Jim Henson’s death in 1990 at the age of 53 came as such as surprise that it shocked fans. He had appeared on The Arsenio Hall Show two weeks before his death. He reportedly wasn’t feeling well but thought it was a minor cold or a sore throat. But it was actual an infection that causes bacterial pneumonia.
A lot of people were probably left wondering what would happen next. Rumors spread that Ernie, who Henson voiced, on Sesame Street would be killed off. It didn’t happen but it scared a bunch of children. Where it came from is anyone’s guess?
In November of 1990, CBS aired The Muppets Celebrate Jim Henson, which ended with the Muppets realizing that Henson, who they thought was alive, had died. Kermit the Frog is absent for much of the special leaving viewers to wonder what would happen. At the end, after hearing of Henson’s death, they perform “Just One Person,” the same song the same song the Muppeteers performed at Henson’s memorial earlier that year.
And then, Kermit appears, now being voice by Steve Whitmire, to assure all the other Muppets and many kids, young and old, who tuned in that he was still going to be there. Whitmire, who performed the character for many years, was different. He sounded a lot like Henson but you could tell it was someone else. He tried to get the voice right but there was no exactly duplicating. Compared to what Disney has done with the character now, he was pretty darn good regardless.
They’re had been a Muppet movie since the 1984 The Muppet Takes Manhattan, but there had been many shows including the cartoon Muppet Babies. The question was, could the Muppeteers pull it off without Henson. But as pre-production started, tragedy would strike again. Richard Hunt died on January 7, 1992 from HIV/AIDS-related complications.
One of Hunt’s famous Muppets was Scooter. He is the first one to begin singing at the Henson memorial here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yeEzQ4qwkgo.
Reportedly Scooter was supposed to be in Christmas Carol as the Ghost of Christmas Present. The Great Gonzo was supposed to play the Ghost of Christmas Future with his nose sticking out of the cloaked hood. Brian Henson, only 28 at the time of directing, decided to do something different.
Gonzo (Dave Goelz) plays Charles Dickens and Rizzo the Rat (Whitmire) is himself as they narrate the Charles Dickens classic. Surprisingly, they work together as a team. During one scene, Rizzo breaks character and calls Charles “Gonzo” before realizing his mistake. I don’t know if this was planned or a goof they left in. Previous Muppet productions made it very clear they were in a TV show or movie. The Jim Henson tribute has the Muppets looking down and commenting on the Muppeteers underneath them.
Kermit is Bob Cratchit with Miss Piggy (Frank Oz) is Emily Cratchit, naturally. But some Muppets are notably absent along with Scooter. Dr. Teeth is missing. Animal pops up in a small cameo. Rowlf is seen playing the piano but he doesn’t speak. Jim Henson had voiced Dr. Teeth and Rowlf.
Sir Michael Caine plays Ebenezer Scrooge who is the greedy, cold-hearted and bad tempered. He runs a moneylending business and has no care or compassion for anyone else, even when his nephew, Fred (Steven Mackintosh) comes to invite him to Christmas Day dinner. Working with Bob are some nameless rat Muppets who are cold because Scrooge refuses to burn coal to heat up the office.
If you know the story, you know the plot, except Brian Henson and writer Jerry Juhl switch it up a bit. Along with the ghost of Jacob Marley (Statler performed by Jerry Nelson) visiting Scrooge on Christmas Eve, they give him a brother, Robert (Waldorf performed Goelz). I’ve always liked the use of Statler and Waldorf for this role as they were often known for their constant heckling and criticizing of whatever they saw on The Muppet Show. It should be noted that even though Nelson originated the role of Statler, Hunt took over and would perform together with Jim Henson as Waldorf until Jim’s death in 1990. So, it’s kind of an Easter egg that they’re dead and their previous performers have passed.
Scrooge is visited by the Ghost of Christmas Past which shows his youth in loneliness being taught by Sam the Eagle and then going to work for Fozziwig (Fozzie Bear performed by Oz) as a young man. Ebenezer meets a young woman, Belle (Meredith Braun), but overcome by greed, she leaves him. The Ghost appears as a young girl who floats like a spirit in the air. To achieve this trick, it took three Muppeteers (Karen Prell, Robert Tygner and William Todd-Jones) and they submerged the Muppet in water against a green screen to film.
Brian, like his father, was about exploring new challenges with the effects. Jim famously and somewhat dangerously, submerged himself in an underwater contraption that would allow him to perform Kermit’s banjo playing and singing of “The Rainbow Connection” in The Muppet Movie.
Sadden by memories he’s forgotten, Scrooge is visited by the jovial but absent-minded Ghost of Christmas Present who shows him how beautiful Christmas as it’s a joyous time of coming together. He visits Fred’s party consisting of both humans, including Fred’s wife, Clara (Robin Weaver) and Muppets where they make fun of Scrooge for his stinginess. Next, The Ghost transports them to the Cratchit household. Despite the meager salary he pays Bob, his employee still thanks him in the blessing at the dinner table, despite the objection of Emily and their children. Scrooge also sees of the poor health Tiny Tim (Robin performed by Nelson). Realizing that he’s done wrong, The Ghost asks Scrooge to come with him to a cemetery where he begins to disappear as his life cycle is ending.
Then, Scrooge is met by the Ghost of Christmas Future who wears a cloak but doesn’t speak. Scrooge observes some pig businessmen mocking a person who has just died. He then goes in a den and notices some characters discussing getting money out of stolen possessions from a deceased person. They then are transported to the Cratchit household where he observes them speaking about the death of Tim.
This is a very sad scene as Kermit discusses the passing, but many people have interpreted this as the Muppeteers discussing the sudden and recent passing of Jim Henson and Hunt. Transported back to the cemetery, Scrooges sees his own gravestone and vows to change his life and ways by helping the Cratchits out more and being more considerate to his workers’ need.
Awaking on Christmas morning in his own house, he also approaches two charity collectors (Dr. Bunsen Honeydew and Beaker performed by Goelz and Whitmire) he had previously shunned and criticized and offers to make a very high amount donation.
Caine was the best choice to play Scrooge, mainly because he plays the role straight. The humor and comedy is reserved to the Muppets. Caine said he approached the role as if he was performing it with the Royal Shakespeare Company. That works. Other actors considered for the role were David Warner, David Hemmings and even George Carlin, but I don’t think it would’ve work as good. While the Muppet characters are cleverly cast in their roles, although some are reduced to small cameos, you need a theatrically trained actor like Caine for this role. It also helps that they filmed it in Shepperton Studios in England. Much of The Muppet Show was filmed in England.
Brian Henson, who had been performing with the rest of the Muppeteers since he was a teenager, had worked on movie sets before, such as the 1986 Little Shop of Horrors and the 1990 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, this was his first time he was a director. Caine would later comment how professional and experience he seemed. But more importantly, I think no one else could’ve or should’ve done it.
The Muppet Christmas Carol is more of an ode to the legacies Jim Henson and Hunt. If you’ve ever seen the photos of them performing the roles, they’re usually so close together they can tell what toothpaste they used. When you work with people that close on so many productions for so long, the lost of one member of the team must be tough but two members within two years must’ve been very hard. I think it was cathartic way for them to deal with the deaths.
More touching is a scene where Bob is walking home from work on Christmas Eve and looks up in the sky to see a shooting star. They was a scene in The Muppet Movie where Kermit looks up in the desert sky and sees a shooting star. This is a nod to Jim as other Muppet productions after Christmas Carol would also include shooting stars.
Even though The Muppet Christmas Carol was a minor success, grossing over $27 million against a budget of $12 million, it was still competing with the juggernaut sequel Home Alone 2: Lost in New York, which was still going strong, even though it has opened about three weeks earlier. Much of the success of The Muppet Christmas Carol was due to its popularity among Gen Xers and Millennials when it hit the home video market and shown on cable TV.
Today, it’s considered a holiday favorite along with the Home Alone movies and much others. Sadly, the Jim Henson Company would suffer some more pain as Nelson passed away in 2012 and Juhl, who wrote much of the TV specials and movies, passed away in 2005.
And even though Disney hasn’t done a good job lately with their recent productions, showing the older Muppet movies and especially The Muppet Show on Disney-Plus has introduced younger audiences to what their parents, grandparents and even great-grandparents have enjoyed.