Magic in the Air: The Muppet Christmas Carol at 30

"A blue, furry Charles Dickens who hangs out with a rat?” —Gonzo the Great and Rizzo the Rat narrate The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992).
"A blue, furry Charles Dickens who hangs out with a rat?” —Gonzo the Great and Rizzo the Rat narrate The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992).

As The Muppet Christmas Carol turns 30, the brains and hearts behind the festive Dickens adaptation—director Brian Henson, composer Paul Williams and Gonzo the Great’s personal assistant, Dave Goelz—share personal memories of their creation.

We’re all lost, just huddling here. The Muppets is a huddle, you know? It’s a huddle to protect us from all the things we don’t know that scare us.

—⁠Dave Goelz, puppeteer

“At the time, we were very concerned,” says Brian Henson, pensively. “‘We’re going to do a classic story, but we’re not going to parody it. It’s going to be funny, but not laugh-out-loud funny.’ That was breaking all the rules of a Muppet movie. You’re saying it felt like the stars aligned?” he asks. “It felt like, ‘Holy cow, is this gonna work?’”

Over the past thirty years, The Muppet Christmas Carol has baked itself into the seasonal screenscape of many a festive household. It’s nestled in Letterboxd’s top rated festive films of all time, and sits snug among our highest-rated, obsessively rewatched films of the pandemic. As serial rewatcher Demi Adejuyigbe writes in one of many Letterboxd reviews, “I love this movie as a Christmas film not just because it’s directly related to Christmas, but because filmmaking is my favorite thing in the world and the greatest gift I have ever received and The Muppets always remind me that filmmaking can be just so magical.”

There’s no doubt that Kermit the Frog’s presence in Dickensian London now feels, as Henson puts it, “a warm and cosy fit”. But during production, this oft-gloomy movie concerned many folks expecting the Muppets’ trademark anarcho-vaudeville routines.

Let’s climb to the rooftops of Christmas Present—what a view!—and look back on the cultural history of what Dan calls “the absolute GOAT of Christmas movies”. What makes the Muppets ideal vessels for exploring Charles Dickens’ cautionary tale? How did screenwriter Jerry Juhl ensure the fuzzy cast would be more than mere mouthpieces for Victorian-era mores? With a backdrop of real-life loss, grief and remorse behind the scenes, why did Brian—eldest son of the Muppets’ co-creators Jane and Jim Henson—risk tanking the family business on such an odd bird in the first place?

“Because we didn’t have my dad anymore,” he says. “It felt like we needed to try something different.”

Muppets creator Jim Henson with Kermit the Frog in a promo image for The Christmas Toy (1986).
Muppets creator Jim Henson with Kermit the Frog in a promo image for The Christmas Toy (1986).

From guest spots on late-night TV in the ’60s through to primetime stardom on The Muppet Show, Jim Henson’s foam rubber weirdos earned their small-screen keep with a hearty joke-per-minute hit rate. Their first three feature films—The Muppet Movie, The Great Muppet Caper and The Muppets Take Manhattan—similarly adhered to the era’s conventional wisdom that comedies run on three laughs per page.

So in 1991, when Brian’s agent, Bill Haber, pitched Dickens’ haunting story—that of a flinty businessman taken hostage by various chaotic-good ghosts who inspire him to renounce capitalism—as fodder for the Muppets’ next big gig, the 27-year-old effects whiz was unconvinced. A Christmas Carol was already one of the most adapted works for screen, with at least 47 versions predating Henson’s take. What’s more, this would mark the first major Muppet production without the troupe’s visionary leader, save for a one-hour tribute special, following Jim’s unexpected death the previous year.

It was a risky proposition, but Haber, certain it would work, sold the idea to ABC as a made-for-TV movie. After some cajoling from Jim’s former creative partner Frank Oz, Brian agreed to direct. With Walt Disney Pictures signing on to produce it for theatrical release, The Muppet Christmas Carol would become Henson’s feature directorial debut.

Michael Caine, who plays Ebenezer Scrooge, with core cast players in The Muppet Christmas Carol.
Michael Caine, who plays Ebenezer Scrooge, with core cast players in The Muppet Christmas Carol.

“The idea [was to] take the Muppets and treat them like an ensemble theatre company,” says Henson, now chair of The Jim Henson Company. He worked closely with the film’s screenwriter Jerry Juhl, lead Muppet scribe since 1961. At first they planned to transpose the story into parody, as per the gang’s long-standing penchant. “We experimented all over the place,” he says. “Maybe Rizzo could be the Ghost of Christmas Past. Miss Piggy could be the Ghost of Christmas Present. Gonzo could be the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, with his nose sticking out of the hood. That would be fun, that would be a romp,” Henson spitballs. That was before they revisited the novella.

“Rather than let the Muppets ride roughshod over Dickens,” Juhl told Cinefantastique in 1993, “I went back to the novel and decided it would be rotten of us to belittle the quality of one of the greatest stories of all time.” Luckily, sincerity comes just as naturally to the Muppets as tongue-in-cheek satire does, and Henson knew they could do it “very faithfully, but make it comedic, at times, with the juxtaposition of the Muppets inside that story.”

