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‘Disney didn’t think it was funny enough’: Brian Henson on making The Muppet Christmas Carol

On the 30th anniversary of The Muppet Christmas Carol, director Brian Henson and Steve Whitmire, who played Kermit in the film, talk about its legacy

Thirty years ago, The Muppet Christmas Carol was about to be released. And its director, Brian Henson, was keeping a low profile.

“I was hiding in my apartment in London, on Parliament Hill,” he says. “I felt very good about [the film]. Disney were very concerned that it wasn’t funny enough – that basically I had done a drama with the Muppets rather than a comedy. They knew it was a good script, they just wanted it funnier.

“The comedy is more situational,” he explains. “It’s the absurdity of a character being a rabbit, that’s what’s funny, not what the character is doing.”

Brian Henson didn’t need to hide. The film was a great success and is now celebrated as a Christmas classic.

Despite the cast largely consisting of puppets, it has humanity to spare. The message of love, community, generosity, forgiveness and the possibility of redemption is encapsulated perfectly and three decades on, more important than ever.

But it wasn’t just Scrooge who was saved by the film – the Muppets were too.

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‘It all did hinge on Muppet Christmas Carol’

The film grew from a place of great sadness. In 1990, at the age of 53, puppet pioneer Jim Henson died from pneumonia following a bacterial infection.

For the best part of four decades, he had been revolutionising puppetry and storytelling on TV. Sesame Street was – and still is – exciting children across the world about letters, numbers and being a good person. The Muppet Show starring its ragtag bunch of characters became the biggest TV programme in the world by the end of the 1970s and spawned several big screen movies. Through the 1980s there was also Fraggle Rock and a move into fantasy films, The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth, which remain hugely influential today.

“The whole industry thought, ‘Oh well, without Jim Henson that’ll be the end of the Muppets’,” Brian Henson tells The Big Issue from The Jim Henson Company HQ in Hollywood where he’s Chairman.

“I knew Sesame Street would continue because my father had set it up so it was just going. He would go and work with Sesame Street for probably one week every year, just to do a few pieces with Ernie and Bert and Kermit. So that was going to be fine.”

The Muppets, however, were a different matter. Aged 29, it fell on Brian Henson to step up, head his father’s company and prove the Muppets had a future by directing his first film. “We were all worried that it couldn’t continue and knew that it all did hinge on Muppet Christmas Carol,” Henson, now 59, says.

Treating the Muppets like Monty Python

The idea to adapt Dickens’ timeless tale came from Henson’s agent, Bill Haber but there was initially hesitation. “It had been made so many times. I didn’t know how we could do it. And then Bill said, ‘Oh, I’ve sold it to ABC as a TV movie’. I was like, oh ok, great.”

Veteran Muppet writer Jerry Juhl wrote a script that won Henson over and was “actually very liberating”.

“My dad was already struggling with Muppet movies,” Henson explains. “The first Muppet Movie is the origin story, the second Muppet Movie, he was like, hmm, maybe we’ll have them playing parts in a movie – that was Great Muppet Caper. Then it was Muppets Take Manhattan, which was a re-imagining of the origin story, as if the Muppets all met each other in college.

Brian Henson directing a scene of The Muppet Christmas Carol. Photo: Stephen F. Morley / © Buena Vista / courtesy Everett Collection
Brian Henson directing a scene of The Muppet Christmas Carol. Photo: Stephen F. Morley / © Buena Vista / courtesy Everett Collection

“Trying to let the Muppets be the Muppets but also put them in a strong three-act movie story was getting tricky. The idea to treat them like an ensemble of performers, like Monty Python, then let them play roles in a story definitely felt like the right way to go.

“We did it with real commitment and that was very liberating. You know these characters know each other. When you go home with Bob Cratchit, and Piggy is the wife, the audience knows she’s running the household because of their previous relationship.

“The fact that the characters have so much history was always baggage when my dad was trying to make the next Muppet movie but it became a real bonus. You’re telling your narrative storyline but you have these undercurrents that have been established, that the audience knows.”

The Kermit connection

The casting of Muppet characters into the Christmas Carol story was natural. Kermit as Bob Cratchit. Fozzie as Fezziwig. Gonzo as Charles Dickens, narrating. Sidekick Rizzo the Rat representing younger members of the audience, helping them follow the plot.

