By William Keck
The Muppet Christmas Carol has everything Muppet fans expect to see in a Kermit/Piggy movie. Big name guest star? Check! A wise-cracking bear? Check! Feel-good musical numbers? Plenty! But if you plan on re-watching the timeless holiday classic on the occasion of its 25th anniversary (and we highly recommend you do), you’ll want to keep an eye out for a few special gems (characters, costumes, cool effects) unique to this film. And be sure follow Sir Michael Caine’s lead (see item No. 4 below) by resisting the urge to blink, because if you do, you’ll surely miss something sensational, inspirational or even Muppetational.
1. In each of his Muppet movies, Jim Henson challenged himself to create an effect that had never before been attempted on screen. So it’s no surprise that when Brian Henson was developing The Muppet Christmas Carol, the young director looked to emulate his late father’s tradition. The result is a brief moment in the film that at the time was truly head-scratching for audiences: seeing Kermit from head to toe dancing down a cobblestone street with nephew Robin perched on his shoulder. Accomplished without digital effects so commonplace today, Henson pulled off the trick by positioning Kermit atop a rolling barrel texturized with snow-covered cobblestone so as to blend seamlessly with the street beneath his little webbed feet. “We never had a Muppet walking full-figured before,” says Henson, still proud of his innovation. “It was tricky, but it worked!”
2. In addition to Jim Henson, The Muppet Christmas Carol is dedicated to the memory of puppeteer Richard Hunt, who voiced such Muppet favorites as Scooter, Janice, Sweetums, and Statler before his death in January 1992. As a nod to their late friend, Brian Henson, along with puppeteers Dave Goelz (Gonzo) and David Rudman, who inherited some of Hunt’s characters, included an Easter Egg tribute during the “It Feels Like Christmas” musical number when Scrooge’s cold heart begins to noticeably melt. “David Rudman and I choreographed two horses dancing, and I thought I’d make one a tribute to Richard, who for a long while had a gap between his two front teeth that was part of his identity,” Goelz says. “So I cut the two front teeth apart on one of the horses and named him ‘Richmond.’ As a continuing joke between Brian and me, the horse sent Brian emails wanting to get in more scenes.”
3. In The Muppet Christmas Carol, the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Christmas Yet to Come are all played by original puppet creations never seen again—a childlike sprite, a playful ginger giant, and a silent cloaked Grim Reaper-like figure. But in early drafts of the script, familiar Muppet characters were to have filled these roles. “I think we had Scooter or Robin as the Ghost of Christmas Past, Piggy in the Present, and a hooded Gonzo as Christmas Yet to Come,” shares Brian Henson. “But then we started thinking, ‘Where can we sincerely put the Muppet characters?’—and it started to cast itself. We decided it would be more fun if Kermit and Piggy were married and half their kids are frogs and half are pigs.” (One thought was to make the pigs green and the frogs pink, but ultimately Henson vetoed that as “a little too weird.”)
4. Sir Michael Caine is known for never blinking opposite his co-stars, who have included such Hollywood heavy hitters as Christian Bale, Steve Martin, and Mike Myers, to name just a few. Caine applied the same technique in his role as Ebenezer Scrooge while sharing the screen with such favorites as Kermit, Miss Piggy, and Beaker. “In real life, people don’t blink when they’re talking to you,” explains the two-time Oscar® “It’s only actors who blink in the movies.” And to Caine, his Muppet co-stars were not puppets attached to human puppeteers, but respected thespians just like himself. “All you can see are the puppets, and you just act along with them.” But there was one notable difference Caine came to appreciate about the Muppets in comparison to traditional movie stars. “Human actors can be a little difficult at times. But the puppets and puppeteers were lovely, gentle people. It was extraordinary.”
5. For the film, costume designer Polly Smith and her team were tasked with creating Victorian-era clothing for not only Caine’s Scrooge, but for Fozzie Bear’s Fozziwig, Kermit’s Bob Cratchit, and all the other human and Muppet characters great and small. Such was the attention to detail that real buttons, lining, and even practical pockets were sewn into the character’s coats. “You could unbutton the coats and put something in the pockets,” Goelz says. “They were works of art. We always said the Muppets dressed better than we did.”