The Muppet Christmas Case

Hello Cassettes and welcome to season 5 of the Black Case Diaries! Did you miss us? We missed you.

This week we are kicking off the Christmas season with a special look at one of our all-time favorites! 

After the premiere of The Muppet Show in the 1970’s, Kermit and his gang cemented their status as pop culture icons. After the show’s conclusion, the Muppets starred in three successful movies, with more seemingly on the way. By the late 1980’s, Walt Disney Studios was even discussing the possibility of purchasing the muppet franchise from Jim Henson.

Then, the unthinkable happened. In May of 1990, Jim Henson came down with a rare pneumonia caused by the same bacteria as strep throat. By the time he was admitted to the hospital, the infection had spread to his blood. The beloved father, husband, friend, and creator was dead within 24 hours. 

Not only did this loss devastate his family, it sent shockwaves through Jim Henson Productions (now known as The Jim Henson Company.) Disney no longer pursued The Muppets, due to the uncertain climate of their parent company. The future of the beloved Muppet franchise suddenly came into question, and when it was time to decide its fate, everyone turned to Henson’s children; specifically, his son Brian. 

Brian Henson was named the new president of the company, and ambitiously sought out new deals with studios to make more puppet and muppet content. One of these deals was with Walt Disney Pictures, to produce a movie based on one of the most famous stories of all time: A Christmas Carol. 

Although the 28-year-old Brian Henson was an experienced puppeteer, he felt he wasn’t ready to direct the first Muppet movie after his father’s death. He begged others to direct the film, but ultimately the task landed on his young shoulders. Not only did he have huge shoes to fill, Brian  understood the gravity of The Muppet Christmas Carol. This film was a test, and its success or failure would determine if The Muppets would continue. It was also Jim Henson Productions’ opportunity to show Disney the value of The Muppets. 

So, this week we are taking you to a different kind of Dickensian London, where Bob Crachit is a frog, and Charles Dickens himself is a blue alien from outer space. Yes, it’s time to don our nightcaps and visit the past, present, and future of Ebenezer Scrooge in The Muppet Christmas Carol! 

CHARLES DICKENS’ A CHRISTMAS CAROL

  • Just before publishing A Christmas Carol in 1843, Charles Dickens’ publisher had lost faith in the marketability of the author. Dickens’ most recent book, Martin Chuzzlewit, had not sold well, and the book publisher felt that his next work should debut in an inexpensive collection or in a magazine. 
    • Dickens believed in his work, and was adamant that it be a stand-alone book. So, he agreed to pay the publishing costs himself.
    • After its December release, A Christmas Carol sold 6,000 copies by Christmas. It wasn’t the sales Dickens had wanted, but it was still a success.
  • Summary
    • In case you have somehow avoided this story, it follows Ebenezer Scrooge, a rich money-lender. Scrooge lives alone, dines in darkness, and saves every penny he has like a miser. When those that lend from Scrooge cannot pay, he puts them out in the cold. He does not listen to the cries of the poor, and he does not pay his clerk a fair wage.
    • Scrooge hates Christmas, writing it off as a silly holiday of frivolous spending. All this changes when Scrooge gets a Christmas eve visit from his old partner, Jacob Marley. This is strange, since Marley has been dead for several years. 
      • Marley appears in chains, telling Scrooge that he is doomed for eternal damnation if he does not change his ways. After this, Scrooge is then visited by three more ghosts, that show him the visions of Christmas past, present, and future.
      • The ghosts hold up a mirror to Scrooge’s soul, and the reflection is not flattering. He sees the man he was before, the childhood that formed him into a bitter adult, and a lost love that left him heartbroken. The final ghost leads Scrooge to his own grave, showing him that he will die alone with no love from anyone. But, it isn’t eternal damnation or the fear of being unloved that truly convinces Scrooge to change–though those were definitely factors. Most of all, it’s the fate of Tiny Tim, the innocent sickly child of Scrooge’s clerk. 
  • Cultural impact
    • Throughout his career, Charles Dickens was often concerned with impoverished children, and even helped charities that supported education for the poor. He devised the story of Ebenezer Scrooge to illustrate the dangers of apathy toward our fellow man. 
    • Charles Dickens is one of the most well-known authors of the 19th century, and A Christmas Carol is possibly his most-famous work. 
      • A Christmas Carol is a tradition so intertwined with Christmas, it would be hard to imagine the holiday without it. Dickens appealed to audiences with lovable innocent characters, like Tiny Tim, and showed how dangerous it can be to stop caring for those who are in need–and how those with the ability to help, should. He paired this message with elements of horror, hoping to shock the audience, and adding excitement to the story.
      • The story has lasted for so long, because the message will always be relevant, and Scrooge’s redemption is one of the most inspiring in literature.
  • Other notable versions
    • When producer Bill Haber first suggested the Muppets adapt the famous story, Brian Henson was hesitant because the story had been done so many times before. He was unsure how to make the muppet version stand-out.
    • As we talked about in our very first episode of our show, this story has been adapted to film possibly more than any other piece of literature. This version is among our favorites, which includes: Mr Magoo’s Christmas Carol, and George C Scott’s A Christmas Carol.
  • Why they chose this for the muppets
    • It’s always fun to see the muppets in a place where they seemingly don’t belong. This was only the fourth muppet film, and it was the first time the muppets adapted classic literature! Since the film needed to be a success, both The Jim Henson Company and Walt Disney Pictures decided that adapting a well-known story was the way to pull in more movie-goers. 

