Christmas is just around the corner, and you’re probably catching up on some old and new favorite films about the holidays. Among your viewings of A Christmas Story, Die Hard, and Gremlins, maybe you picked up a copy of The Muppet Christmas Carol, which has recently had a 20th anniversary Blu-ray release.
This repackaging of the 1992 holiday classic includes a commentary track by Brian Henson as well as a new commentary by the Muppet characters themselves. One is more technical, and the other is more silly, but together they give a nice look at the making of one of the more faithful-yet-original adaptations of the Charles Dickens book.
And on to the commentary…
The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992)
Commentators: Brian Henson (director), Kermit the Frog, Gonzo the Great, and Rizzo the Rat
1. This was the first Muppet movie to be made after Jim Henson’s death, and the film is dedicated to both him and Richard Hunt, who recently passed away before its release. Kermit points out the dedication at the beginning of the film and says, “Here’s comes a very special tribute to two of my best friends ever. Jim Henson and Richard Hunt. We really miss you guys.”
2. The London rooftops seen in the opening credits were all models that stood approximately three feet tall. The opening shot was photographed at one or two frames per second, and as the camera pulled back, crew members pushed other buildings into the frame to achieve the effect or passing right through the rooftops.
3. Kermit is quick to point out the Piggy is his wife only in the movie: “In. The. Movie.”
4. Kermit admits that he has no idea what a Line Producer does.
5. Early on, Kermit explains that Michael Caine will no longer return his calls. Later, Gonzo explains this is probably because Rizzo stole Caine’s Rolls Royce after the production and never gave it back.
6. The London streets were shot on a set in Shepperton Studios in England. Though a large set, it appears even larger because the buildings in the background were made significantly shorter to achieve the appearance of long street through forced perspective. Later in the film, the song “It Feels Like Christmas” with the Ghost of Christmas Present ends with a rising crane shot, where the short buildings can be seen in the background.
7. Rizzo never read Charles Dickens’ original novel because it was not about cheese.
8. Henson explains that many people have told him this is their favorite adaptation of A Christmas Carol because it is so wacky at times. However, because Gonzo plays the role of Charles Dickens in the film itself, the script actually contains more Dickensian prose taken from the book’s narrative than other adaptations.
9. Gonzo explains that because they shot the movie in England, they had to import the Dutch angles from Holland. Rizzo claims it’s because the camera operator had drank a pint before shooting.
10. Children in test audiences said their favorite shot in the film was the mice in the hole in the wall singing during the song “Scrooge.”
11. Many shots were challenging because the film often featured Muppets and humans in the same shot. This required floors to be removed and placed back, as well as Michael Caine having to walk across narrow planks between the Muppets and their operators.
12. Henson explains that Michael Caine understood the role perfectly after the first read-though. He said the trick was to never treat the other characters like Muppets, but rather to play against them as if he were acting with performers from the Royal Shakespeare Company.
13. Inside the Muppet company, it was popular to love to hate Bean Bunny (the small rabbit who comes to the door asking Scrooge for a handout and gets a wreath thrown at him). The original idea for Bean Bunny was to create a character so obnoxiously sweet and sappy that everyone would actually hate him. This film gave them a chance to actually be mean to him, which was popular among Muppet crew members.
14. Most Muppets are left-handed because most puppeteers are right handed. They must manipulate the Muppet’s left hand because their right hands are operating the face and head.
15. Some of the simplest-looking shots are the hardest to achieve with Muppets. Henson points this out when Kermit blows out a candle. It seems easy enough, but since Muppets don’t actually breathe, it involves timing the firing of an air gun at the flame when Kermit puckers his lips and makes the blowing motion. Similarly, Henson says the most difficult shot in the entire film was the close-up of Kermit locking the door at Scrooge’s office.
16. Henson explains that because CGI was in its infancy when the film was made, the shot of the penguins ice skating had to be achieved by optically matting in the ice while they skated. Gonzo claims these penguins were specially flown in from Antarctica because the normal penguins grew up in New York.
17. Kermit does not use shoes to ice skate. In fact, he is fully clothed throughout the film but never has anything on his feet.
18. The shot of the shooting star over London at the ending of the song “One More Sleep ’til Christmas” is an homage to Jim Henson and the shooting star over the desert in The Muppet Movie. Since this film, a similar shot also appears in Muppet Treasure Island and Muppets from Space.
19. When Scrooge goes home on Christmas Eve, Gonzo and Rizzo have plenty of comic relief moments. This was done specifically to defuse the spookiness of the scenes leading up to the visits from the spirits, in order not to scare children too much. In fact, Rizzo actually expresses concern over the scene’s scariness, and Gonzo dismisses it as “culture.” Pointing out the filmmakers’ own concerns is a common method the Muppets use to help soften any overly dramatic or frightening scenes.
20. For their parts as Marley and Marley, Statler and Waldorf were powdered down to make them very white, then they were shot against black velvet with the puppeteers wearing black, then superimposed on the film image. This was the most common Muppet compositing technique done during the days of The Muppet Show, rather than the common greenscreen shots and CGI used today.
21. When Gonzo calls Rizzo an idiot for climbing over the iron gate rather than walking through it, this was Henson tipping his hat at the puppeteers Dave Goelz (Gonzo) and Steve Whitmire (Rizzo). They often would rib each other, and it was not uncommon for Goelz to say to Whitmire, “You are such an idiot.”
