“Sure,” says Brett Goldstein in the recent EW video, “Citizen Kane and Vertigo are good films, but I think we can all agree that, objectively, the greatest film of all time is The Muppet Christmas Carol.”
And that, improbably, is what everyone says, these days. Thirty years on, The Muppet Christmas Carol has steadily developed into a cast-iron Christmas classic. Rotten Tomatoes gives the film a 75% certified fresh rating, with an 86% audience score. A while ago, the internet got very excited about the discovery of the negatives for a boring, deleted non-Muppet song, which would now be stuck back in the middle of the film where it used to be.
This is all extremely strange for me, because I was there when the movie was released in 1992, and at the time, everyone hated it. The reviews were terrible, the box office take was disastrous, and there wasn’t any merchandise except for the soundtrack album.
In the movie’s opening weekend, The Muppet Christmas Carol made $5 million, making it the number 6 film for the week. Number 6! By the next weekend, it slipped to #7, and headed south for the winter. Overall, it made $27 million at the box office, making it #47 for the year, under Encino Man, 3 Ninjas and Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot.
In 1992, The Muppet Christmas Carol was very specifically not beloved.
These memories are still fresh for me all these years later, because 1992 is the year that I started publishing MuppetZine, and the release of The Muppet Christmas Carol was the first big Muppet event that I could write about. Here’s what I wrote about the reviews, at the time:
None of the film’s reviews were completely positive, and some of them were downright uncharitable. USA Today‘s review gave the film three stars, and praised Whitmire, “nicely filling in on voice for the late Jim Henson.” Of the Muppets cast, the reviewer found, “the little dickens who snatches the spotlight is Rizzo the Rat, co-narrator with Gonzo when not busy scrounging for goodies or being used as a window wipe.” The review’s biggest qualm with the film was that “little ones may squirm during the more literary parts, but the sappy tunes by Paul Williams make fine potty breaks.”
Janet Maslin of The New York Times was a lot less friendly, beginning her review with: “The Muppet Christmas Carol is not one of those clever children’s films that keep adult escorts from gazing longingly at the exit signs… There’s no great show of wit or tunefulness here, and the ingenious cross-generational touches are fairly rare.” The Philadelphia Inquirer‘s review was perhaps the most positive I saw, although the review did agree with most of the others when it pointed out that the songs “are more humdrum than hummable.”
And that’s just the reviews that I saw at the time. Now, thanks to the internet, I can find other contemporary reviews, and they were just as poisonous.
The LA Times review started with “It must have sounded good at story conferences.” The Chicago Reader said, “This is the dullest and least successful adaptation of the Christmas chestnut I’ve ever seen.” The Washington Post said that the movie “isn’t terrible, by any means. But it’s resoundingly moderate, with merely passable songs by Paul Williams, and only occasional real laughter.”
Seriously. Everyone hated this movie.
So you can imagine my gradually-dawning surprise over the last three decades, as the world fell under the spell of The Muppet Christmas Carol. How did that even happen?
Well, the problem for Christmas Carol, back in 1992, was that it was the wrong movie for the moment. Jim Henson had just died two years earlier, and this was the first major Muppet project under Brian Henson’s leadership. It was also the public debut of Steve Whitmire’s version of Kermit — there’d been some minor appearances by then, but for most people, this was the first time they heard the frog’s new voice.
And instead of making a sunny, wacky Muppet road trip film like they probably should have, Brian made a cold, dark film about Michael Caine coming to grips with his mortality, attended by a subdued cast of familiar Muppets, mostly in cameo roles. There were little groups of two or three Muppets, each cordoned off into their own space in the timeline, so Kermit couldn’t interact with Fozzie or Gonzo, and Miss Piggy was confined to a single domestic set, in a maternal role that didn’t really suit her.
People already suspected that without Jim, the Muppets would be diminished somehow — less funny, less creative, less magical — and this film seemed to confirm everybody’s worst fears. The Muppets weren’t fun anymore.
But it turns out that was only a problem in the immediate aftermath of Jim’s death, when people expected the movie to signal what the Muppets would be like from then on. As more Muppet films came out, especially the 2011 relaunch, it became clear what The Muppet Christmas Carol actually was — a standalone production, a little festive treat — rather than a harbinger of the Muppets Yet to Come.
The other thing that changed was the familiarity and affection that comes with repetition. You can’t beat Christmas as a vehicle for the production and maintenance of pointless traditions — that’s basically the only thing it’s for — and if The Muppet Christmas Carol found its way into your family’s annual playlist, then you’ve spent thirty years learning to be patient through the slow parts, and treasuring the parts that you love.
Plus, Kermit’s voice isn’t bothersome and distracting anymore, as it was in 1992. Bob Cratchit sounds warm and joyful now, as he was meant to be, instead of gratingly not-Henson.
It’s never going to fully work for me, because I will forever carry around a little piece of 1992, my first official Muppet-fan disappointment. But I love that it works for you.
And it keeps the characters alive for so many families, introducing kids to the Muppets and inspiring them to spend the rest of the year streaming The Muppet Show. If nothing else, Christmas Carol is an annual commercial for the Muppets that people sit down and watch on purpose, and I love it for that.
I mean, it’s still not the greatest film of all time; it’s not even the greatest Muppet film. But The Muppet Christmas Carol is so much better than it used to be.
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by Danny Horn