THE MAKING OF THE MOVIE

  • The environment at The Jim Henson Company was certainly fragile when production began on The Muppet Christmas Carol. Not only had the team lost their leader, but they were also shaken by the sudden death of Richard Hunt, another beloved Muppet Performer. Hunt had provided the voices of Scooter and Statler during his time on The Muppet Show, and tragically passed away in 1992 at the age of 40 from AIDS. 
    • As we said before, this was Brian’s directorial debut. Jeffrey Katzenberg of Walt Disney Pictures, recognized the sensitive nature of the project, and stepped back to allow the team to work on their production as they saw fit.
    • Michael Caine, who was chosen to play Scrooge, was actually surprised to learn that it was Brian’s first time directing, as he felt he was doing an incredible job.
  • Jerry Juhl
    • At the heart of almost every classic muppet moment, is writer Jerry Juhl. Juhl, if you recall from our Muppet Show episode, was one of the head writers for the muppets from the beginning, and he returned to pen this script as well.
    • The screenplay went through many changes. For example, the original plans were to make an uproarious telling of the Charles Dickens classic with well known Muppets playing all of the largest parts. Robin the Frog was meant to be the ghost of Christmas past, Miss Piggy Christmas present, and Animal as the ghost of Christmas that has yet to come. 
    • After entertaining this idea and beginning the script, Brian Henson began to feel that his father would have wanted a truer adaptation. Both he and Juhl decided to focus on not only being true to the original story, but on the wonderful narration that Dickens used, making this adaptation one of the most faithful ever created.
      • Ultimately, they decided that a human lead for Scrooge was best, as it grounded the muppets in a sense of reality. Juhl decided that for the first time, the muppets wouldn’t get introductions, and would instead appear organically in the story.
      • And, the most effective touch, was to have Charles Dickens himself be in the movie, reciting his own prose to the audience.
        • Because the muppets were known for flipping the script, the men chose the least likely muppet as their victorian narrator: a blue daredevil alien named Gonzo.
          • Once the team had Charles Dickens in the film, they were able to have 95% of Gonzo’s lines be taken directly from the original story.
    • Juhl balanced the film’s tone from scary to light-hearted, with the inclusion of witty dialog and signature muppet slapstick.
      • Juhl and the others working on the movie were always coming up with ways to make Rizzo the Rat “suffer” in comedic ways. Rizzo gets frozen, chased by a cat, and even lands on a burning hot turkey in a fireplace! 
      • Rizzo also voices some of the concerns that the filmmakers themselves had–for example, he asks Gonzo if this is “too scary for the kids.” Gonzo replies, “Nah, this is culture.” 
      • One of the most memorable scenes includes Rizzo, climbing a giant fence and jumping from it, only for the audience to find that he was able to slip through the bars of the fence the entire time. Gonzo shakes his head and says, “You are such an idiot,” which was something that Dave Goelz (Gonzo’s puppeteer) often said to Steve Whitmire (Rizzo’s puppeteer.)
  • Production
    • Production Design
      • The production designer was Val Strazovec, who would also work on Muppet Treasure Island!
        • The Muppets pose an interesting challenge in terms of production design. If you don’t understand how to set up a scene with muppets, they will all end up in the bottom of the frame and you can’t see the bottom half of the character, because often the characters don’t have bottoms at all.
        • Every set was built four feet off the ground, and Michael Caine had to walk on planks among the puppets, without looking at his feet. The floor was often added in post for most scenes.
      • Miniatures
        • In the opening credits we are given a view of the London rooftops. These rooftops however are miniatures, about 3 feet in height. As the camera pans backwards the crew would move buildings into the frame in order to have an illusion of passing through them.
        • The street shots had a tricky illusion to them as well. Although the set itself was pretty large, the buildings toward the back were much shorter in comparison in order to achieve a bigger looking space with forced perspective.
        • In order to shoot forced perspective, you have to move the camera parallel, and be careful not to turn toward or away from the models, or you will shatter the illusion. 
    • Special Effects
      • Often in movies with relatively low budgets, you will see the “rule of one” applied. This means, when an expensive affect is used, it will only appear once, even if the audience is meant to believe that it happens several times. Filmmakers will use the effect the one time, accompanied by a noise, and when they need the effect again, they just play that same noise without the visual, and the audience then uses the context clues to assume the effect happened again. 
      • There were many scenes shot in front of green screens, especially with the more magical muppets, so they could be composited in later.
    • Logistics
      • Most muppets are left-handed, because their puppeteers are right-handed! 
      • Most small full-body muppets are remote controlled, like the rats and mice! Any time a muppet is shot from above, the puppeteer’s arm is being hidden by the puppet’s body–these are the easiest shots to film.
      • There is one scene with rain, and puppets in the rain are always hard to shoot. Puppeteers are watching monitors, so it’s risky to use them with water–but they still did it because they wanted it to be the least romantic weather for Christmas.
      • A Christmas Carol can be a grim story, and Brian didn’t want to take away from its serious nature. But, he and the rest of the crew understood that they needed to balance levity with the darker imagery. Because of this, there are many scenes that were shot with two crews. One crew would focus on the main action of the scene, with the Scrooge narrative. The other crew followed the actions in the background, with muppet characters like Gonzo and Rizzo, which happened simultaneously. Scrooge’s story never stopped when Gonzo and Rizzo had the audience’s attention, which was effective in pulling the younger viewers out of the story and reminding them it was just a movie.
    • Location
      • In order to accommodate both people and muppets the film was shot at the Shepperton Studios in the UK.

