A Christmas Carol is one of the most adapted stories of all time, and even with decades of new takes on Charles Dickens’ classic tale to consider, it’s got a fairly high batting average on the screen. Sure, there are less-than-stellar versions, but whether you’re talking about the Rankin/Bass animated special The Stingiest Man in Town, Patrick Stewart’s TV movie version, or Alastair Sim’s classic take on Scrooge, there are a lot of can’t-miss Christmas Carols floating around pop culture.
Then there’s The Muppet Christmas Carol.
Brian Henson’s classic adaptation of the Dickens story, which turns 30 years old this month, is certainly not the first Christmas Carol to get a little irreverent with the material, nor is it the first to go a little more kid-friendly by adding lovable new twists on classic characters like Bob Cratchit and Mr. Fezziwig. But three decades and loads of internet love after its release, The Muppet Christmas Carol stands out as much more than an extremely accessible adaptation of a classic of Victorian literature. Thanks to the unique alchemy that comes from having the Muppets face off with a towering actor in this particular story, the film stands today as not just a great Christmas movie, but quite possibly the best Christmas Carol adaptation of all time.
Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol in part to address the plight of the disadvantaged, a cause near and dear to his heart for much of his life. He’d already made speeches advocating for the poor and working class around England, and considered writing a pamphlet to continue his advocacy, then decided a fictionalized exploration of the same themes might better serve the cause. So, A Christmas Carol was born through about six weeks of feverish writing and long walks around London, and an immortal holiday tale was born.
But despite its seasonal impact and enshrinement as a Yuletide essential, it’s always worth noting that Dickens never intended A Christmas Carol’s message to apply only at Christmas. The entire point in crafting a miserly villain like Ebenezer Scrooge was to highlight for his readers just how awful it would look if someone really was that cold-hearted and awful while everyone around him was happy, charitable and grateful. He wanted the contrast that the Christmas season brought to Scrooge’s demeanor to heighten the comparison for readers, so that he could then put to them a simple idea: What if the values we espouse at Christmas could apply all year long? It’s why, at the end of the story, Scrooge offers this promise to the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come:
“I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach!”
Which brings us back to the Muppets.
You have to work really hard to not like a Muppet, even if you’re not the sort of person who regularly consumes their adventures on the big and small screen. Decades after their creation, there’s an undeniable power in those eyes, those hands, the way they move like their joints only loosely obey the laws of physics. In the design, the performances of the puppeteers and the focus on individual characters, Jim Henson’s creations contain magic. It’s a power with such a hold that, even with Jim Henson sitting right next to him, Kermit the Frog is not a puppet controlled by a man. Kermit the Frog is Kermit the Frog.
Set against this near-unassailable, tangible warmth is Michael Caine, who told Brian Henson upon taking the role that he would be playing Scrooge dead serious, with no “Muppety” knowing winks, something which Henson had been hoping for from the beginning. It makes the immediate sense of contrast between Scrooge and the Muppet-filled London around him all the more potent.
Then there are all the other little flourishes, like casting The Great Gonzo as Charles Dickens himself, allowing for the usual sense of Muppets irreverence to permeate the story in a way that still appeals to lovers of the original text. When it came time to depict the Three Spirits, Henson and company opted not to cast recognizable Muppet characters and instead created new ones, adding to the supernatural flair hanging over the story. And beyond the Muppets themselves, everything around the characters looked, felt and was handmade, from the forced perspective London skyline to the goose upon which Rizzo the Rat does a little fire dance. It’s all very tactile, very in tune with its source material and very intent on playing up the contrast between this bright, vibrant world and the dark visage of Ebenezer Scrooge.
By placing Michael Caine’s Scrooge—a character willing to yell at a chorus of adorable rat puppets and throw them out on the street if the mood strikes him—in the midst of this world of wonders, Muppet Christmas Carol accomplishes two things right away which make it stand out even among other Dickens adaptations. On the physical, tactile side of things, embedding Caine and his fierce, unrelenting commitment to playing Scrooge in Muppet-land enhances the human quality of the whole piece. Kermit feels more real not just because he’s Kermit, but because he’s trying to be patient with this absolute monster who’s trying to make him work on Christmas Day. Gonzo’s story seems more earnest because when he narrates Scrooge walking around a corner, a genuine shadow seems to sweep over the set as Caine storms through the London streets. And of course, when Caine cries real tears while facing Scrooge’s own death, it all makes that much more of an impact.
But the impact isn’t just due to Caine’s commitment. By placing Caine alongside a series of affable, caring Muppet characters embodied by brilliant performers, the film highlights, underlines and bolds the message Dickens was trying to get across. If you enjoy this film, you can’t imagine being the kind of human being who’d walk around a world full of Muppets who just want to be your friend, sneering and shouting at everyone you meet because you’d rather be counting your money and sulking alone in your house. Therefore Scrooge’s standoffish nature, and the way he stands out among his co-stars, is heightened, but thanks to Caine’s performance it never becomes cartoonish. We can feel this man’s anger, his pain, his resentment of the world around him, a world he doesn’t understand and doesn’t want to understand. So when the turn comes, and Scrooge starts to see the light, we feel it that much more strongly. That the film then goes further to include Dickens’ message of evangelizing the values of generosity and goodwill all year long only adds to that feeling, that extra punch brought on to by the brilliant juxtaposition of Brian Henson’s adaptation.
So, as you settle in for your annual Muppet Christmas Carol viewing, bear in mind the possibility that the warm, fuzzy feeling you get from the film, that feeling that lingers in your heart all December, isn’t just due to the presence of the Muppets. It’s there because the film is truly, right down to its soul, made in the spirit of the classic which inspired it—and made very, very well.
Matthew Jackson is a pop culture writer and nerd-for-hire who’s been writing about entertainment for more than a decade. His writing about movies, TV, comics, and more regularly appears at SYFY WIRE, Looper, Mental Floss, Decider, BookPage, and other outlets. He lives in Austin, Texas, and when he’s not writing he’s usually counting the days until Christmas.