If you’re anything like us, Christmas doesn’t really feel like Christmas until you’re sat comfortably on the sofa, festive beverage in hand, surrounded by the glow of tree lights as you listen to those opening horns at the beginning of The Muppet Christmas Carol.
The Muppets’ take on Charles Dickens’ tale has been a festive favourite for millions around the world for decades – and this year marks 30 years since it first hit cinemas.
In honour of this accolade, a restored version of the film is hitting the streaming service Disney+, including the previously-absent musical number When Love Is Gone, restored in high-definition for the first time.
The movie was a crucial one in terms of The Muppets’ timeline, marking their first big-screen outing since the death of their creator and Kermit The Frog performer Jim Henson, with his son Brian helming the Muppet Christmas Carol in his directorial debut.
Here, Brian Henson shares with HuffPost UK his memories of working on the cherished festive film, the challenges he had to overcome on set, collaborating with Disney and how it feels to finally have When Love Is Gone back in the mix...
‘I was very scared going into The Muppet Christmas Carol – it was by far the biggest thing I had ever done’
“I was terrified. Honestly, I didn’t even want to direct it. I wanted Frank Oz [the performer behind Muppets characters like Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear and Sam Eagle] to direct it. And he wouldn’t! But he said he would be on set with me all the way through, and he was.
“It was a pretty quick shoot, but Frank was enormously helpful and supportive. When Frank said, ‘I think this is good’, that meant a lot – because Frank is not somebody who easily says that.
“I had just done Little Shop Of Horrors with Frank [who in addition to his work as a puppeteer, directed The Muppets Take Manhattan, Little Shop Of Horrors and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, the latter of which starred Scrooge himself, Michael Caine], so I was aware of when he was unsure of something.”
The Muppet Christmas Carol was the first time Muppeteer Steve Whitmire was ‘doing an important performance of Kermit’ – he’d only done ‘a tiny bit’ of Kermit prior to that
“I was so careful to try to get a real voice match out of Steve, and still have the emotional performance be solid. And we were really careful – I even did a bit of pitch shifting in post-production at a time when pitch-shifting was impossible! I did tiny bits of pitch-shifting just for every syllable to put it right back into my father’s zone.
“Honestly, I think Muppet Christmas Carol is probably the best Kermit that Steve ever did, and that is because we were so careful [Steve performed as Kermit for 26 years until his sudden departure in 2016 – the character is now played by Matt Vogel].
“Bob Cratchit didn’t have a whole lot of screen-time, so you could be a lot more careful with him.”
I wanted to try ‘something that’d never been done’ in The Muppet Christmas Carol
“I wanted to do Kermit walking full-figure. And we used a lot of old-fashioned tricks. He’s walking on a barrel, the cobblestone is a barrel that’s rotating, with the puppeteers working over the barrel without stepping on the barrel, and they’re all wearing blue suits. That was very complicated.
“With a Muppet movie, every shot is a special effect. It’s never, ‘here comes a straight-forward scene’.”
‘The Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come was also tricky’
“He was made of, like, silk, and if you got any water on him at all he kind of went to nothing – and the scenes that he was in, it was often raining.
“We had to make sure that the rain did not hit the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come, so there were always people right above the shot, holding these umbrella things to make sure no water hit it – because, literally, it would go from being this beautiful flowy character to a wet piece of silk.”
The other most difficult shot was when the Ghost Of Christmas Yet To Come first arrives on the scene
“When the Ghost Of Christmas Present goes away, I said, ‘I want him to die in a happy way’. Because I knew, no matter what happens, this is going to be the scariest and most upsetting part of the movie to the kids. First, their favourite character dies, and then the scariest character arrives. So he goes out laughing with, like, Christmas lights.
“But then that wall of cloud that came in [when the Ghost Of Christmas Yet To Come appears] – it’s smoke, and it had to be three kinds of smoke.
“The special effects guys had these giant curtains holding the smoke at one end of the stage. And when we opened it, it came like a wall, and they said, ‘it’s going to take all day to clear the stage, and you’ve only got one take’.”
Disney had no issues with how scary the Ghost Of Christmas Yet To Come was...