THE MUSIC

  • The songs were written by Paul Williams, the man who also penned the songs for the original muppet movie! Brian Henson has said that he believes that Williams is the “most successful” muppet songwriter, being able to capture both the silly nature of the Muppets and their heartfelt moments as well. His lyrics are very sincere, and match the characters perfectly
    • The first song of the film, “Scrooge” sung by the muppet chorus, establishes the main character through every other characters’ opinion of him.
      • It was important for the audience not to see Scrooge’s face until the end of the song, after each character has painted a picture of him for the audience, “…there’s nothing in nature that freezes your heart like years of being alone. It paints you with indifference like a lady paints with rouge, and the worst of the worst, the most hated and cursed, is the one that we call Scrooge…”
      • The line, “Please sir, I want some cheese” was a favorite among children, and a reference to another Dickens work, Oliver Twist.
    • “Room in Your Heart” was a song performed by Honeydew and Beaker, that was ultimately cut from the movie as well, but can be found on the soundtrack.
    • “One More Sleep ‘Til Christmas,” had a lot of technically difficult shots in it, like Kermit’s hand locking the door, and Penguins sliding on ice. But the most memorable shot is of a full-body Kermit standing beneath the night sky as a shooting star passes. This moment was a tribute to Jim Henson, who had used a shooting star in the first Muppet Movie. Ever since, a shooting star has been a signature for Kermit, and one has appeared in Muppet Treasure Island and Muppets in Space.
      • The star happens to pass as one of the rats yells, “Merry Christmas!” and audiences often think the star is saying it instead! 
    • When Roger Ebert saw the film, his favorite song was, “Marley and Marley,” the tune performed by Statler and Waldorf as the two Marleys. The book of course only has one Marley, but having both characters added a special comedic dynamic to an otherwise spooky scene.
      • The muppets were covered in white powder, and filmed in front of a black sheet with their operators wearing black as well. They were then superimposed on the film to make them look transparent.
      • These were the only ghosts played by well-known muppets.
      • One notable line: “As freedom comes from giving love; So, prison comes with hate.”
    • “Bless us All” is Tiny Tim’s song, sung by the muppet Robin. This song is one of the emotional anchors of the movie, and when it is later revealed that Tiny Tim has died, you can hear its melody being played in the score.
    • “The Love is Gone,” the song sung by Belle when her and Ebenezer go their separate ways, was cut from the theatrical release and added back in for VHS and TV versions.
      • Henson said this when discussing the lost footage of When Love is Gone to the online site The Big Issue, “When we tried cutting it into the Blu-ray movie it looked terrible because you could tell we’d cut from high resolution to the original video release,” Henson added. “I’m still pressuring them to find it. They keep swearing to me that there is no way it has been lost forever, and I keep saying, ‘but it’s been 20 years!’
      • “They’re still searching. I call them like every month to ask if they’re still looking. One of these days they’ll find it.”
      • Katzenberg pushed to remove the song, because the runtime of the movie was a little long, and he felt the scene might bore the children watching, as there were no muppets. It truly was a shame, however, because Paul Williams brought the melody of the song back at the end of the film with different lyrics, showing the contrast of Scrooge’s change of heart. The ending song is, “When Love is Found.” 
    • “It Feels Like Christmas” was originally meant to show Christmas all around the world, but it became clear that they just didn’t have the budget for that. 
