Ranking Every Muppets Christmas Special and Movie and For Meredith Braun, who played Scrooge’s once-fiancé Belle in the film, this annual tradition is never something she anticipated.
“It just never occurred to me. I’m a bit like that goldfish going round being constantly surprised by it, which is just lovely,” Braun says. “It’s gorgeous, how can you not love being associated with the Muppets? I’m just really proud of it. I took it very seriously doing it but it was a delight, it was just a pleasure. And how often can you say that of anything in life?”
For the film’s director Brian Henson, the emotions around the film are slightly more complex. When I ask him whether it’s a lovely piece of work to look back on at this milestone anniversary, he says: “Yeah, I guess.
“Except I also feel it’s quite possibly the best thing I ever did. And so when you’re 59 years old, and you go, ‘gosh, the best thing I ever did was when I was 28’, it’s a little weird. I’ve done a lot of other really good things that I’m proud of as well, but maybe none that I’m as proud of as Christmas Carol.”
Braun and Henson are both speaking with RadioTimes.com exclusively over Zoom to mark this special occasion, giving us all the insights that come with 30 years of rewatches and ruminations.
So, let’s take this back to the beginning. I ask Henson where the idea for the film first came from, for which he is only too happy to admit the credit lies elsewhere.
“Well, to be perfectly honest, it was my agent’s idea, Bill Haber,” he admits. “He said, ‘Oh, The Christmas Carol with the Muppets would be fantastic’. And I think at first I was like, ‘Oh, but it’s been produced so much’. It’s probably the most produced story in film, and I was a little bit worried.”
Henson continues: “And then Jerry Juhl [screenwriter] and Alex Rockwell, who was head of development for me, we got together and started hashing it out. Initially, it was a TV special, so we thought it would maybe be a parody of the Christmas Carol, and then we thought, ‘oh no, Christmas Carol is way too good to parody, so we really need to do it properly’.
“By the time Jerry wrote the first draft we knew this was really going to work wonderfully well. And then it moved to Disney. Disney got a hold of the script because somebody snuck it to them, and Disney said ‘don’t do this for TV, let’s do it as a movie’, which was super exciting.”
So what was it that made this movie such a surefire hit from the off?
Henson explains: “In The Great Muppet Caper, [the Muppets] were playing parts in a movie, but they weren’t really, they were really just themselves. And I think when we realised if we really committed to the Muppets really playing their roles in the story, that they could actually do it very faithfully but in a Muppety way.
“So they could do all of the Dickens dialogue, we didn’t have to alter it very much at all. And I know some people say The Muppet Christmas Carol is the most faithful adaptation because it has Charles Dickens doing all of his prose in and around the scenes. It was clear that it was going to be a whole new tone for the Muppets, but we felt like it was gonna work.”
However, it seems that not everyone agreed – a feeling which ultimately led to a certain cut song which we’ll talk about later.
“Disney, I think, wanted it to be funnier, funnier, funnier,” says Henson. “The Muppet movie formula was ‘be very funny, tell two jokes a page’, the old school comedy formulas, and we really veered from that. We actually told the story dramatically – it’s a drama, The Muppet Christmas Carol, with wonderfully humorous moments in it and wonderfully humorous characters, but the scenes aren’t designed as comedic.”
Once the movie was up and running, it was time for casting. Braun was cast in the role of Belle when she was 19 and performing in Les Misérables in London as Éponine. When the opportunity to audition for the film came up, she was elated.
“I’m such a big fan of the Muppets,” she says. “As a child growing up, every Sunday night in New Zealand, I remember at 6:30 or something like that was The Muppet Show. And I was just the biggest fan.”
The audition process was “very, very simple”, and the subsequent shoot “really lovely”. She didn’t have to take much time off from Les Mis. In fact, Braun remembers going daily “from the happiness of the Muppets to kind of the unbelievable angst and dying with blood all over me every night in Les Mis.”
During the days she would be in Muppet land, or certainly the Muppets’ version of Dickensian London. I wanted to delve deeper into just what it was like on those sets in 1992.
First and foremost, the look of the sets was created by Val Strazovec, the film’s production designer who pushed for them to be created using force perspective, so the locales look far bigger than they really are.
