Daily Grindhouse is counting down the twelve days until Christmas with Twelve Days of A Christmas Carol! From December 13th through Christmas Eve, John Reents will guide you on a journey through different film and television adaptations of Charles Dickens’s novella, A Christmas Carol. There will be George C. Scott and Jim Carrey. Divas and ducks. Originals and remakes. Pornography and plastic dolls. And Muppets, naturally. We’re going to go ahead and assume you already know the story, but if you’re only familiar with one film of A Christmas Carol (or none at all), you may want to check out a plot summary, as different characters appear in different versions. #ChristmasIsAHumbug
I saved THE MUPPET CHRISTMAS CAROL (1992, Brian Henson) for last for a lot of reasons. Mostly because it’s my favorite Christmas Carol movie. It was before I started this project, and it remains my favorite now, 30-ish Carols later. It’s easily the best musical version of the story, both in terms of quality and how well the songs are used in the narrative (aka musicalization). It’s had the most staying power of any Christmas Carol of the last 30 years. And it just may be one of the best versions of the story ever made, musical, animated, or otherwise.
There are a lot of reasons that THE MUPPET CHRISTMAS CAROL works as beautifully as it does. Let’s start with the presence of The Great Gonzo as Charles Dickens and his sidekick Rizzo the Rat, who add both Dickens’s voice and a lot of comedy to a story that’s sadder and darker than the previous Muppet movies. Then there’s Michael Caine’s chilly performance as Scrooge, playing it completely straight, even when he’s surrounded by a bookkeeping staff of rats or being heckled by the ghosts of Jacob and Robert Marley (Statler & Waldorf).
Really, everyone in THE MUPPET CHRISTMAS CAROL is perfectly cast. The Muppets carry the same sense of nostalgia that MICKEY’S CHRISTMAS CAROL brought to this story, and everyone fits so perfectly into the proceedings. Kermit the Frog, Miss Piggy, and Robin as the Cratchits. Fozzie as Fezziwig would be a perfect match, even their names weren’t so much alike. Meredith Braun’s (Belle) haunting performance of “When Love Is Gone” is heartbreaking. And Sam the Eagle as the headmaster at Ebenezer’s school is inspired.
Jerry Juhl’s screenplay is a marvel. Like a lot of the other films I’ve covered, a great deal of Dickens’s original dialogue is retained, and Juhl’s writing blends with it perfectly. As it turns out, much of Gonzo-as-Dickens’s narration is original, which I did not realize until I re-watched the movie, book in hand. But his script sounds like Dickens, in tone if not exactly in style. (No one wrote like Charles Dickens, after all). It’s quite a feat by Juhl, who wrote for the Muppets his entire career, beginning with the Sam and Friends TV series in 1955.
Juhl’s screenplay only tells half the story, of course. The other half comes from Paul Williams’s wonderful songs. Williams’s phenomenal career had already included movie musicals (PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE), Muppets (THE MUPPET MOVIE), and even the Muppets at Christmastime (Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas). He was a natural choice for THE MUPPET CHRISTMAS CAROL, and his work here is superb. The opening number, “Scrooge,” tells us everything we need to know about Ebenezer Scrooge before the story begins, while setting the tone for the film’s combination of genuine pathos and ludicrous humor:
Muppet Ladies (sing):
He must be so lonely,
He must be so sad.
He goes to extremes to
To convince us he’s bad.
He’s really a victim of
Fear and of pride.
Look close and there must be
A sweet man inside
Williams also gave THE MUPPET CHRISTMAS CAROL a couple of first-rate Christmas songs that belong on your holiday playlist: “One More Sleep ‘til Christmas” for Bob Cratchit and the Scrooge and Marley bookkeeping staff (and later reprised by Bob and Tiny Tim), and “It Feels Like Christmas” for the Ghost of Christmas Present. And then there’s the rueful ballad, “When Love is Gone.”