The intention in every element—from the sets, costumes and color palette to the script, songs and spiritual pitch—was curated to contrast the idea of ‘Dickens’ (grim, dim, distinctly British) with ‘Henson’ (cheeky, yet sweet, subversively earnest). “By contrasting them, you make them belong together,” Henson explains. “Now you’re constantly looking at the differences, and that’s what makes it exciting.”

This contrast is personified, so to speak, by the eccentric daredevil turned learnèd cognoscente, Gonzo the Great.

The Great Gonzo as Charles Dickens, with Rizzo the Rat as himself. 
The Great Gonzo as Charles Dickens, with Rizzo the Rat as himself. 

With Jim’s passing and Oz stepping back from puppeteering, the troupe turned to a different leading Muppet duo from their stalwart Kermit-Fozzie double act as seen in films like The Great Muppet Caper. Cue Gonzo. From his opening scene, the mulberry raconteur affirms that, not only is he the omniscient narrator, but actually the Charles Dickens himself. To that end, much of Gonzo’s dialogue is lifted straight from the novella’s prose, which Dave Goelz, personal assistant to Mr. the Great since 1976, still finds “profoundly affecting”.

Given that Dickens’ story is often sombre and frequently chilling, Gonzo—hitherto a bit of a loner among the Muppet cast (girlfriend Camilla the Chicken notwithstanding)—got a wise-cracking sidekick in Rizzo the Rat. Working as a double act, their slapstick dynamic brings comic relief, warmly welcomed. As they tumble, stumble, soar, pratfall and catch fire, they fill the gap where Kermit and Fozzie’s antics or 20th-century celebrity cameos would typically go. Moreover, their metatextual observations about the story also position them as a Greek chorus of sorts: “The Marleys were dead, to begin with,” Gonzo opens with gusto.

“It’s a good beginning,” his rodent chum notes. “It’s creepy and kinda spooky,” drawing attention to their presence as rhetorical devices, which becomes a running gag.

Reporting on location from Scrooge’s dark night of the soul, they spar over the minutiae of plot points and motivations, winking at the audience with a postmodern self-awareness that’s quintessentially Henson. It’s irreverent, yes, but never condescending or reductive toward the source material or audience. In fact, having some familiarity with the Muppets’ pre-existing quirks, kinships and personal histories adds an extra textual layer to this cinematic trifle.

The Cratchit family, featuring Robin (left) as Tiny Tim with Kermit and Miss Piggy as Bob and Emily Cratchit. 
The Cratchit family, featuring Robin (left) as Tiny Tim with Kermit and Miss Piggy as Bob and Emily Cratchit. 

On recasting his father’s beloved characters into Dickens’ existing figures, Henson says the process was “quite liberating”. Certain swaps just write themselves: Kermit is an ideal vector for Scrooge’s gentle bookkeeper Bob Cratchit, whose name even has a similar ring. From there, Miss Piggy slots in seamlessly as Bob’s no-nonsense wife, Emily. The frog’s tenderfoot nephew Robin—sole child of the Muppet menagerie—comes pre-cut from the same cloth as Dickens’ diminutive Tiny Tim, who “gets thoughtful, sitting by himself so much,” maybe halfway down the stairs.

Young Scrooge’s jovial boss Fezziwig is a perfect port for jolly Fozzie Bear (whose Ma steps into the part of Mrs Fozziwig), while Bunsen and Beaker work flawlessly as a pair of charity collectors, since one of them, in the book, never speaks (admittedly, in the movie, he meeps). But there was one character who, despite being a certified grouch, was always going to be played by a human. Just as Gonzo and Rizzo are figureheads for the film’s ‘Henson’ sensibilities, so Scrooge—played with unwavering commitment by Sir Michael Caine—gives ‘Dickens’.

Beaker and Dr. Bunsen Honeydew with Kermit and Michael Caine. 
Beaker and Dr. Bunsen Honeydew with Kermit and Michael Caine. 

“From the beginning we thought, ‘That’s the guest star, like on The Muppet Show’,” says Henson. “It felt right because that character needs redemption. He’s a rotted soul, and it’s the Muppets, that energy, that’s going to bring him out of it.”

First published in 1843, Dickens’ story still hits because, for many folks, the prospect of family and colleagues trashing you behind your back is the stuff of nightmares—for Scrooge, waking ones he is forced to watch. But when your associates are the Muppets, who liken you to a cockroach and giggle at your demise? That’s a one-way ticket on the Ego Death Express. Still, it’s hard to pull off when your castmates are made of fur and fleece.

“I thought it would be difficult to block out the puppeteers but it has been very easy,” Caine told Cinefantastique during a set visit. Though he’d previously starred in Oz’s scam comedy Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, this was his first outing with the anthropomorphic animals, whose wisdom and acuity blur the line between human and other. “I’m sure the rest of the crew must have thought I was off my bleeding rocker when they caught me swearing at the characters and not the operators,” said Caine.

“I’m Michael Caine.”
“I’m Michael Caine.”

“I remember when they cast Scrooge, I thought, ‘Gee, Michael Caine is soft’,” says Goelz. “He doesn’t strike me as the Scrooge I imagine: bony, lean, self-denying. Yet he completely inhabited the role and changed my mind 100 percent. To see him at work was, oh, breathtaking.”