“If you walk down the street in Muppet Christmas Carol, in 60 feet the building next to you is now eight foot tall and it’s a three story building,” says Henson. “So it’s force perspective everywhere, which is sort of old school filmmaking in a lovely way. That whole look was Val, and then the enormous talent of British art departments in general.”
Then, in a practice used consistently by Muppets creator Jim Henson, the sets on which the actors shot were raised. This meant the puppeteers could be stood up and operating their characters to full effect from below.
Henson explains: “Raising the sets is something that my dad had always done, because a puppeteer standing under a puppet can do a much better performance than a puppeteer sitting on the ground on a little chair and trying to roll around.
“I was very old school about that, I almost never let a puppeteer sit on the floor, I would always take the extra time to pull up a section of the platform and let them stand underneath.”
Braun recalls how this practice meant that in between takes when shooting Fozziewig’s Christmas party, she would talk idly not with the puppeteer, but with Fozzie Bear, now out of the Fozziewig character.
She explains: “The puppeteer didn’t come into it, it was Fozzie the actor, who then when the cameras started rolling again would go back into being Fozziewig. That was a really weird experience.
“I mean, being an actor I kind of accept that as normal, but what was weird was having grown up with [the Muppets] and then wearing a fairly low cut top and sort of flirting with Fozzie in between shots. It never occurred to me to talk to the puppeteer.
“It was disturbing to flirt with Fozzie because I’d grown up as a child knowing him. But of course, Fozzie’s ageless… I don’t even want to get into that now, it was very odd. But they were so serious about it, they were actors, just as Michael Caine was.”
Ah, Michael Caine. For an actor so prolific and so acclaimed, it’s perhaps unfathomable that one of his most lasting and beloved performances would be in this film. Yet the depth of emotion he brings to the role, and the gravitas and weight he grants the film are what have sustained it all these years.
For Henson, Caine’s casting was one of the key components which made the movie’s disparate parts and melding of tones fit together.
He explains: “The entire film is the contrast of Charles Dickens and Jim Henson, and the character of Scrooge was going to be leading the charge of Dickens and the character of Bob Cratchit was going to be leading the charge of Jim Henson.
“The whole movie was going to be that contrast – you feel it in the scoring, in the lighting, in the production design, it’s all the contrasting of Dickens and Henson. And we knew that we needed an actor who was a skilled comedian, to understand that the dynamic would work if they played it straight.”
Enter Caine, an actor who had previously switched between comedies such as The Italian Job and Alfie, and more dramatic pieces such as The Ipcress File and A Bridge Too Far. From their first meeting, Henson knew that Caine just got it.
“It was one of the first things he said to me the first time we met, he said ‘I’m going to play this utterly, utterly straight’. And I was like, ‘yes, that would be great’,” explains Henson. “Because up until Muppet Christmas Carol, actors in Muppet movies were mostly cameos AND it was an opportunity for them to do things a little bit outrageous and to tell big jokes. And it was terrific that he got it – he got how this was going to work.”
So what was it like working with him from an actor’s perspective? “Just lovely,” says Braun. “I’ve never seen somebody cry instantly like that, he’s a genius, and he was a gentleman.”
Given how seriously Caine wanted to play the role, did he go full method Scrooge on set? “He wasn’t overly serious no, just absolutely professional,” says Braun. “You know when you need to be quiet, to concentrate, focus, to give someone space to get into the right place for what they’re doing.”
She continues: “He was just respectful and it’s his professionalism and experience that shows, but he certainly wasn’t overbearing or taking himself too seriously, not at all.”
Ah, but cover your eyes, Michael – you might not want to read this next part.
“I think I was more starstruck by the Muppets to be completely honest,” says Braun. “And Miss Piggy is not a diva. She doesn’t deserve the reputation, she’s really not a diva at all.”
Of course, another aspect of the production we have to mention, something which has most definitely helped to secure the film’s legacy, is it’s toe-tapping, ear-wormy songs.
I’m aware when asking that this must be like choosing between your children, but I have to ask Henson – which is his favourite?