Belle (Meredith Braun) sings the song to Young Scrooge (Raymond Coulthar) when she ends their engagement. It was filmed, and two versions made it to the soundtrack album (Braun’s and the pop single by Martina McBride), but the song was ultimately cut from the final movie, even though it’s reprised in the finale. The song did make it to home video on the VHS and first DVD releases, but not to later DVDs, Blu-ray, or Disney+. The good news is that it’s being restored for the upcoming 4K remaster (the linked article states incorrectly that the song never made it to DVD, but it’s on my copy.)
Take all of that: the concept, the casting, the performances, the screenplay, the songs and you end up with a movie that is so much more than the sum of its parts. This is the most treacly idea I have ever expressed, or even thought, but THE MUPPET CHRISTMAS CAROL is the rare movie that loves you back. Chalk it up to nostalgia, familiarity, or Dickens fatigue, but that’s the quality that makes it the best Christmas Carol film.
— The rest of the Muppet cast: Bunsen Honeydew and Beaker as the Charity Gentlemen, Bean Bunny as the Busker and “Today? Why it’s Christmas Day!” Kid, Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem play the band at Fozziwig’s Christmas party (for some reason, Janet in a dust cap is hilarious to me), and possibly Yolanda, Tatooey, and Masterson.
— Muppet cameos: Lew Zealand, Pops, George the Janitor, the Swedish Chef, Camilla the Chicken, the Penguins, and probably others
— And the remaining humans: Steven Mackintosh (Fred) and Robin Weaver (Clara).
— Ebenezer’s time at boarding school is really the only major change the movie makes from the original. Fan never comes to take him home. Instead, Ebenezer goes from school to working for Fozziwig’s Rubber Chicken Factory.
And Speaking of A Christmas Carol…
That’s a wrap!
I hope you enjoyed my Christmas Carol-themed journey through the pop culture landscape. I wanted to do this series because I’m fascinated by the different ways people tell the same story. I can’t find any hard data, but if A Christmas Carol isn’t the most adapted story for film, it’s got to be near the top of that list. I also love A Christmas Carol. I already owned seven different versions (four of them musicals) before starting this project. There are a lot of ideas in Dickens’s novella, but at its most basic, it’s a story of redemption. It’s never too late to become a better person, no matter who you are. That’s the reason for its universal appeal.
I was able to identify 77 films and TV specials based on A Christmas Carol. I watched 29 and covered 23. I really don’t go for best/worst lists. I much prefer pointless trivia.
The Reference I Tried But Couldn’t Fit in Anywhere:
Futurama’s Tinny Tim
I Didn’t Realize Until Too Late (I):
There was a new A Christmas Carol released this year, directed by Jacqui Morris, with the voices of Andy Serkis, Sian Phillips, Martin Freeman, Simon Russell Beale, and Leslie Caron. And I worship Leslie Caron. Eh bien.
I Didn’t Realize Until Too Late (II):
Kandyse McClure (Battlestar Galactica and the 2002 TV CARRIE remake) was the voice of Eden’s best friend Catherine in the deceitfully named BARBIE IN ‘A CHRISTMAS CAROL’.
The One That Got Away:
JOHN GRIN’S CHRISTMAS, a 1986 all-Black television movie produced and directed by, and starring Robert Guillaume. No one seems to know why, but it’s simply not available. Anywhere.
The One I Watched the Most, Specifically for This Series:
A CHRISTMAS CAROL (1938, Edward L. Marin), starring Reginald Owen. Three times and I didn’t even use it.
If I Had a Thirteenth Day:
The Franchise Adaptations:
In addition to Barbie, The Flintstones, The Smurfs, ALL DOGS GO TO HEAVEN, Dennis the Menace, Looney Tunes (twice), and Sesame Street have all created their own versions of A Christmas Carol
The (Other) Misnomer:
Dora’s Christmas Carol has nothing to do with A Christmas Carol.
I Have No Reason to Tell You, But:
I own the Mickey’s Christmas Carol Disney Storybook set of Christmas tree ornaments. All but Goofy are too heavy for my tree.
What About TV Series Episodes?
Well, maybe next year.
Thanks for reading, and Happy Holidays!