In an early scene, one of Goelz’s characters, Dr. Bunsen Honeydew, has a close call with Caine’s wizened miser. When the melon-headed scientist comes collecting for charity, Scrooge declares Christmas “harvest time for the money lenders” with a gleeful glint. “He’s almost licking his chops, ready to dig in,” says Goelz. “He added so much detail, but his approach was to handle it as a straight, dramatic piece, as though there weren’t a bunch of Muppets around.” (Upon being cast, it’s said Caine decreed “to play this movie like I’m working with the Royal Shakespeare Company.”) A wise choice, Goelz reckons. “It’s where all the integrity comes from.”

There’s nothing like a Muppet huddle to make it feel like Christmas. 
There’s nothing like a Muppet huddle to make it feel like Christmas. 

The name ‘Scrooge’ is culturally synonymous with selfishness and hoarded wealth: the guy is a cold, hard, carceral capitalist, at least initially. The pathos of A Christmas Carol—particularly this version, which curators at the Charles Dickens Museum believe is arguably the best—comes from picking at Scrooge’s misanthropic seams, unstitching years of loneliness, isolation and regret, dating back to childhood. “He hardened himself to survive,” says Goelz. “I think that’s a universal thing. Lots of people grow up in adversity, and they survive by developing armor. It’s very common, and something I’m familiar with, so it makes the piece more affecting to me.”

Back in the ’70s, when Goelz was new to the Muppet crew, he wanted nothing more than to sublimate his biggest feelings. “That’s what puppetry was for,” he explains. “To have to feel something was terrifying to me.”

An industrial designer by trade, he arrived at Muppets, Inc. in 1973 to help build puppets for Henson’s ever-growing empire of felt. He then operated a few background characters in TV specials before the role of Gonzo was foisted upon him for The Muppet Show’s first season. Goelz says the wide-eyed ‘whatever’ was originally conceived by Juhl and the writers’ room to be “kind of a loser who does awful art and thinks it’s high art,” eating a rubber tyre to ‘Flight of the Bumblebee’, that sort of thing. It took Goelz several years to truly unlock Gonzo’s essential nature. Inside, he is a flightless bird.

Gonzo the Great and his close personal friend, Dave Goelz. 
Gonzo the Great and his close personal friend, Dave Goelz. 

Juhl noticed this soulful shade in Gonzo as it grew throughout the ’80s. “He also saw me evolving in that direction,” says Goelz, close friends with the writer—referred to as “the real voice of the Muppets” by Jim Henson Company CEO (and Brian’s older sister) Lisa Henson—until Juhl’s death in 2005. By the late ’80s, Goelz had been in therapy for several years, facing the spectre of his own childhood trauma. “I noticed a real deepening and softening as I learned more about my life,” he shares. “I turned a corner, so I identified with this redemptive process that Scrooge went through. You realize, ‘Oh, I was reacting to my childhood. That’s taken away my freedom to write my own life.’” (Letterboxd member Ian has also noticed how Dickens’ story is “a perfect analogy for therapy”.)

“By the time we did Christmas Carol, I really wanted to do work that resonated emotionally. The things Gonzo gets to say are just beautiful,” says Goelz. “I watch it every time, and I’m broken up by it.” Likewise, it gave Gonzo the chance to leverage a different kind of canon and finally hit the cultural heights to which he’d always aspired.

Spending a whole career in one repertory group means performers—and, in this case, writers—develop a kind of brotherhood. The downside? “There are limitations on what those characters can do,” says Goelz. “As you grow as a person, your work is not necessarily doing that. Christmas Carol allowed us to do that, rather than being as silly as usual.”

The step towards darkness also made a sad kind of sense. Behind the Muppet Theatre curtain, a vital light had gone out.

Dave Goelz, Jerry Nelson, Jim Henson, Frank Oz and Richard Hunt on the job in the 1970s. 
Dave Goelz, Jerry Nelson, Jim Henson, Frank Oz and Richard Hunt on the job in the 1970s. 

“I think a year had passed since Jim died,” Goelz says. “Before it happened, it was unthinkable. I visualized us getting to 80 and jumping around, skinny, having the same energy we did when we were 25, because I didn’t understand how aging works. I didn’t understand that arthritis is actually a thing,” he stresses. “It was sobering—and yet, by that time, this felt like our life’s work.”

On 16 May 1990, Henson died unexpectedly, aged 53. That same day, the Muppets’ first-string performers—Frank Oz, Jerry Nelson, Richard Hunt and Goelz—gathered at company headquarters in Manhattan. “We were all just sobbing,” Goelz says. “We couldn’t believe that Jim had died. All day, the press was contacting Brian and saying, ‘What’s gonna happen? Are you gonna go on?’ So Brian asked the puppeteers, ‘How do you guys feel?’

“It was hard to think at that moment, because we were heartbroken. But essentially, we all said the same thing: it feels like our life’s work. If we can go ahead and do it without Jim, maybe that’s what he would want.”

“I was blessed to have a father the whole world loved,” says Henson. “When he died, and I felt awful, the whole world felt awful with me,” he jokes, but not. “I didn’t go through it alone.”