“I tried to make it a little bit lighter. I made the characters going through Scrooge’s stuff a little bit funnier, and the pig businessmen laughing about Scrooge – because it’s dark! It’s clearly the darkest part of the movie, and it has to be upsetting to Scrooge, but I was trying to make sure that the film still had kind of a lightness to it through that area.
“Luckily, my dad believed that a good fairytale is terrifying to kids. And luckily, Disney also felt like a good fairytale is terrifying to kids.”
...apparently, ‘the bigger problem was Disney’s feeling about love ballads’
“They felt that kids just want to go to the bathroom in the movie theatre during a love ballad. And it’s true, a kid under five doesn’t enjoy a love ballad. And that’s why Disney wanted me to cut When Love Is Gone from the actual release. They were worried about these kids getting antsy for about three minutes, and then it might lose the audience a little bit.
“I think if I weren’t 28, I probably would have not removed the song. Because [former Walt Disney Studios chairman] Jefrrey Katezenberg didn’t force me to remove it. He wanted me to remove it – it was a strong suggestion, and he made me preview the film twice, once with the song and once without it, so he could say, ‘do you see that nobody went to the bathroom?’. But he didn’t force me to do anything.
“The deal was, ‘OK, we’ll take it out of the theatrical release, but then it goes back in [for home release] and for eternity it’ll be back in the movie’. And Jeffrey Katzenberg totally agreed.”
‘But then, Disney lost the negatives for When Love Is Gone’
“I actually could have seen that coming, because I’d had issues with Disney’s post-production, and negatives, in the past.
At one point, when no one could find the negative, I had to call my editor and say, ‘did we steal it?’. Because I was distrustful of them – I actually thought for a little while, ‘I think I stole it’. Luckily, my editor then told me that would be impossible.
‘It’s fantastic what When Love Is Gone is back in the film for its 30th anniversary’
“I’m upset that it’s been not in the film ever since high-definition video has been around, because of what happened. It was very sad. But the post-production group who are at Disney now were fantastic trying to find it. They really worked hard. To finally have it together is just fantastic.”
‘I’ll tell you the truth, when Disney told me the release schedule for The Muppet Christmas Carol I was kind of horrified’
“We worked so hard making the movie, and they were very pleased with it. But they released it on 11 December in America and 18 December in England. They said, ‘it’ll create a big opening week, because it’s close to Christmas, and then it’ll play on through January.’ And I said, ‘it’s not going to – that’s just not early enough’.
“I was trying to explain, ‘the Christmas tree is the most important thing in the house on Christmas Day and for weeks leading up to Christmas – and the next day it is chucked out the window and left for the garbage collectors’. But I was a young man, I wasn’t confrontational.
“I was very concerned that it wouldn’t play into January – and, of course, it didn’t. I knew it wouldn’t. It did very well for the amount of time that it was in the theatre, but ultimately if you look at the box office report, you think, ‘oh, it didn’t do very well’.
“If we had done it again today, I would have known to fight to have it released by Thanksgiving. It should have been released by the third week of November, for sure. Maybe even earlier.”
But Disney had something else up their sleeve
“Up until that point, all movie studios had said only video rental stores are going to be allowed to own movies. And Bill Mechanic [former senior vice president of Walt Disney Home Video] had this idea that Disney should start selling VHS tapes directly to fans, and not to video rental stores.
“Bill saw that there was a huge demand for the movie – that then dried up really quick. He was like, ‘there’s a huge audience out there that didn’t get a chance to see it’. So in 1993, Muppet Christmas Carol became the first sell-through title in history. It was the very first time that a distributor sold VHS tapes directly to fans. And it did gangbusters. A huge amount of business.
“But of course, the way producers’ back-end works is you participate in the theatrical release, home video is something else. So it didn’t help us! But it helped Disney – they did extremely well, so they were very happy with the performance.”
‘Of course I never expected we’d still be talking about The Muppet Christmas Carol 30 years later’
“I mean, one hopes! I was aware that, since we were adapting a classic piece of literature, it was important not to date the production, not to use hip contemporary language anywhere, or hairstyles, or anything like that. I was mindful that, ‘if we do this right, it will always look right, no matter when or where you watch the movie’.”
The full-length version of The Muppet Christmas Carol is available to watch now on Disney+ under the “Extras” section of the main film.
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