“When my father died there was a big feeling that The Muppets were done,” admits director, Muppeteer and son of Jim, Brian Henson, “clearly that’s what the industry thought.” The early Nineties were a difficult time for Brian, Kermit and the rest of the Muppets. Having been unexpectedly left leaderless in 1990, Brian, then just 27 years old, was faced with the daunting task of steering the Jim Henson Company forward with barely enough time to grieve. For the first time since audiences met this ragtag group of frogs and dogs, chickens and whatevers, their future was suddenly uncertain.
“The very day that Jim died, Brian asked if the performers could come by Jim’s apartment because the press had been asking all day whether The Muppets would go on,” recalls Muppeteer and Gonzo The Great’s real-life alter-ego, Dave Goelz. “He asked us and we all felt unanimously that it really seemed like our life’s work and if we could continue we would like to,” he tells SciFiNow. Meanwhile, Henson was getting encouragement from another movie house that would ultimately play a big role in the Muppets’ future, The Walt Disney Company. “Interestingly it was Michael Eisner who kept saying: ‘That doesn’t have to be true,’” says Henson on the advice he received from the then-Disney CEO, “he had faith that we could keep going.”
It was at this point that a bold idea was brought to the table from veteran Muppet storyteller Jerry Juhl. “A Christmas Carol was going to be a TV movie for ABC,” reveals Henson on the development of 1992’s festive classic, A Muppet Christmas Carol, “then the script came out really nicely and Disney was interested in trying to make it as a feature film.” Mixing a powerful literary classic with the zany, colourful world that Jim Henson had created was an idea that instantly struck a chord with the Muppet repertory company. “I really liked it,” says Goelz fondly. “The idea of dealing with a fictional narrative where the characters could play roles instead of appearing as themselves. I also liked the fact that it was classic literature and such an important piece of literature about the redemption of a man’s soul. I just thought it was wonderful,” he adds.
“We all got very excited about it,” agrees Henson, “but I was not going to direct it, I was going to produce it. I had my hands full just trying to run the company and get it back on its feet so I approached a couple of directors and they both said: ‘No, you should do it Brian,’ which at the time, I really didn’t feel that way,” he reveals. “I considered myself a director but it was definitely a big jump for me to direct it and quite honestly, I was kind of terrified and didn’t really want to do it. It was these other directors who I consider mentors who said: ‘No, you can do it and you should do it,’. Frank Oz particularly was very supportive,” remembers Henson.
Having accepted his role as director, The Muppet Christmas Carol began taking shape. “It was one of those things where everybody was very supportive and came together wonderfully,” smiles Henson. “Jerry Juhl’s script was wonderful so we all knew we had a really good take on the film,” he says. “It was really just a wonderful and happy experience. It was all in memory of Jim Henson so we were all doing as wonderful a job as we could for him. We didn’t know if we’d ever be doing anything else with The Muppets but if we were going to do this, we were really going to do it right.”
Juhl’s glowing script stood out by relying on sincerity in place of parody, and with Sir Michael Caine on board and approaching Scrooge with an air of authenticity, the film was coming together nicely. “Michael said: ‘I’m going to play this like I’m doing it with The Royal Shakespeare Company. I’m never going to play it for a laugh,’” remembers Henson. “He said: ‘If I do that it’s going to make the funny parts of the film funnier,’ and he was absolutely right. His performance was the rock that carries the movie.” That said, working straight-faced on a set filled with adlibbing Muppets is surely easier said than done. “Oh, he got cracked up for sure,” smiles Goelz, recalling between-take moments. “He was a lovely guy to work with. He was so prepared, always came on set and knew what he was going to do. He was a highly disciplined performer but also flexible. It was just nirvana. We had a great time working together.”
Guiding Caine’s Scrooge along the road to redemption was Charles Dickens himself, injected into the story with help from none other than Gonzo The Great. “At one point I think we had Miss Piggy being The Ghost of Christmas Present, Robin the Frog was the Ghost of Christmas Past and Gonzo The Great with a hood and a scythe was the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come but that never made it to a script,” reveals Henson. “At the time we were very concerned about performing Kermit and we were very confident of The Great Gonzo. We felt like Gonzo as a character on his own captures all aspects of Jim Henson. He gets emotional at times, he can be deep but he’s actually just in love with the surreal, the outrageous and the irreverent.