Arriving on the Christmas Carol set a year later, “the grief was still fresh,” Henson says. Exacerbating that first loss was the untimely death of another crucial performer, Richard Hunt, just a few months before production. Better known as the gang’s obliging tangerine go-fer Scooter, and the Electric Mayhem’s hippie-dippie lead guitarist Janice, “Richard was one of those wonderfully innocent, hilariously funny performers,” says Henson. He likens Hunt’s conviviality to the Ghost of Christmas Present, blessed with an “I’m going to keep filling the room and delight everybody in here” kinda vibe.

“Richard and my dad were part of that core group of people that defined the tone of the Muppets,” Henson continues. “We still had Frank Oz, Jerry Juhl, Jerry Nelson and Dave Goelz [so] we tried to keep the spirit of the Muppets despite the loss of those two very important founders.”

The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992) director Brian Henson on set with the Ghost of Christmas Present. 
The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992) director Brian Henson on set with the Ghost of Christmas Present. 

“There had been just enough time that we could go into the studio and be funny,” says Goelz. “But we also had a property that allowed us to be emotional. It was the perfect project at that time, and it came from a great piece of literature about transformation, seeking to be the best person you can be, making the world the way you would like it. All those undercurrents are a tribute to Jim and his way of being,” he says. Henson sees it another way.

“If you were doing a movie that really celebrated my father, it wouldn’t be A Christmas Carol,” he says. “It would be lighter, more absurd and outrageous.” It’s true that Dickens’ paean to metaphysical penance and radical wealth redistribution does stray from the Muppets’ preferred path of let’s-put-on-a-show frivolity. (Not to elide the fact that Jim explored all kinds of mature, confronting and esoteric topics beyond the Muppet mainstage. See: The Dark Crystal, Time Piece, The Cube.) But Henson Sr. also decked the halls of his filmography with holiday fare across his entire career.

One of the puppet master’s first TV specials was 1970’s The Great Santa Claus Switch. The rollicking family comedy features Ed Sullivan (on whose talk show Henson performed his fan-favorite reindeer sketch two Christmases prior) along with the debut appearance of Snarl, the Cigar Box Frackle, who’d later become Gonzo. The remarkable Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas followed in ’77, and its musical message of generosity endures, with a 3.9 out of five Letterboxd rating (Brian calls it “one of the greatest things we ever made”).

Emmett Otter and pals rehearse for the Christmas talent contest. 
Emmett Otter and pals rehearse for the Christmas talent contest. 

Emmet was tailed by John Denver and the Muppets: A Christmas Together in ’79, The Christmas Toy in ’86, and A Muppet Family Christmas ’87. The latter, Caleb says, is “the undisputed champion of holiday specials.” And the troupe’s yuletide gifts kept giving (albeit of varying quality) even after the Muppet pastor passed, with Mr. Willowby’s Christmas Tree, It’s a Very Merry Muppet Christmas Movie, and A Muppets Christmas: Letters to Santa. (“The Muppets really like Christmas,” notes Mark Kaiserman in his Letterboxd list of all the troupe’s festive films.)

“My dad loved holidays, but Christmas was his favorite,” says Henson. He recounts an old family tradition: dressing the tree with homemade clay ornaments, working alongside his brother, three sisters, “and my dad as the ringleader,” he beams. “He’d often get all the kids to do something weird and wonderful and creative, and he’d just be the conductor.”

The Henson family in 1977: Cheryl, Jane, Brian, Jim, Heather (on Jim’s shoulders), John and Lisa.
The Henson family in 1977: Cheryl, Jane, Brian, Jim, Heather (on Jim’s shoulders), John and Lisa.

As kids, the Henson siblings all contributed to the family business. It was often the best way to get face time with their workaholic dad as he hopped from set to set in the US, Canada and England. Brian’s first offering to the Muppet mantle was a penguin seen in Gilda Radner’s episode of The Muppet Show (its descendants would ice-skate through Christmas Carol fourteen years later). With a head for special effects, he worked on The Great Muppet Caper’s memorable bike scene, in which the whole gang cycles through Battersea Park, and wrangled the short-order rat chefs in The Muppets Take Manhattan—specifically, the one who skates on a hotplate using butter for blades. His first directing gig was on the TV series Mother Goose Stories, before he oversaw the second unit on Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

“I was very much in the animatronic, fantasy side of the company,” Henson explains. With further credits on Labyrinth, Little Shop of Horrors and TV’s The Storyteller, he admits that, when offered the director’s chair for Christmas Carol, “I didn’t consider the Muppets my strength in any way—and then you add music on top!” He stops short of borrowing Kermit’s catchcry, ‘Sheesh!’

“People always think, ‘Songs and music, it’s in everything Henson’,” he says. “It was in The Muppet Show and movies, and Fraggle Rock, but certainly not the fantasy stuff,” on which he’d cut his puppeteer teeth. Setting aside his trepidation about staging musical numbers, Henson had a strong instinctual feeling as to who should write Carol’s songs. Only, the guy hadn’t been working for a while. “His career had sort of done a nosedive,” Henson remembers. But, he was looking for a redemption arc of his own.