A key casting choice behind the scenes was who would take on Kermit. The leader of the Muppets was so closely identified with Jim Henson that it was a hugely significant decision.

“That’s what scared me,” Henson says. “Is the audience is going to be ok that it is a drama, not a comedy, and is the audience going to say that I messed up Kermit?”

Kermit was passed to performer Steve Whitmire, who had worked closely alongside Jim Henson for over a decade. Henson continues: “I was worried that people would criticise Kermit so I really had worked very, very hard with Steve on every line, every moment Kermit had in the movie.”

‘I could see what part of Jim was Kermit’

Steve Whitmire, 63, calls The Big Issue from Atlanta, Georgia, his hometown. Making Muppet Christmas Carol is still fresh in his mind.

“I have a lot of memories of it because it was such a significant point in everyone’s lives,” he says.

“I’d been around Jim quite a lot as he was performing Kermit. I was doing other characters and sometimes assisting him doing Kermit’s right hand or something. I got to observe where Kermit came from. Having gotten to know Jim personally, I could see what part of Jim was Kermit. For me that was more important than the voice.

Steve Whitmire
Steve Whitmire played Kermit for 26 years. Credit: Liam Nelson

“What was interesting to navigate was how to make choices that felt like the choices Jim might have made. This was a real challenge because suddenly Kermit was not just Kermit. We wanted his character traits, but he was playing another character. Bob Cratchit is a perfect Kermit role because it’s necessary for him to approach this power figure, Scrooge, almost like a diplomat.”

‘We really needed a serious villain’

Here comes Mr Humbug… In the role of Scrooge, Michael Caine is brilliant. He’s intimidating, ruthless, heartless but equally believable showing hopeful remorse.

“I believe it was Brian’s decision to approach somebody like Michael Caine,” Whitmire says. “And it was a very smart choice because Michael chose to play it as he would in a dramatic production.

“He immediately ignored the humour and treated the characters seriously. And therefore, there was no conflict. The Muppets were not upstaging that kind of a role. Were he playing it comedically, they would have all been fighting for the laugh. We really needed a serious villain.”

Brian Henson explains more. “Michael was the first actor we went out to for Scrooge. He’s a very strong dramatic actor but also really understands comedy – and is a very capable comedian. You need that so that he could understand how being the straight man actually makes the scenes more fun.

“So he went into it, playing it very dark and very dramatically, knowing that that juxtaposition with the Muppets would be much more exciting than if he was occasionally being a little funny and goofing around, as actors always had done in the past if they were in a Muppet movie.”

‘It was odd flirting with Fozzie’

There was still plenty of goofing around between takes though. As well as Kermit, Steve Whitmire played an entire menagerie of characters including Rizzo the Rat, the goose-fetching bunny and “mee-mee-mee mee” Beaker, who Michael Caine was a particular fan of.

“I remember a particular incident on set with Michael where I was performing Beaker – it’s the one time I saw Michael laugh,” Whitmire says. “He looked down at Beaker and I had Beaker look up at him and, you know, Beaker’s little ‘mee-mee’. Michael completely broke up. He loved Beaker and had to recompose himself because he was being very unkind to him.”

The secret of the Muppets’ success is that the audience completely believes them to be real. They’re real to the performers too. “The characters don’t just die when we put our arms down,” Whitemire says.

This makes a Muppet set a fun place to work. Meredith Braun was 19 and when she was cast as Belle, the girl who dumps a young Scrooge and cements his miserly demise.

Now a senior lecturer at the University of Chichester, she says: “They’re the actors playing it for real, even though they’re a puppet. Fozzie Bear would be playing Fozziwig but in between takes, I would chat to Fozzie, not the puppeteer. And I thought that was completely normal. I had a fairly low-cut top on and chatting and flirting with Fozzie was very odd… Having grown up with Fozzie and then suddenly you’re flirting off-camera.

Who initiated the flirting? “I didn’t even think about the puppeteer. I’m not sure if I flirted back… I was very young!”

