Like most children born in the Eighties, I was brought up on a diet of The Muppet Show and Sesame Street, with Labyrinth still holding a special place in my heart to this day. But the cream of the crop as far as I’m concerned is the masterpiece that is The Muppet Christmas Carol, which turns 30 on Sunday.
This is a massive year for Christmas film milestones, from The Snowman celebrating its 40th anniversary to Home Alone 2: Lost In New York turning 30, but this one trumps the lot.
I have strong personal reasons for loving this film: I don’t remember the very first time I watched it, but I do strongly recall being 13 years old and watching it on TV on Christmas Day with my grandmother, who was unwell at the time. She died less than a month later, and shortly after that, I bought a copy of the film on VHS, which I still have. From then on, it became a tradition that I would watch it every Christmas without fail.
But it’s a gem in its own right. Over the years, there have been many movie adaptations of Charles Dickens’ classic A Christmas Carol, which was first published in 1843 and was one of his biggest hits, but there’s still only one proudly featuring “a blue furry Dickens who hangs out with a rat”.
Originally released in 1992, The Muppet Christmas Carol comes from a place of love. The film is dedicated on screen to Muppet creator Jim Henson, who died two years before its release, and also to legendary Muppet puppeteer Richard Hunt, who died 12 months into the film’s production.
The action, faithful in many ways to the original, follows the character of cruel and miserly Ebeneezer Scrooge, who one fateful Christmas Eve, is visited by three spirits who help teach him the error of his ways. It’s a story about redemption, second chances, and the power of kindness told here with the unique Muppet heart and humour.
It’s that uniqueness that sets it apart – and the cast. Acting his socks off in the leading role is Sir Michael Caine, among a bevvy of crazy and colourful Muppet co-stars, including Kermit The Frog as Scrooge’s long-suffering clerk Bob Cratchit, Miss Piggy as Bob’s feisty wife Emily and Kermit’s nephew Robin as scene-stealing Tiny Tim.
Gonzo serves as narrator Charles Dickens – Dickens, a natural actor, made a tradition of touring his much-loved masterpiece as a live reading at Christmas, to capacity crowds and much appreciation – and sticks largely to the original text of the book, though he does have Rizzo the Rat inserted as his comic sidekick.
There are also ice skating penguins, book-keeping rats, a Fagin-esque spider and singing vegetables thrown in for good measure. What’s not to love?
In a 2015 interview with the Guardian, director Brian Henson said that Caine would only accept the part on the condition that he could play it “like I’m working with the Royal Shakespeare Company,” and with no suggestion that his co-stars were, in fact, puppets. He stays true to his word, throwing every emotion into the mix.
It also improves on the original version (which, alas, had no songs - but would have been well over three hours if it did), with the fabulous score by Miles Goodman and Paul Williams’ irresistible and highly quotable song lyrics – “no cheeses for us meeces” – a huge part of the film’s appeal.
That appeal is evident from the scores of people – largely grown adults – who annually flock to venues like the Prince Charles Cinemas in Leicester Square for special sing-along showings, where they heartily and joyfully belt out the Ghost of Christmas present’s signature song, It Feels Like Christmas.
And this year, my favourite Christmas film is about to be improved upon – were that even possible. To mark three whole decades of this festive masterpiece, on December 8 Disney+ are releasing a new cut, including the previously lost song, When Love Is Gone.
The beautiful and key number is sung to a young Scrooge as his girlfriend, Belle (played in the film by former West End star Meredith Braun), walks out of his life forever, after he chooses to put money over love.
It was cut from theatrical release after a Disney executive felt it was too adult for the child-intended audience and might bore them.
The way it was cut leads to a weird gap in the film where Gonzo is comforting a crying Rizzo with no obvious explanation why. It also means the countering track, When Love Is Found, once Scrooge is saved, has less impact. Henson managed to get the song included in the VHS and TV versions, but it was missing from subsequent DVD and streaming releases – until now.
The Muppet Christmas Carol will always remind me of my grandmother. This year, 30 years after its first release and with my dad terminally ill, it feels poignant that it’s the Christmas I’m introducing my own son to it.
In an ever-changing, fast-moving world of uncertainty, for me, each Christmas this fun, silly, touching film has been a constant. So, while I’ll happily dive into Will Ferrell’s Elf and join the contentious debate as to whether or not Gremlins really is a Christmas film, to quote Caine’s reformed Scrooge, The Muppet Christmas Carol is one I’ll continue to “hold close with a thankful heart”.
The Muppet Christmas Carol 30th Anniversary is in cinemas now and on Disney+ from December 9