“The phone was not ringing,” says Academy Award-winner Paul Williams. “The career I’d had being the hottest songwriter in town was probably never the actuality,” he laughs, dismissing the #1 singles he wrote throughout the ’70s; his many Grammy, Golden Globe and Emmy nods; and his arguable magnum opus, The Muppet Movie’s Oscar-nominated soundtrack, co-written with pianist Kenny Ascher in 1979. Among its number of undeniable triumphs is Kermit’s perennial anthem ‘Rainbow Connection’, now preserved in the US National Recording Registry.

After spending the 1980s struggling with addiction, Williams entered rehab in ’89 and, in his own words—which are often as humorous as they are heartfelt—“I abandoned my career as an amateur chemist”. The first person willing to chance it on the newly sober songsmith was Henson.

“It’s one of those things the universe lines up,” Williams says. “Somebody who’s having a spiritual awakening, just grateful to wake up and feel connected to the world, is gonna write about somebody having the exact same experience?” Thirty years on, his awe is still audible. “I was just so thrilled to be working with my favorites,” he adds. “I have felt in my DNA.”

“Paul Williams” with Paul Williams on the The Muppet Show. 
“Paul Williams” with Paul Williams on the The Muppet Show

Williams was a devout Muppet fan long before he met Jim Henson in 1976. “Living on the road, always starting our day with Sesame Street, Bert and Ernie felt like members of the band,” he jokes. “When I finally went to England to do The Muppet Show, it was like, ‘There’s not a word yet for old friends who just met’,” he says, quoting from Gonzo’s Muppet Movie torch song, ‘I’m Going to Go Back There Someday’. “That’s what it was like when I walked on set and met all these guys who had the same playfulness, humor and edge.” These three tenets recur throughout Williams’ work, not least in The Muppet Christmas Carol.

He’s not sure whether he’d ever read Dickens’ novella before Brian called. “I probably told everybody I had,” he says. After talking with Henson, he immediately tracked a copy down and, shook by the way Scrooge’s quest for spiritual deliverance mirrored his own, set about penning his comeback soundtrack.

My dad loved holidays, but Christmas was his favorite.

—⁠Brian Henson

“My early sobriety was all about freedom and trust. I surrendered the white flag,” says Williams, waving one in mime. “The way I lived was much more open.” By 1991, he was actively fomenting his spiritual side, which flowed naturally into his writing practice. Settling down at a Brentwood park with a murder mystery novel and a dictaphone, he told the ether, “We have to write these songs. When you have an idea, let me know.” He read three pages and went, “Okay, wait a minute,” as inspiration rushed in on an extrasensory stream.

When a cold wind blows, it chills you, chills you to the bone,” he sings from the film’s opening number, ‘Scrooge’. “But there’s nothing in nature that freezes your heart like years of being alone. I was like, ‘Wow, you guys are pretty good,’” he chuckles. (Zā testifies: “I’ll listen to ‘Scrooge’ in the middle of fucking June I don’t give a fuck that shit slaps.”) Yet Williams denies any conscious hand in the writing. “The most beautiful thing about the creative process is when you can barely keep up with it,” he says. “It’s like, ‘Wow, where’s this coming from?’”

In this case, he adds, it’s Dickens.

Part of Williams’ creative process involves synching up with the story he’s writing for, tuning into the script, characters, source material, historical context. “Dickens’ language is the language of the piece,” he explains, and his lyrics certainly reflect that. “Look at ‘Marley and Marley’—a lot of that is right outta the book.”

Though Dickens only wrote a sole Marley—Jacob, Scrooge’s ex-business partner, seven years dead—Juhl gave him a brother, Robert (as in ‘Bob’, wocka wocka). On Christmas Eve they cross the veil to warn Scrooge, via their eponymous song, that his wilful prison of avarice and greed will doom him to a nightmare afterlife such as their own, dragging shackles forged in spectral regret. Who better to embody this heckle-jeckle duo than the Muppets’ resident curmudgeons, Statler and Waldorf?

“The great thing about having Marley and Marley, instead of just Marley, is that they become the footnote to the things they’re talking about,” says Williams. Indeed, the pair’s unsettling number is peppered with jibes and asides that echo their balcony banter on The Muppet Show, where their geezer schtick was honed by Henson and Hunt, now absent friends. Nelson and Goelz step in as Statler and Waldorf’s Christmas Carol conduits, making the characters’ manifestation as ghosts both diegetically and existentially eerie. The song remains grounded in one of Williams’ fingerprint motifs: ethics—how to be a good person in a world built by and for the wicked.

“I had a very strong feeling that the best songs for the Muppets had been in The Muppet Movie and Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas,” says Henson. “That sort of folk style works with the Muppets,” since their sentimentality—much like Williams’—has always been endearingly anachronistic. Unlike Emmet Otter’s old-fashioned Americana, though, A Christmas Carol is an indubitably British object. Did Henson hesitate before assigning the guy behind Bugsy Malone’s ragtime bangers, and the pop-rock pastiche of Phantom of the Paradise? “Paul has the ability to write a folk song that you can set in England and it feels English!” he enthuses.

Upon Christmas Carol’s release, critics derided Williams songs as clumsy, repetitious, pedestrian, unmemorable—terms that might boggle the minds of Letterboxd members like London, who says “Paul Williams music really does make this movie… That man is a god.” They could be onto something…

Ebenezer Scrooge meets Marley and Marley, aka Statler and Waldorf. 
Ebenezer Scrooge meets Marley and Marley, aka Statler and Waldorf. 

