Miles Goodman, Paul Williams: The Muppet Christmas Carol

“Old Marley was as dead as a doornail. 
Mind! I don't mean to say that, of my own knowledge, what there is particularly dead about a doornail. I might have been inclined, myself, to regard a coffin-nail as the deadest piece of ironmongery in the trade. But the wisdom of our ancestors is in the simile; and my unhallowed hands shall not disturb it, or the Country's done for. You will therefore permit me to repeat, emphatically, that Marley was as dead as a doornail.” 
― Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol

Jim Henson (1936-1990) began professionally playing with puppets in 1958, founding the then-titled Muppets, Inc. which you probably now know as the Jim Henson Company. Henson created several characters and skillfully brought them to life through the magic of puppetry. Tragically, he died in 1990, from a late-diagnosed infection in his lungs. At his funeral, many of the puppeteers and voice actors that helped him create the Muppet universe reprised the many roles for which they were responsible and shared remembrances of him through song. The Wikipedia article describes it well:

"In the final minutes of the two-and-a-half-hour service, six of the core Muppet performers—Dave Goelz, Frank Oz, Kevin Clash, Steve Whitmire, Jerry Nelson, and Richard Hunt—sang, in their characters' voices, a medley of Jim Henson's favorite songs, eventually ending with a performance of "Just One Person" that began with Richard Hunt singing alone, as Scooter. Henson employee Chris Barry writes that during each verse, "each Muppeteer joined in with their own Muppets until the stage was filled with all the Muppet performers and their beloved characters." The funeral was later described by Life as 'an epic and almost unbearably moving event.'"

Prior to his death, Henson had been in talks with Disney about merging his company with the larger corporation, but negotiations had been halted after his passing. Henson's son Brian took the helm and instead negotiated a deal regarding release rights and began to pursue completing Jim's most recent project, A Muppet Christmas Carol.


Charles Dickens (1812-1870) lived in a time before the internet, and therefore also a time before people communicated platforms of social change by sharing memes on Facebook.

Instead, Dickens and his contemporaries would write pamphlets or essays describing the social ills of Victorian Europe and hope that through their publication, the masses would come to understand their point of view. This worked out much as you might imagine it would today.

In 1843, Dickens was facing a decline in popularity and sought to craft a work that would provide a new and enduring source of income. He was also beset by the social injustice of his day, particularly as it related toward children and the lack of any regulation over the employment of young ones. He himself spent time in a blacking factory at a young age in order to support his family whilst his father was incarcerated, an experience that left him both scarred and emboldened with a sense of equality amongst the various social classes. 
Dickens wanted to create something that would express his discontent with the nature of avarice and classism that pervaded London, but he also wanted it to be something that people would actually want to read, thus giving it half a chance of actually changing people's minds. So, he tapped into the Victorian love affair with the Christmas tradition and paired that with his own childhood trauma, made a bi-personality cross-section of his father and Bob's your uncle- a Christmas Carol.

Success was immediate. In England it was revered and established as a "new gospel" of the day, evoking the humanistic response that Dickens had envisioned. Many who read it were inspired by the redemption of Scrooge, perhaps to say that it was relieving to learn that no human could ever sink low enough so as to be immune to atonement of the soul, the spirit. As a result of the archetypal qualities inherent to the story, it quickly became a tome to tell and retell, being set for stage in no time at all.

This brings us to our example today. Carol had a tremendous impact on Victorian society and heavily influences the contemporary observance of Christmas around the globe. Many of the less sacred traditions had been eroded by Puritanism.  Puritans of course being a group who firmly believed that if they weren't going to have fun, then they had better make damn sure nobody else did either.

Shortly before his death, Jim Henson had been planning to create a Muppet edition of the Christmas Carol with the Disney collaboration, and his son Brian directed the production two years following his father's death in 1990. The adaptation is remarkably true to the original work, omitting little and frequently utilizing Dickens' own words throughout the screenplay. It is one of the few Muppet movies to utilize a majority of human actors in major roles with Muppets in supporting roles.  

The film was scored by Miles Goodman (1949-1996), who had worked with Frank Oz on some of his projects, and had songs written by Paul Williams (b. 1940). Goodman first developed an interest in film scoring from learning of the career from his cousin, Johnny Mandel. Goodman moved to Los Angeles, studied composition and theory and eventually broke his way into film scoring due to a natural talent for orchestration. 

Paul Williams is probably better known for his work in popular music, having written hits for David Bowie, the Carpenters, and Three Dog Night. Williams connected with Henson in 1979 and cowrote "Rainbow Connection" with Kenneth Ascher. Interestingly enough, Williams also played roles on the screen in several Muppet-related productions as well as other film and television shows on which he occasionally wrote music. 

An interesting note of production drama is the omission of "When Love is Gone" from the theatrical release, and several subsequent home releases. During this song, Belle sings about how Scrooge only cares about money and a pivotal moment of character development occurs as we learn of how Scrooge lost her affections in favor of his lust for wealth. Allegedly, Jeffrey Katzenberg thought kids would not connect here and thus the song was cut, however the reprise, "When Love is Found" remained intact at the conclusion of the film. 

The work is a refreshing retelling of the classic story, clad in the anticipated antics that comes with a Muppets title. Michael Caine is a convincing Scrooge, and the warmth and spirit of the message comes through in spades. The score only amplifies this effect, while not showing us anything remarkably different from the prototypical Hollywood musical, the tunes are catchy and heart-warming and will definitely leave you humming along as you go about your business. A good deal of allure surrounding the original work comes from the fact that it is not a straightforward Christmas story, but more correctly a ghost story on and about Christmastime and the Henson treatment provides an appropriate climate for this, with healthy interspersions of comedy to alleviate nightmares in younger viewers. 

All your base are belong to us.
The music carries the film well, and endears the characters to us as we bear witness to Scrooge's development. Perhaps the most enjoyable tune for me comes from the Ghost of Christmas Present, who greets us with "It Feels Like Christmas", a spirited jaunt through Christmas day and all that it entails. 

I've written a lot lately about how much we structure the holiday to be driven toward some insanely jolly and nigh-unachievable "perfect" Christmas. We are comforted by this song in the sense that Christmas can be found in many places, and it doesn't necessarily take anything special to observe the warmth of the holiday, beyond an open heart and mind, something that Scrooge himself must work at to perfect. 

It's not what we've got, but who we've got that counts and that to seek out the seemingly "little things" makes the season all that more special. 

See you next Friday.