remembers the words Belle said when she left him.

So was the Muppets take on this classic tale of love, Christmas and redemption a box office success? Sadly. No. While the film is wonderful and was well received critically, it failed to reach the high expectations that Disney had set for it. In 1992, it faced the competition of Home Alone 2: Lost in New York and Aladdin (which was still in theaters after months of release). Still, while grossing $27 Million, it didn’t completely bomb, it did sent the early message that The Muppets may not survive without their creator. It wasn’t until 4 years later that the franchise would rediscover success, when the Muppets returned in the successful Muppet Treasure Island. But it was a temporary victory. 1999’s The Muppets From Space marked the beginning of a slow decline into obscurity, where they stayed until last year’s The Muppets revived them in a fashion that only thousands of Muppet fans could dream of a decade earlier.

Despite the poor box office (second lowest Muppet box office at the time), the film has developed a cult following and has become a quintessential film of the season. Today, the film is now 20 years old. I still fondly remember seeing it in theaters when I was 7 with my mother and then best friend Mac (who I have lost contact with and may have been killed by a bear during a circus accident). I was completely obsessed with the film, laughing at all the appropriate points and even feeling sadness when Tiny Tim had died. In the end, perhaps that’s why we love The Muppets, because no one seems to do Love and Joy quite like them.