Before Emmet Otter, Williams had never written Americana. “I didn’t know there was an Americana,” he says. “I’d never really been exposed to it. And yet [those songs] are writing down the pike of that kind of music.

“I’m a big believer in old souls, multiple lives,” he explains. “I’ve always had this sense of a higher power, even before I got sober. There was a connection I couldn’t explain. So I sit down and I’m writing, When the mountain touches the valley, all the clouds are taught to fly,” he sings from Emmet Otter’s tender ballad ‘When the River Meets the Sea’. “I mean, that’s an old-world hymn.” It’s true—the song is less concerned with the special’s ostensible theme of Christmas; more with finding peace in death’s release before returning to life anew. “I think my roots are about things other than place,” he says.

On annual work trips to Ireland with ASCAP (the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers, for whom he’s president and chair), Williams finds himself slipping into the local accent within a week, “just by osmosis”. It’s a childhood crutch for the recovering “construction brat” who’d gone to nine schools by the time he was in ninth grade. “Wanting to fit in, not wanting to get branded an outsider,” he developed “a tendency to do that in a bunch of ways”.

As an adult, he says, “I drank and used drugs because it made me feel like a big deal. I was there and I could do anything. If you pare it down, keep cutting back, you get to where I was shipped off to live with my aunt and uncle when my dad died,” he says. He was thirteen then, but younger still—little more than a baby—when he was afraid he’d be given away to the garbage man. “Part of me probably drank to deal with the fear that I was in the way, not really welcome in somebody’s life,” a sentiment that conjures schoolboy Scrooge, spending his Christmases alone in an empty classroom.

Williams jokes about his “co-dependent anthems” and “Pick Me Up and Love Me, Mommy songs”, but one of Christmas Carol’s most moving and memorable scenes rests squarely on the resonance of his breakup refrain, ‘When Love is Gone’. Memorable, that is, for those who get to see it.

Paul Williams cameos in the 1979 television special The Muppets Go Hollywood. 
Paul Williams cameos in the 1979 television special The Muppets Go Hollywood

Written from the perspective of Scrooge’s erstwhile girlfriend, Belle, as she leaves the budding Mr. Humbug on Christmas Eve, the song is, in Williams’ mind, “the one that is absolutely key to explaining what Scrooge’s greed cost him.” It’s performed with aching anguish by stage actor Meredith Braun, who addresses apathetic young Scrooge (Raymond Coulthard) while Caine’s older incarnation—along with the Ghost of Christmas Past, Gonzo and Rizzo—watches on, helpless to intervene in or undo this monumental heartbreak. When he’s no longer able to suppress his silent sorrow, the graying Scrooge joins Belle in song: It was almost love, it was almost always. “It really wrote itself quite easily,” says Williams. “The very first thought I had was, ‘Almost’. The song wrote its way out from that.”

He adds: “And I’ve heard what Scrooge heard. I think most of us have. We’ve had that moment where somebody says, ‘This isn’t working.’ It can be a real heartbreaker.” It’s one of the reasons why the scene feels so brutally real. The other is the power of Caine’s performance. In an unbroken take that lasts an excruciatingly beautiful minute, Caine unearths the burden of Scrooge’s dormant grief and finally sets it free. “You can’t postpone caring,” says Williams. “You’ve got to care now, when it’s needed, when it’s necessary.”

“I’d like whoever thought it was a good idea to cut ‘When Love is Gone’ from the film to meet my good friend; Mr. Baseball Bat,” writes Lucy in her Letterboxd review. Well, look out Jeffrey Katzenberg, chair of Walt Disney Studios in ’92, who axed the song from the film’s theatrical release on account of it being unappealing to children.

“The task for the songwriter is to move the story forward and reveal the inner lives of the characters,” Williams says. “What was so discouraging about them removing that song was that there was a whole story point—why Scrooge was the way he was—that I felt it answered.” It’s true: nixing the scene screws with the film’s overall pace, pathos and payoff. Without it, the blue-sky reprise ‘When Love Is Found’, served up as the film’s finale, is criminally undercut.

Though sporadically found on some home video releases, there was a time when the scene was considered likely lost, as the film’s video master had gone MIA. Then in 2020, Disney archivists chanced upon the original negatives. Hallelujah! Restoration seemed imminent. The big announcement led Dylan to rightly wonder, “Why didn’t Disney+ bring back the song ‘When Love is Gone’? Why Disney? Why??”

Well, this year Dylan, Lucy, Williams, Henson and the rest of us get our Christmas wish: the uncut version is now streaming on Disney+ (click The Muppet Christmas Carol tile, go to ‘extras’, and there it is). 

But Katzenberg’s urge to trim the film’s most emotionally complex and affecting number illustrates a deeper issue that lingers in the pop cultural consciousness: the idea that the Muppets are kids’ stuff.

The Muppets crew never worked for kids, says Goelz. “Primarily, we worked for ourselves, because we had to be there all day. It takes twelve-hour days and more to make this stuff, so we might as well enjoy it,” he says. “We always worked for our own standards and made it acceptable for kids. Well, for everybody really.”

