The Muppet Christmas Carol has gone from a modest success when first released in 1992 to becoming a holiday evergreen. It works in part as a surprisingly faithful adaptation of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, with the Muppets’ signature comedic mayhem as much a side dish as a main course. That makes it ideal for families in search of a gentler take on the story without losing its core: helping it go from afterthought to holiday staple in a snap.
A good deal of that comes from star Michael Caine, one of the few human cast members amid the bevy of frogs, pigs and little blue weirdoes. He plays Ebeneezer Scrooge, who, in this case, doesn’t seem to realize that he’s in a Muppet movie. Caine plays the role as serious as a heart attack and gives the film a vital foundation. As it turns out, the actor himself was dedicated to playing the part that way, which may be why the film is so beloved today.
The Muppet Christmas Carol Came in a Somber Moment
Among other things, The Muppet Christmas Carol was the first significant effort undertaken by the franchise since creator Jim Henson’s sudden death in 1990. In addition, performer Richard Hunt — who played Scooter, Janice, and Beaker, among other beloved characters — passed away in 1992. The film is dedicated to both of them and retains a somber air beneath all the frivolity. The pair’s absence is felt.
While there are plenty of opportunities for The Muppets to practice their usual brand of satirical chaos, it rarely comes at the expense of the story itself. Figures like Kermit the Frog and Miss Piggy play characters in the story rather than themselves (Gonzo narrates as Charles Dickens), and while they occasionally slip and reveal their traditional personas, they’re dedicated to “giving a good performance.” The movie’s songs from Miles Goodman and veteran Muppet collaborator Paul Williams do wonders in bridging the gap as well, allowing everyone to be suitably absurd while still bringing the story back to its heartfelt emotional beats. While all of this works in favor of the story, it is Caine who really lets the rest of the production flourish.
Michael Caine Played the Role ‘Utterly Dramatic’
In a 2015 article in The Guardian, director Brian Henson revealed that Michael Caine had no intention of giving a funny performance. “I’m going to play this movie like I’m working with the Royal Shakespeare Company,” Caine told him. “I will never wink, I will never do anything Muppety. I am going to play Scrooge as if it is an utterly dramatic role.” Henson enthusiastically agreed, and with the production more or less given the freedom to make its creative choices, it stuck.
True to his word, Caine does become an imposing Scrooge onscreen. He appears to view the Muppets as he might view less capable supporting actors: leaving them to tend to their own roles and staying resolute with his. It’s particularly noteworthy as Scrooge undergoes his famous transformation. Caine plays the sadness and regret of his wasted life with the same gravitas as his grumpy side. The production responds with new puppets as the three Christmas ghosts, who play their parts equally seriously and give him something to perform against. The rest of the gang is then free to crash against the walls without harming the story’s emotional honesty.
In the process, Caine becomes a strong presence to bounce the comedy off of: less a straight man than a firm connection to the original for the puppets to quietly parody. It proves an invaluable component to a surprisingly delicate mixture. Subsequent live performers in Muppet movies had more license to yuck it up — Tim Curry winks regularly at the camera during Muppet Treasure Island with no harm to the story — but A Christmas Carol requires a more careful approach. Caine provides it and then some, helping the movie become much more than a satire.