At the time, Braun was more starstruck by the Muppets than Oscar-winning Michael Caine. “I remember the first read through, sitting there at a huge Putin-esque table, all the people around it. They were reading the lines and I missed every cue because I was so overwhelmed. I was genuinely starstruck by hearing all these voices.”

Meredith Braun in a scene from The Muppet Christmas Carol. Photo: LANDMARK MEDIA / Alamy Stock Photo
Meredith Braun in a scene from The Muppet Christmas Carol. Photo: LANDMARK MEDIA / Alamy Stock Photo

One of the most memorable moments of the film is the duet Braun shares with Caine. They sing a devastatingly heart-breaking song, When Love Is Gone, capturing the moment when the possibilities of a happy-ever-after are lost. At the time, she was playing Eponine in Les Mis on the West End. Caine was not renowned for his singing voice.

“I think he was a little scared,” Braun says. “It was clear that he hadn’t sung before. But I remember he had this incredible talent – he can cry on demand. I’ve never seen anything like it in my whole career. I don’t know how he does it but it’s incredible.”

Meredith Braun, photo: supplied
Meredith Braun, photo: supplied

Of course, When Love Is Gone is only memorable if you grew up with the VHS version of the film. The song was cut from the original theatrical release and subsequent versions available on DVD and streaming services. But for the 30th anniversary, the song is being restored and for the first time, people will be able to experience the full, moving story on the big screen.

‘It felt like we were keeping Jim Henson’s spirit alive’

Watching the film now is poignant for Steve Whitmire. “The whole film was very emotional to so many of us because the spirit of that film was the spirit of the Muppets,” he says. “Muppet Christmas Carol gave us so much hope. We had just lost our leader. So it almost felt like we were keeping Jim’s spirit alive.

“That became my total focus for all the years that I was involved as part of the Muppets. It was the lens that I tried to see everything through. I’m not sure that’s still the case. It was vital to me to keep Jim’s influence a part of it all. Which is, frankly, why I’m not there.”

In 2016, after 26 years performing Kermit and many other characters, Steve Whitmire was “pushed out” of the Muppets. By this time, Disney owned the property, purchased in 2004. There has been plenty of debate about Kermit’s recasting. On one side, Whitmire felt protective of Jim Henson’s “legacy and lineage” and Kermit’s connection to the audience and pushed against some of the decisions Disney were making with the characters. On the other, Whitmire had “destructive energy” and “outrageous demands” – that’s according to quotes from Brian Henson at the time.

Reflecting on it now, Whitmire says: “In a corporate surrounding it’s easy to see how talking about someone’s spirit and how great the feeling was becomes this intangible thing. It’s very difficult to translate that in a boardroom. And I really tried. I think they just got tired of hearing from me.”

Six years on, he still seems hurt and confused about his dismissal, but wonders if enough time has passed to rebuild bridges.

“I would go back and do more of it. I have nothing but wonderful memories of almost 40 years. I’m not as young as I used to be, but I’m still active. I’m working on other things, other characters. When you say you’re ‘in development’, it just means you haven’t gotten a deal with something.

“So I’m still out there, still kicking. It’s crossed my mind that after five or six years I should reach out to Disney,” he says. “It’s hard to know how to gauge things with the Hensons.”

Although not directly involved, the Henson family are still influential when it comes to the Muppets. They both feature in this article but Steve Whitmire and Brian Henson haven’t spoken for a while. Henson did have kind words to share about working with him on The Muppet Christmas Carol though.

“Oh, he did a fantastic job,” Henson says. “He’s capable of very deep performances. The falling out between me and Steve is really about business ethics. Working with him on set was always good. And he really worked hard and is one of the most physically capable, if not the most physically capable, puppeteer in the world. He did a really good job on Christmas Carol.”

In real life, the story of some of the people who worked together on The Muppet Christmas Carol is yet to find a happy resolution. But what they created together, at a difficult time personally and professionally for those involved, will go down in history. Three decades after its release it is as funny and heartening and vital as ever.

In A Christmas Carol, three spirits visit Scrooge. The Muppet Christmas Carol has ensured that the spirit of Jim Henson – and all that the Muppets represent – will be around for many Christmases yet to come.

The Muppet Christmas Carol is back in cinemas this month and available to stream on Disney+

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