On the Muppets’ tonal tightrope act, he remembers something Brian once mentioned. “It was kind of beyond his years, cause he was pretty young,” Goelz recalls. “When something poignant happens, then something funny happens, it allows you to release emotion. You laugh and, next thing you know, you’re crying. It’s the mouse trap of emotion, you know? You get to the truth by catching people off guard. Just one little foot on that trigger,” he says, quickly clarifying, “I use Have a Heart mouse traps, by the way. That’s the trap I’m thinking of. They have a little trigger, the door shuts, and then I take the mice to a nice place with a lake.”

And, hopefully, cheeses.

Meredith Braun as Scrooge’s lost love, Belle, in the restored musical number ‘When Love is Gone’. 
Meredith Braun as Scrooge’s lost love, Belle, in the restored musical number ‘When Love is Gone’. 

On the one hand, The Muppet Christmas Carol is a timely maturation of the gang’s zany antics. On the other, its gravitas had already been steeping for years.

In their heyday, the Muppets mastered a mode of sincerity that spoke to all ages—an essence that Oz calls their “purity” (see: the gut punch of The Muppet Show’s ‘Time in a Bottle’ number). That honesty and integrity is especially effective in Christmas Carol because it acknowledges a painful truth that’s often socially shunned: the holidays can be sort of awful.

From the hungry mouse family huddled together in their hidey hole, to Bean Bunny abandoned in a pile of trash, shivering among discarded newspapers, Gabby respects the film’s inferred “anticapitalist messaging”. Clarisse calls The Muppet Christmas Carol a “Socialist masterpiece,” in which, Liz notes, “Kermit the Frog’s terminally ill child destroys capitalism.” How does he do that? By weaponizing sincerity.

Blending humor, heart and a proud outsider ethos, the Muppets playfully exploit a certain earnestness that, if attempted by humans, would seem cloying, bleak or forced. One instance of this is a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment in ‘It Feels Like Christmas’—a musical number that’s like eggnog for the soul, featuring the late, great Jerry Nelson singing as the Ghost of Christmas Present. As the gentle giant shows Scrooge how optimism blooms throughout the town square on Christmas morning, the mice family sit around a kitchen table, bare but for one plate of food to be shared among five. Through a hole in the bricks, skinflint Scrooge peers into the scene, incredulous, before a soft smile spreads across his chops. Even he cannot resist their pure charm, in a moment that Goelz calls “the magic of Jerry Juhl”.

Bless Paul Williams for gifting us an immortal line: “No cheeses for us meeses.”
Bless Paul Williams for gifting us an immortal line: “No cheeses for us meeses.”

You can’t postpone caring. You’ve got to care now, when it’s needed, when it’s necessary.

—⁠Paul Williams, songwriter

“Not a single bad bone in this movie’s body,” writes Shea, noting it’s one of the only yuletide films that doesn’t make him hate Christmas. Nor is Nora immune to its allure, posing the rhetorical question, “do you also cry when Beaker gives Michael Caine his scarf or are you normal”.

“That really is a super powerful beat,” says Henson. “Beaker is a quintessential Muppet because he doesn’t speak—he’s just purely soul. Him giving that gift to Scrooge is great.” Incidentally, the director pays all credit for Beakie’s gesture to Patrick Read Johnson, who pitched it during a script development session.

Henson says, for him, the prime example of this poignance is “when you feel that Tiny Tim has died”. And ‘feel’ is right, since Tiny Tim’s death (one of several that transpire throughout the film) is implied, not explicitly stated. In a subdued reconstruction of an earlier, cheerier sequence, Kermit/Cratchit arrives home on Christmas Eve, telling Piggy/Emily he’s picked a spot on the hill where Tim can see the ducks on the river. Yet the little one is nowhere to be seen. “It’s all in the subtext and performances,” says Henson (whose father has a memorial bench perched atop Hampstead Heath, dedicated to his “joyful life”). As the scene ends, the camera tilts up to find Tim’s wooden crutch next to an empty chair.

Even Scrooge can’t resist a marvelous little Muppety mouse. 
Even Scrooge can’t resist a marvelous little Muppety mouse. 

“Those grief-filled moments resonate very strongly, as they should,” for viewers of all ages, says Henson. “When Scrooge sees his name on the tombstone, it’s meant to be heartbreaking. Even though we had some fun leading up to it, when you’re there, it must be powerful.”

Scary even, he says. Like his father, Henson believes it’s healthy for kids to feel an abject breath on their neck every now and then, cinematically speaking. Alongside the film’s warm and festive fuzzies runs a river of uncanny fears. The darkest of these takes corporeal form in Scrooge’s final terrorizer, the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come.

Rizzo: “This is scary stuff! Shouldn’t we be worried about the kids in the audience?”

Gonzo: “Oh, no, this is culture!”