Henson is conflicted, yet candid: “I guess it’s the Ghost of Christmas Present song, It Feels Like Christmas. It Feels Like Christmas I think is probably the most uplifting song. But One More Sleep Till Christmas – Kermit’s song – is fantastic as well.”
The music was written by Paul Williams, known for composing the score to Bugsy Malone and writing the lyrics to Evergreen, the love theme from Barbara Streisand’s A Star is Born.
Hiring Williams was “sort of a no-brainer for me,” says Henson. “I couldn’t understand why my father had only done two projects with him because I just felt like Paul Williams’ songs in Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas and the first Muppet movie are unbelievably powerful, and so well-suited to the Muppets.”
He continued: “He’s mostly a folk songs writer, which is an odd mix to stick into Dickensian London, but again, I thought ‘this is really going to work because Paul Williams’ songs will be that Jim Henson side versus Miles’ scoring of the rest of the scenes which are very dramatic and very Dickensian.”
As it turns out, Henson also believes the film took on an extra layer of significance for Williams.
Henson says: “Paul had had a few bad years – he’d gone off the rails and had become an addict, and had only just recovered. And it turned out that was probably why my dad had not been working with him, because his life had gone in a dark direction.
“But this was his first project after getting over his addictions and it was wonderful because it’s a movie about redemption, and Paul felt like in his life he was looking for redemption. And so it touched him very deeply and it became a very important project for him.”
Of course one of the songs we haven’t yet mentioned is When Love Is Gone, Braun’s big moment which for many years was cut from most versions of the film. This was due to a deal made between Henson and producer Jeffrey Katzenberg, who wanted the song cut from the theatrical version, but agreed that it would remain on the video release.
Henson and Braun both recount to me separately the story that Katzenberg also wanted Part of Your World cut from The Little Mermaid.
Henson explains: “You could tell, he was just somebody that didn’t think movies needed a love ballad, because it bores little kids. And it does, it bores them. And so in the test screening when I was showing the movie, Love Is Gone would start up and the kids wanted to use the bathroom.
“So Jeffrey just wanted Love Is Gone cut out for the theatrical version. That was the agreement, that only in the initial theatrical release will the song be gone, and from then on the movie will always have the song in. And then Disney lost the negative and that created this big old upheaval.”
Henson reveals it was one of, if not the only scene which ended up on the cutting room floor. “I was so young and inexperienced, I didn’t shoot extra scenes,” he explains. “I had Jerry’s script, I had input into the rewrites but once I had the script, we didn’t change anything on set.
“There wasn’t improvising that was going on, there might have been improvising in terms of physical comedy and stuff like that, but not really on dialogue or anything. So that’s really the only scene that was lost.”
Ever since the scene was lost, Henson has publicly called and battled for it to be found and reinstated. The fight paid off, as in 2020 the lost piece of film was found. This year is the first time fans will be able to stream the full-length cut on Disney Plus.
Henson’s passion to restore the lost song and his fight for its inclusion in the first place has not gone unnoticed by Braun, who remembers him sending her a letter after the decision had been made.
She explains: “I remember not being that bothered, which is really funny, because to me it was a couple of weeks of a really nice job, and then I went back into Les Mis. I knew it was still on a video and it still existed, so I was kind of like, ‘OK cool, fine, whatever’.
“But he obviously understood the implications more than I did because he was really lovely about it, saying ‘I’m fighting, it’s going to stay in there and it’s essential to the storytelling’; which, of course, it kind of is. In terms of storytelling, it’s really important.”
So how does Braun feel about the restored version of the film (which is available in the Extras section of Disney Plus now) and the efforts made throughout the years to see her big moment back on screen?
“I know that there were these campaigns through the years,” she says. “I’m not much of a social media kind of person, but that was so funny. So thank you, Brian, for finding it and putting it back in, we will be sitting down and watching it, probably with some sloe gin and something – roast potatoes.”
Thirty years. For a film to be watched year on year for that long is quite an achievement, especially when love for it, particularly among young viewers, seems to continue to grow.
Braun released an album in 2017 titled When Love Is Gone, which features a new version of the song – she certainly still holds that tune very close to her heart. But how about the film as a whole and, that all important question, how does it rank alongside other Christmas films?