“Dave Goelz was and is still at the top of his game puppeteering and we thought if we need to de-emphasise Kermit, we should be emphasising Gonzo. It was Jerry’s idea to let Gonzo play Charles Dickens and that incredible prose that doesn’t make it onto the screen? We’re going to bring it into our movie,” he says.
“Jerry had seen me become more soulful,” suggests Goelz. “He had a tendency with Gonzo to incorporate my own evolution into that character and at the same time he was struggling with the script and wanting that Dickensian narrative prose to be present but not wanting a narrator. I think Gonzo was a bit more suited to play the role because I’d evolved. Twenty years before that I don’t know if I’d have been able to do Gonzo as Dickens as well as I did on this,” admits Goelz.
With the dark, Dickensian presence in play, all that was needed was a bit of Henson levity. “We came up with the idea of putting Rizzo in as Gonzo’s sidekick, so Gonzo can play it sincerely but has this ridiculous sidekick who’s going to keep trying to distract him and throw him off course,” laughs Henson.
Goelz approved: “You have this wise character who’s constantly being foiled by this little rat who isn’t paying any attention to anything,” he smiles. “It was just a lovely combination.”
By placing the omniscient Dickens on screen, everything clicked into place. “At that point we were going to take the movie very sincerely,” says Henson. “So that’s when Kermit became Bob Cratchit, which made sense. Cratchit almost sounds like a name a frog should have. He was the underdog for sure, he wants to look after his bookkeepers and his family. It all felt right. We thought we’re going to put Miss Piggy in as his wife which is going to throw curveballs at him because she’s going to be the one who’s constantly saying: ‘Why don’t you tell that Scrooge to take a hike!” smirks Henson. “It was the first meaningful thing we did where the Muppets were now playing other roles,” he points out, “I think my dad would likely have made a similar choice. It was also just a fresh place that we could go and we knew that the characters of the Muppets were so developed that you could be Kermit the Frog and Bob Cratchit at the same time, Fozzie and Fezziwig at the same time, Miss Piggy and Mrs Cratchit at the same time. All of that would work.”
And it did work. Cut to 2017 and The Muppet Christmas Carol has become more than just a staple of everyone’s festive viewing schedule – it’s the film that saved the Muppets. “Christmas Carol is, to me, the most profound piece of material we’ve ever worked with,” smiles Goelz sincerely. “It’s such a powerful story and somehow in spite of the fact that we have frogs and pigs in this thing, the essence of Scrooge’s redemption comes through. I’ve never been able to watch it without sobbing and I’ve probably seen it 12 or 13 times. I think Jim would be gratified by the whole project.”
Henson shares the sentiment: “I think it’s the most faithful adaptation, I do believe, ever. I think there’s more of Charles Dickens’ book in our movie than in any Christmas Carol,” he suggests. “We decided we’re not going to do a film that’s packed with cameos which is what The Muppets had always done in the past,” he continues. “Doing that was going to date it so we knew we had an opportunity to make an evergreen movie. When we decided we were going to give it a story-book look I think I knew that meant it would never look old because it doesn’t look like it was made in 1992 – it doesn’t look like it was made in any specific time – and that was deliberate,” admits Henson. “I think the reason why the movie resonates so well is because of the story. It’s always an important story to tell – the story of redemption – and with the Muppets telling it, they can do it in a lighter way so that the film feels like a celebration of life even when you have a story about death.
“How does it resonate with me?” Henson pauses briefly in contemplation. “Well it’s my first movie, so it’s extremely important to me there. It was extremely important for me to do it for my father’s memory as well and I feel like it was the success in the execution of that movie that gave us all faith that the company could continue,” he says earnestly. “Now almost thirty years later the company is continuing and the message of Jim Henson continues too.”
The Muppet Christmas Carol is available on DVD from Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment.