It is Christmas time in Victorian London, and here is Charles Dickens to tell us a story - except, as his companion Rizzo the Rat (Steve Whitmire) points out, he's not Charles Dickens, he looks a lot more like The Great Gonzo (Dave Goelz). Dickens protests that despite all appearances he knows the tale like the back of his hand, and promptly launches into it: the tale of Ebeneezer Scrooge (Michael Caine), a moneylender and miser for whom goodwill to all men was nothing more than a joke, an inconvenience once a year when he could be making money. There couldn't be anything to change his mind... could there?
In 1992, the Muppets had suffered a major setback when not only had one of their main performers, Richard Hunt, voice of Scooter among others, died, but the father of the puppet troupe Jim Henson had passed away as well. There were those who wondered if the entertainers could survive the loss, but with The Muppet Christmas Carol the remaining members led by Henson's son Brian got back together to prove that they still had what it took, and as a result this film has become many people's favourite version of the classic Dickens novel.
Certainly Caine was the best Scrooge since Alastair Sim, putting his heart and soul into a role that, when he was surrounded by puppets, he could easily have played for laughs. There's true emotion in his eyes, whether it's at the beginning when his heart is cold and barren, to the end when he realises the error of his ways and brings us to the happy conclusion. The only trouble with making Caine the star, and make no mistake he carries the film just as much as the Muppets do, is that the familiar characters tend to be reduced to extended cameo appearances in their own production: Miss Piggy, for instance, doesn't show up until the last half hour.
And yet, they are well cast in the novel's roles, with Jerry Juhl's script very faithful to the original, even incorporating lines from the text instead of having an unwelcome update of the material. When Scrooge has grudgingly given his worker Bob Cratchit (Kermit the Frog, performed by Whitmire) Christmas Day off, he returns home that night and is visited by the ghosts of the Marley brothers, played by Statler and Waldorf (sadly, they never did quite get their voices right after Henson and Hunt's deaths). They tell him that he will be visited by three ghosts, and so the plot begins in earnest.
Those ghosts are played by new puppets: an ethereal child for Christmas Past, a jolly fat man who ages for Present, and of course the Grim Reaper for Future. If any of the Muppets are the stars, though, it is Gonzo and Rizzo as our (almost) ever-present narrators, taking care of the lightening humour with style and generating some of the best laughs. Elsewhere, Sam the Eagle is Scrooge's old schoolteacher, Fozzie Bear is, er, Fozziwig who improbably owns a rubber chicken factory, and Miss Piggy is Mrs Cratchit - it took Dickens to get her and Kermit married at last. Surprisingly, for all its light hearted nature this gets quite moving, and the Muppets' traditional generosity of spirit is a perfect match for a tale of one deeply unlikeable man who we grow to to sympathise with once we understand what has brought him to this state. The character of the season is affectionately conveyed. Paul Williams' songs might have been catchier, but otherwise this Christmas Carol was a treat. Music by Miles Goodman.