“I like Arthur Christmas, I love that one. But it’s got to be the top one though, hasn’t it? I watched it last Christmas again, for the first time in a while, and it’s really good!
“It’s been a gift for me, it’s been the gift that just carries on giving. My children have grown up with it too and I just find it so funny. I’m very, very happy to be known for that and I’m just really grateful to Brian and Paul for casting me and that it’s part of my life.”
And what about for Henson? As noted above, his response looking back isn’t one of absolute, unadulterated joy. There’s a complicated mix of emotions in there, but when it comes down to it, it seems that the film still holds a special place in his heart.
He says: “Do I have fond memories looking back? Absolutely. Was it a rewarding experience making it? Yes. Was it terrifying? Absolutely, it was terrifying to me.
“I was 28 and I was helming a Muppet movie after my dad died, and the press, the world in general thought ‘you can’t do Muppets anymore without Jim Henson’. So it was a scary time, but also ultimately very rewarding.”
Ranking Top 3 Muppets Christmas Special and Movies
3. Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas (1977)
Centering a whole Christmas special around a widow and her son barely scraping by in poverty can be hard to get through, even if they are adorable otter puppets. We get a quaint and heartwarming little story here, but one that I can’t really sit through every single Christmas. Well, maybe if you just skip right to the talent show when things start to pick up.
The story here is that Emmet and his mother are poor and while they work jobs fixing stuff up and doing laundry respectively, others take advantage of them and they’re having trouble scraping by. The fact that Christmas is coming adds a magnifying glass to this. There’s a talent show coming up with a huge grand prize of $50 and both Emmet and his mother secretly intend on competing.
From there, it becomes kind of a selfish, gambling version of Gift of the Magi. Emmet ruins Ma’s washtub to create an instrument and Ma sells Emmet’s toolbox for flashy dress material. It’s depressing enough that you know it probably won’t end well, but it’s also a Christmas story, so it probably will.
In the end, it’s a charming little special that has some great sets and props that make up its environment. More than anything, it teaches us all the true meaning of Christmas: a pretty girl dancing to jug-band music.
2. A Muppet Family Christmas (1987)
A Muppet Family Christmas was too beautiful for this world. Legally. Stupid rights issues.
This is the ultimate Muppet crossover, but in the form of a casual Christmas get-together. The Muppets decide to crash at Fozzie’s mom’s place for Christmas unannounced, not realizing that she’s renting the place out to Doc from Fraggle Rock. More Muppets appear, the cast of Sesame Street join the festivities, they watch live-action footage of Muppet Babies, and not only do the Fraggles show up, but so does Uncle Traveling Matt (with zero explanation).
There are some minor plot threads mixed throughout. Miss Piggy is stuck in a blizzard, Swedish Chef tries to cook Big Bird, Fozzie doing comedy with a living snowman, and Doc gradually warming up to all these weirdos. Really, it’s the crossover aspect that brings a lot to the table, as we see Oscar the Grouch pal around with Rizzo, Animal become infatuated with Cookie Monster, and an absolutely hilarious moment where Doc first meets Ernie and Bert.
Things get wrapped up so early that the last ten minutes of the special is just dedicated to Muppets singing as many Christmas carols as they can come up with. Fittingly, the Count gets to sing, “I Saw Three Ships,” because of course he does.
1. The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992)
Really, it just had to be this one. As the first Muppet movie after Jim Henson’s passing, this one proved that his work could live on and thrive without him. Even with the pratfalls and humor, the whole thing takes itself seriously just enough that it hits the right balance. Yes, we get to constantly watch Rizzo fall from great heights or get horribly burned, but at the same time, Michael Caine is acting his ass off. Hell, Kermit plays it completely straight the entire time too!
There’s even brilliance in making the three ghosts Muppets, but not established Muppets. While I would have loved Lew Zealand as the fish-throwing Ghost of Christmas Past, I’m way happier with the creepy and ethereal child spirit giving Scrooge all the feels. The Braun Strowman Ghost of Christmas Present isn’t so bad either.
The Muppet Christmas Carol is available to stream on Disney Plus now.
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