Jim Henson was dead, to begin with. A freak bout of pneumonia had taken away the man who was at the centre of countless projects and characters; the very voice of Kermit himself. Richard Hunt—who performed Beaker, Scooter, Sweetums, and Statler, among many others—had also died, and the number of beloved characters that had been shelved out of respect was ever growing. How could The Muppets survive after such a monumental loss? It would be foolish to think that the idea to shut down Muppet Studios wasn’t bandied about across more than one boardroom table. How do you come back from that? How do the children find the strength to go on when the father has died?
One of the truly remarkable aspects of the Muppets was that despite all of their endearing self-deprecation (early Gonzo) and in-fighting (Fozzie vs. Statler & Waldorf), they were not only susceptible to, but also revelled in great moments of pure, unadulterated optimism. During the climactic showdown between Kermit and an obsessive restaurateur in 1979’s The Muppet Movie, the beloved frog (then still performed by Jim Henson) delivers one of the most genuine, heartfelt, and unquestionably true monologues on the nature of friendship. What he says is this:
I’ve got a dream too. But it’s about singing and dancing and making people happy. That’s the kind of dream that gets better the more people you share it with. And, well, I’ve found a whole bunch of friends who have the same dream. And, well, it kind of makes us like a family.
Over the course of his journey, Kermit’s dream has been scoffed. He has encountered hardship after hardship, not least of which is a psychotic frog-leg enthusiast, and as Kermit struggles to find the words to reconcile his frustration with his pursuers and his generally positive outlook on life, he stumbles on this immutable true revelation on the nature of friendship; that what you are doing with your life is not as important as the people that you are doing it with. This may well be the central ethos to the entire family of Muppet performers. What choice did they have but to pick up and keep going?
Choosing their next project would be an incredibly difficult task. It would need to be a story that embodied their commitment to positivity, featured a wide variety of memorable characters, and had a solid emotional core. By choosing to adapt Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, they got all of those things. At its heart, this story is about redemption, about coming out of the blackness of solitude, denying cynicism, celebrating love, and above all, carrying on tradition. In embracing these themes, the Muppeteers were also committing to a sea change; with Jim gone, the status quo had been swept away, and shaking things up was a necessity.
The Muppet Christmas Carol is a true ensemble work. Michael Caine brilliantly fills the shoes of Ebenezer Scrooge and provides a performance with seemingly boundless range. He is cruel and flinty; broken and remorseful; joyful and loving; all without sacrificing the continuity of his character. Seeing Scrooge experience happiness is like watching a newborn fawn finding its legs. He simply does not know what to do with himself! Caine’s performance is also noteworthy for being one of the only human characters in the film, a stark contrast to 1984’s cameo-packed The Muppets Take Manhattan (Kermit and the gang’s last big screen outing). With fewer humans filling up the scenery, it’s up to the Muppets themselves to fully populate this world. The way that these characters are used is another indicator of the evolution of the Muppets; for one thing, Kermit and Fozzie don’t have any scenes together. The original trinity of Kermit, Miss Piggy and Fozzie Bear is downplayed in favour of the interactions between Gonzo and Rizzo. The chemistry between these two characters is unmatchable and completely fresh. Kermit and Miss Piggy form the emotional core of the film, ruminating on the nature of family, love, and togetherness, while Gonzo and Rizzo form more direct connections with the audience, breaking the forth wall with delicious precision and intent (when the narrators don’t want to stick around because the story is getting too scary, it’s a fairly good indicator that something frightening is about to happen). How does one talk about the casting of a film in which most of the characters are puppets? “The manufacturing?” Whatever the vocabulary, the characterization is beautiful. With 20 years of characters to fall back on, it would have been easy to rely on established personalities rather than forge ahead into new territory, but here again we find the Muppeteer’s commitment to change.The three ghosts that Scrooge encounters work so well for their particular idiom that the idea of shoehorning Scooter into the role of the Ghost of Christmas Past seems perverse. Where Muppet cameos are used, the old familiar faces appear in ways that instantly resonate (Robin the Frog as Tiny Tim jumps instantly to mind, as do Statler and Waldorf as Jacob and the ingeniously named Robert Marley). It’s a clear indication that the Muppeteers are not resting.
Much credit must go to Brian Henson - Jim’s son - who picked up the reins and directed this film as his first feature. While it may seem strange to comment on mise en scène in a film that contains talking rats, it is an important aspect of what makes this film so well-crafted. The Muppets are always shot to fill the frame, a trend which would diminish with each subsequent Muppet film until (during the ghastly Muppet Wizard of Oz), the puppets are relegated to the bottom half of the screen.
Look at this frame from 1999’s Muppets From Space. That is 18 inches of wasted headroom. Perhaps it was the changing trends in aspect ratios that forced the Muppets into wider and wider angles, and that Muppet movies were meant to be seen in the old 4:3 home video format, but whatever the case, that the Muppets are treated with the same (sometimes more) care as the human performers speaks volumes about Brian Henson’s commitment to his father and his friend’s creations.
Just as Scrooge found salvation in his fellow man, so too the Muppeteers must have found solace in each other. When Scrooge is confronted by the regret of how he spent his younger days, and how the manner of his ways cost him the love of his life, he curses the Ghost of Christmas Past. She replies by saying “These are the shadows of the things that have been. That they are what they are, do not blame me.” Above all things, the past is unchanging and unapologetic, but the future (so terrifyingly depicted here) is mutable. Every year that passes is an opportunity. Jim Henson is gone and we cannot change that. What we can do is try our best to live up to his ideals and the ideals of this film; to make a positive connection with the people around us, and to revel in the togetherness of loved ones, whatever form they may take.
Andrew Root is a writer living in Canada, and a Senior Editor at Bright Wall/Dark Room. This piece originally ran on the site in 2010.