      • The song ends with a shot that reveals the forced perspective, and reveals the true size of the buildings. But Brian Henson liked the shot, so he kept it in anyway.
      • This is the last song until the finale, leaving the audience with a lot of happiness and heart just before the darkest part of the film.
    • “A Thankful Heart”
      • Shortly before Jim Henson’s death, songwriter Paul Williams started recovering from his drug and alcohol addiction. He was the oscar nominated musician who had written the iconic song, “Rainbow Connection” for the first muppet movie, and now felt that this career was over. That was until Brian Henson called him to write the songs for The Muppet Christmas Carol. Williams felt a special connection to Scrooge’s story of redemption, especially with the song, “A Thankful Heart.”
      • Williams was so grateful for his recovery, and opportunity to further his songwriting career. Later on, Williams told Vulture about the song, “There was a connectedness to the world around me, and a level of gratitude that, to this day, is probably one of the most powerful emotions I’ve ever experienced.”
      • Michael Caine’s imperfect vocals matched the now-humble Scrooge, and the song was a wonderfully sweet conclusion to the classic story.
  • The Score
    • The score was composed by Miles Goodman, who has composed for movies like Sister Act 2, Larger Than Life, and Teen Wolf.

THE GHOSTS

  • The Ghost of Christmas past
    • The Puppet for Christmas past was actually shot in oil and water. After a while, the puppet began to deteriorate because she was made of foam and other softer material. So, in some shots she looks much better than in others.
    • Jessica Fox, the young girl that voiced the ghost, did all of her lines in about one day. Brain Henson said that she was a natural, and read her lines perfectly almost every time.
  • The Ghost of Christmas Present
    • The book describes this ghost as gigantic, so he first appears to be massive next to Scrooge. The puppet itself was only about 6 ft tall, so they composited the character into the frame to look bigger in his first scene. For the rest of his screen time, puppeteers used the 6ft puppet.
    • One puppeteer walked around in the ghost suit, while the eyes and mouth were remote controlled.
      • Jerry Nelson operated the face while Don Austin did the body movement.
      • Nelson was one of the first puppeteers to join The Jim Henson Company back before The Muppet Show even began!
    • The Ghost of Christmas present only lives on Christmas day, which is why he grows old and gray before leaving–”Over 1800 of my brothers came before me” show many years of Christmas.
    • This ghost is where the movie differs in tone from the book. Originally, his scenes are much darker, and the ghost does not let up when Scrooge finally realizes that he cared for the fate of Crachit’s son. This is the famous scene where the ghost uses Scrooge’s earlier words against him, “well if he is to die, then he better do it and decrease the surplus population…” 
      • In the George C Scott version, which is more tonally like the novel, the ghost of Christmas present says, “…perhaps, in the future, you will hold your tongue until you have discovered where the surplus population is, and WHO it is. It may well be that, in the sight of Heaven, you are more worthless and less fit to live than MILLIONS like this poor man’s child.”
  • The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come
    • For his entrance, they filled the stage with smoke. They could only do one take, because the smoke was so thick, it would take hours for it to clear so they could shoot again.
    • With this ghost, Scrooge visits the Crachits once again. This time, the scene was written and filmed to be identical to when Scrooge saw this with the ghost of Christmas present–to further drive home the fact that Tiny Tim is gone.
    • The ghost is moving on a train track with the actor standing on a platform, and he was performed by Don Austin and Rob Tygner.