Sporting neither face nor voice, the greyscale spirit wears—or maybe is—a hooded cloak evoking Death personified. Made bespook by the crew at Jim Henson’s Creature Shop (an effects house specializing in more realistic visual trickery than its sister, the Muppet Workshop), the ghost’s presence turns the quaint and cosy Dickensian set, lined with adorably wonky little snow-topped cottages, into a German Expressionist purgatory. Its refusal to engage with Scrooge in any way besides ominously raising its index finger—a stark contrast to the prior ghost’s holly-jolly song and dance—is so unsettling that Gonzo and Rizzo abandon their posts as supernatural tour guides, crying, “You’re on your own, folks. We’ll meet you at the finale!” COBRA calls the spirit “an absolute soul-demolishing demon”. Phoebe says the film “should be categorised as horror”.

Bob Cratchit (Kermit) and Tiny Tim (Robin) in the Christmas present. 
Bob Cratchit (Kermit) and Tiny Tim (Robin) in the Christmas present. 

“So many great folk tales are very dark,” Henson explains. “The whole point is that there are things you need to be scared of. There are actions and thoughts you have to change because it can lead to really bad places,” such as your own gravesite, or a back-alley black market where cockney Muppets hock your still-warm bed sheets. “When things go wrong, it can be very scary,” Henson continues. “That’s important, and in a powerful story, it’s hard to avoid.” (That said, the Cinefantastique set report describes an early working model of the Ghost of Christmas Past. Not dissimilar to the final thing, it resembled a “realistic baby…with very wide eyes, swathed in chiffon robes.” Shot in the viscosity of an oil tank, its shawl wafted in slow-mo as its lips moved in real time, which proved too frightening, even for Brian.)

“Before we started shooting, Brian was raving about the ghosts that were being built,” says Goelz. “I said, ‘It’s astonishing that Scrooge creates these metaphors in his dream.’ He said, ‘No. No, they’re real ghosts.’ And I thought, ‘That’s the genius of Dickens.’ He could write something that was just ambiguous enough, you could take it either way. If you need ghosts, you get ghosts. If you need epiphany, you get epiphany.”

Goelz adds: “We create all these wonderful metaphors for ourselves in dreams.” He thinks the creepy catalysts for Scrooge’s self-improvement swell from deep within the old man’s subconscious, which makes it a truer redemption. “It’s off the nose,” he adds, meaning subtle, nuanced (perhaps subconsciously calling back to the curved beak of his indigo alter ego). “It’s hard to do something that’s open to interpretation, so that it becomes personal for whoever is reading or watching it,” he says. He’s never made it through the film dry-eyed.

Given his affinity to the material, does Goelz himself take heart in the spirit realm? “Our notions of ghosts are quaint relics we’ve inherited from our forebears,” he says. “I don’t buy into the notion that there are ghosts around. I’m just evidence-based.” He is, after all, a former engineer. “But I do relate to the spiritual idea that, wherever we go when we’re gone, we leave ripples, propagated by those who are alive. Anytime I lose somebody I admire, I resolve to include their lessons in my life,” he says. “I’m willing to accept that when we’re gone, we don’t exist anymore. Only thing that’s left is the ripples.”

A deep thinker and game conversationalist, Goelz starts pondering what exactly holds the fabric of the universe together. (His quiet but growing excitement on topics like quantum mechanics, black holes and the Big Bang taps, perhaps, into the same subliminal wellspring that feeds his Dr. Bunsen Honeydew.) “These ideas are very hard,” he says, existentially speaking. “We’re all lost, just huddling here. The Muppets is a huddle, you know? It’s a huddle to protect us from all the things we don’t know that scare us.”

Bless us all: Michael Caine, Brian Henson, the puppeteers, and all the long-gone storytellers—including Charles Dickens and Jim Henson—who still create ripples.
Bless us all: Michael Caine, Brian Henson, the puppeteers, and all the long-gone storytellers—including Charles Dickens and Jim Henson—who still create ripples.

There’s energy in our belief system, the film’s composer Williams reckons, “and I think we’re empowered when we move towards something that is good for somebody else. I get up in the morning and my prayer is simple: Lead me where you need me,” he smiles. “So my thankful heart was really easy to write about for Scrooge, and it gets more mystical the more distance I have to appreciate it.”

“God, I’m so lucky to be involved with all this,” says Goelz. “Every day, I’m thrilled. My life was headed in a different direction—I was gonna be in Silicon Valley—then I got obsessed with the Muppets and Sesame Street. I didn’t even think I could be a part of it, and yet it was like a tractor beam,” he laughs. “It’s epic to get sucked into this thing, to come under its force of gravity and find myself stuck to Muppet Planet. It was the greatest piece of good fortune in life, along with having children and a nice marriage. It’s an honor to be part of this group,” he says.

Goelz explains how, back in the mid ’70s, one of the first jobs Jim assigned him was to build a character called Nigel, host of the Muppet Show pilot Sex and Violence. “The first Christmas I worked with the Muppets, Jim made this little figure of Nigel and gave it to me.” He shows off the little tree ornament, handmade from baker’s clay. “Over the years, it’s crystallized and almost unrecognizable, but I still have that here,” he says. “Those things are more important than anything.”

If life is made up of meetings and partings, as Kermit/Cratchit observes, then thank your lucky stars for aligning in The Muppet Christmas Carol. Its story, though somber at times, may be divine providence.

…And if you like this, you should read the book.

The Muppet Christmas Carol’ is streaming on Disney+ and available to rent or buy on VOD platforms.

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