22. The Muppet used for the Ghost of Christmas Past was a rod puppet that was submerged into a tank filled with baby oil. However, that high quantity of baby oil proved to be too expensive, so most of the shots were done in a water tank, which achieved the same gentle flowing effect of the robes, but the water reacted with the glues and paints, causing problems.
23. Michael Caine never blinks in his close-ups. Neither do Gonzo or Rizzo.
24. Rizzo claims the bear playing Mrs. Fozziwig is Fozzie Bear’s mother.
25. Gonzo is offended by the use of rubber chickens by the Swedish Chef during the Fozziwigs scene.
26. Rowlf the Dog appears as the piano player at Fozziwigs, but he does not speak in this movie. This is because it is the first appearance of Rowlf after Jim Henson died. Rowlf was one of Henson’s original Muppets, almost as old as Kermit himself, first appearing in a Purina Dog Chow commercial in the early 1960s.
27. Rizzo claims that he and much of the cast – including Richmond the Horse – would hang out at Michael Caine’s home after shooting was wrapped for the day. Gonzo, who lived alone at the time, was never invited.
28. Originally, the Ghost of Christmas Present was supposed to be huge throughout his scenes. However, Henson soon realized it would be a logistical nightmare to shoot him like this. He really only wanted the enormous face coming around the corner during his introduction, and he soon shrunk the character down to human size by shooting him against a bluescreen and tracking backwards with the camera.
29. The original “It Feels Like Christmas” song sung by the Ghost of Christmas Present featured him and Scrooge flying around the world, including a visit to the Arctic with igloos. Henson realized they couldn’t afford to shoot that much stuff, so they made it a simple street song.
30. There’s a shot of horses dancing for several seconds during “It Feels Like Christmas.” This was a pick-up shot to fill time between the previous shot when Christmas Present walks out of frame, then walks back in frame a few seconds later. Otherwise, there was no shot to cover those moments in the song.
31. Gonzo claims that Miss Piggy was not nominated for an Oscar for her role as Emily Cratchit because no one likes to nominate someone outside of their species. Rizzo says this is why Gonzo will never be nominated for anything because he’s outside of everyone’s species.
32. The Cratchit daughters were created for puppeteers Steve Whitmire and Dave Goelz to make fun of the way Frank Oz performs Miss Piggy.
33. For the scene in which Kermit is walking down the street, singing with Robin on his shoulder, used no less than ten puppeteers, shot against a bluescreen. Kermit is walking on a rotating drum to achieve the effect of movement. Henson shot this as the money shot of a full-figured Muppet walking.
34. The Ghost of Christmas Yet-to-Come was original conceived as a comedic character, and it was once suggested that it be Gonzo with his nose pointing out of his hood. However, the decision was made to keep the serious, dramatic, and scary nature of it.
35. Rizzo points out that the reason the Ghost of Christmas Yet-to-Come never speaks is because it has no mouth and no face. However, he can point because he has two hands. Additionally, like Michael Caine, the Ghost never blinks, either.
36. One the streets of London, one of the shops is named “Statler and Waldorf,” though it is obfuscated by a Christmas wreath. Another shop is named “Mickelwhite’s,” which is Michael Caine’s real last name.
37. Fred Scrooge’s wife is not in the final shot next to Fred. Henson said he got many letters asking why she wasn’t. The reason: The actress wasn’t available that day. (However, all the Muppets were available that day.)
Best in Commentary
- Gonzo: “There’s Kermit. I believe this is the first movie role where he didn’t work naked.”
- Gonzo: “Once you accept the fact that Bob Cratchit is a talking frog, truthiness goes out the window.”
- Gonzo: “It’s always weird working with human actors instead of just Muppets because they’re so tall.”
- Rizzo: “Boy, this is moody and atmospheric.” Gonzo: “It’s like one of those scary movies where a group of teenagers are trapped in a cabin in the woods and stalked by an accordion-playing anteater.” Rizzo: “You give weird a bad name.”
- Rizzo: “They’re actually more sarcastic than me. I tip my hat at their superior negativity” (Regarding Statler and Waldorf)
- Henson: “Right through this movie, Jerry Juhl had such wonderful ideas for different ways to make Rizzo suffer, and then we all threw in more ideas. So right through the movie, Rizzo’s suffering all the time, and it just made us laugh.”
- Henson: “So we had no idea what would happen when Piggy and Kermit decided to have kids. So in this movie, we decided to throw logic to the wind and said, okay, so piggy and Kermit have had kids. So all the girls are pigs and all the boys are frogs. There’s no rhyme or reason to it.
I’ve never been a huge fan of in-character commentaries because they breach that meta-barrier and just become too cute. (Case in point, listen to the commentary on The Santa Clause 2. Or rather, don’t.) Still, the Muppet commentary actually has some interesting points to it.
With the Muppets returning to the big screen, this twenty-year-old holiday classic should become part of your library, whether you have kids or not. It’s touching to hear Brian Henson talk about his father, and it’s fun to hear some surprises throughout the commentaries. Plus, with the film running a brisk 85 minutes, you can listen to both commentaries in the time it takes to watch one major release in theaters this Christmas.