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Free Tears: Brian Henson and The Muppet Performers Talk Honoring Jim Henson’s Spirit Through The Muppet Christmas Carol

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I’m generally a Grinch, but if there’s one movie that consistently fills me with the holiday spirit, it’s The Muppet Christmas Carol. MCC has fantastic music, a ferocious performance from Michael Caine, and manages to be hilarious without condescending to the audience or glossing over some of the truly terrifying aspects of its source matter.

In context, it’s not surprising that the creative team was able to honor Dickens’ depiction of mortality and grief, considering Christmas Carol was the first Muppet movie made after Jim Henson’s untimely death in 1990 from pneumonia. Speaking to The Guardian this week, Muppet Christmas Carol director and Jim Henson’s son, Brian Henson, along with performers Steve Whitmore (Kermit/Rizzo) and Dave Goelz (Gonzo/Waldorf), talked about what it was like to honor Jim Henson’s spirit through their work on MCC.

Here’s Brian Henson on how he approached his directorial debut:

The Muppets are famous for questioning the status quo, and anti-establishment irreverence, so we took that and pointed it at Charles Dickens. Robin the Frog was going to be the ghost of Christmas past, Miss Piggy was going to be this bacchanalian ghost of Christmas present, and Animal was going to be the ghost of Christmas yet to come. We were going to do a romping parody.

Then we stopped and reconsidered. Nobody had ever captured Dickens’s prose – the wonderful way he described the scenes. So we had to put Charles Dickens in the movie. Who’s the least likely character to be Charles Dickens? Gonzo! So we made him this omniscient storyteller, with Rizzo his pain-in-the-neck sidekick. Ninety-five percent of what Gonzo says in the movie is directly taken from the book.

When I met Michael Caine to talk about playing Scrooge, one of the first things he said was: “I’m going to play this movie like I’m working with the Royal Shakespeare Company. I will never wink, I will never do anything Muppety. I am going to play Scrooge as if it is an utterly dramatic role and there are no puppets around me.” I said: “Yes, bang on!” He was intimidating to start with, but he’s a delight.

[…] Filming it was completely terrifying. I was 28 – I did not feel ready to do a movie. I begged other people to direct.

Goelz explained how the team tried to keep Henson’s spirit alive in Muppet Christmas Carol:

Jim kept a gruelling schedule, but every meeting with him, even if it was with his accountants, was full of laughter. The idea of him being stricken was the furthest thing from our minds. He died very suddenly, and we were just flattened by it. Brian called a meeting to see whether we wanted to continue without Jim. And every single one of us said: “It just feels like our life’s work, and we’d like to try and go ahead.” That was about 5pm on the day he died.

By the time the work on Christmas Carol started, the really intense grieving was done. It was such a soulful piece, and a chance to carry on the heart of Jim’s work: the idea that people were basically good, and there was enough in the world for everyone. It was cathartic.

[…] I’ve never been able to watch Christmas Carol dry-eyed. The comedy deepens the emotion – it ambushes you. It remains my favourite film we’ve done by a good margin. It’s such a powerful piece of literature, and to be able to do it with our goofy characters and make it work, it’s a huge satisfying success.

Whitmore was tasked with the difficult job of taking over performing Kermit from Jim Henson himself:

I was taking over from Jim as Kermit, which was a little scary, as you might imagine. It was important not only to match Kermit’s character, but also his voice. Jim and I don’t sound exactly alike, and the night before we pre-recorded the songs, I had a lot of trouble getting to sleep, thinking: “I really want this to be good, this means so much to everybody.”

Then I had a bizarre dream. I was in this building that was all white, and Jim was there. He comes over to me, in a hurry to get somewhere quickly. I said to him: “I’m really nervous about taking over Kermit.” He looked at me. Jim would do this thing where he would take one finger and put it on his bottom lip as he was thinking – he thought like this for a second and said: “It’ll pass.” And he walked away. It felt much more like a visit than a dream. The feeling from that gave me confidence for the whole film.

How very Christmas Carol of Mr. Henson.

I absolutely recommend checking out the rest of the interview over at The Guardian if you too want to weep over the enduring appeal of Muppet earnestness. It’s amazing to see that The Muppet Christmas Carol remains such a beloved and emotional film, both for its creators, and for its fans. Nearly a quarter century later, and the love is far from gone.

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