STARRING

  • Michael Caine as Ebeneezer Scrooge
    • Brian Henson said that Caine is one of those great actors that can lock into emotion in a scene.
    • He was their first choice for the role.
    • Michael Caine insisted when playing the role to act as though he was in the Royal Shakespeare Company working with real actors and not Muppets. His dramatic portrayal, while intimidating at first, brought Scrooge to life.
    • In an interview with Entertainment Tonight Caine said “I mean, people say: ‘Never make pictures with animals or children.’ They ought to try Muppets. They are the biggest scene stealers of all.”
  • The Great Gonzo as Charles Dickens
    • Both Gonzo and Rizzo are not meant to be part of the story, but at the end when Scrooge taps them on the head, it’s meant to signal to the audience that they are now part of the story, which brings closure to the characters.
  • Kermit the Frog as Bob Crachit
    • Rizzo the Rat as himself.
    • When we see full-body Kermit, 10 puppeteers would operate him.
    • This film is the first one where Steve Whitmire steps in to fill Jim Henson’s shoes after his sudden death. When talking about the movie Steve recalls being scared to take on such an important role, that means so much to everyone. He also described to The Guardian a dream he had before filming began, where he tells Jim Henson that he is nervous about taking over Kermit. In the dream Jim thinks for a minute and then simply says “It’ll pass.” 
  • Miss Piggy as Emily Crachit
    • They were worried that Miss Piggy wouldn’t really be able to pull off the role of Emily Crachit because she was supposed to be this perfect housewife, so the character does some very “piggy” things like sneaking some chestnuts and mixing up the names of her children. 
    • Frank Oz performed Piggy, as he had for years, and the other puppeteers like to make fun of Oz for the way he performs the character, which is why Belinda and Betina, the young pigs, shame Piggy for sneaking chestnuts
  • Fozzi Bear as Fozziwig, played by Frank Oz
    • Fezziwig is the name of the original character.
  • Statler and Waldorf as Marley and Marley, played by Jerry Nelson and Dave Goelz.
  • Robin as Tiny Tim
    • Jerry Nelson voiced Robin, who is Kermit’s nephew in the muppet-verse.
  • Bean Bunny as caroler, played by Steve Whitmire
    • When Bean Bunny was created he was meant to be so sickeningly sweet that the cast and crew loved to hate on him. He would be so cute and almost pathetic seeming that he would become a fan favorite. Muppet Christmas Carol is Bean Bunnies most well known appearance but has been in several Muppet shows and movies.
  • Rowlf the Dog as himself
    • Rowlf was Jim Henson’s character, and this was his first appearance after his death, so they didn’t re-cast. They just had Rowlf play piano in the Fozziwig scene instead, as a little nod to Henson.
  • Meredith Braun As Belle
  • Kristopher Milnes As the Young Boy Ebeneezer
  • Ray Coulthard As the Young Man Ebeneezer

RECEPTION

  • A Muppet Christmas Carol was a moderate success at the box office, despite being against Home Alone 2 and Disney’s Aladdin
  • The film’s earnings weren’t spectacular, but better than expected, and it was enough of a success to keep the Muppets alive! Many consider its seamless blend of humor and darkness to be the absolute perfect adaptation of the story, with just the right amount of Muppet Magic.

In the winter of 1843, author Charles Dickens paid his own publishing costs to prove to a disbelieving publisher the marketability of his work. One-hundred-and-forty-nine years later, a young Brian Henson used that same story to prove to audiences everywhere the enduring appeal of The Muppets. For Dickens, the sales were fine, but not spectacular. The same went for Henson. But, luckily for both men, success is not defined by money alone. 

Brian Henson and the rest of the muppet crew (Jerry Juhl, Steve Whitmire, Frank Oz, Jerry Nelson, Dave Goelz and others) were able to carry on the dream of their late friend; a dream that almost certainly would have fizzled out, if not for their dedication and ambition. A Muppet Christmas Carol is a classic, filling homes with laughter and light every holiday season, while carrying on the same important message that Charles Dickens put to paper 177 years ago. 


Sources:

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s