There are more reasons than you can count why The Muppet Christmas Carol from 1992 is one of the best Christmas films ever made. The singing, the story and most importantly, the Muppets themselves. But with such headline-grabbing antics from Jim Henson’s believed creations, it is easy to overlook the film’s human element. Michael Caine is utterly exceptional as the tight-fisted Ebenezer Scrooge, and he is just as large a factor in the film’s success as all the delightful non-human characters.
In 2015, the film’s director Brian Henson told The Guardian that when he approached Caine for the role, the actor has this to say:
“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.”
And he stuck to his word. If you looked at Caine’s menacing, imposing performance in isolation, you would never know there was a Muppet within 100 miles. And yet, in hindsight, there is more to Caine’s words than immediately meets the eye. For the Muppets are not just pieces of felt, held up by wood and wire. They are beloved characters in their own right, imbued with emotion, presence and style. Caine was right not to act as if he was with puppets because, in a way, he wasn’t – the Muppets are something more. He more or less treats them in exactly the same way as the human characters, namely as people to extract wealth out of however he deems necessary. Why? Because that is exactly what Ebenezer Scrooge would do.
It is this commitment to the role, and his evident lack of charity even when surrounded by some of TV and film’s most delightful characters, that make Caine such an accomplished Scrooge. Early in the film especially, Caine perfectly captures Scrooge’s cut-throat, callous nature with pursed lips and wicked glares. His villainous, eerily charming smile – a smile that could only belong to Caine – only appears when he thinks about the financial hardship he will bring upon others. The veteran actor so capably handles the layers underneath Scrooge’s hardened exterior; his heartbreak, his younger years and – in the latter stages – his fear of a pitiful death. Caine convinces you beyond doubt that Scrooge is much more than a thinly-constructed, atypical villain. He is a cursed old man who has been manipulated by the lure of money and the events of his own, lonely life.
Just as important as capturing Scrooge’s heartless nature however is capturing his transition. Yet again, the British actor excels. Little by little, Scrooge’s hatred gives way to Caine’s innate charm and wit. By the time he is under the spell of the Ghost of Christmas Present, he is even prepared to have a laugh and absorb himself ever so slightly in the magic of Christmas. But crucially, this is not immediate. An early exchange with the jolly ghost sees Scrooge crack a joke that, while short, speaks volumes about where his character is at:
Scrooge: “I don’t think I’ve ever met anybody like you before.”
Ghost of Christmas Present: “Really? Over 1800 of my brothers have come before me!”
Scrooge: “1800? Imagine the grocery bills!”
His heart is now open to touches of humour, play and joy. But crucially his soul is not yet saved. Everything about him is still obsessed with the lure of money and the premise of economic gain, the very reason why Dickens cast Scrooge as such an unrepentant villain in the first place. Even his sense of humour is poisoned with the false promise of wealth. In this short, throwaway moment, Caine excels. It is not quite fair to call his grin a crocodile smile, but nonetheless you cannot help but feel there is a coldness still lurking underneath Scrooge’s warming exterior. Caine is central in cementing this impression, and goes on to solidify this feeling throughout the rest of the film.
Eventually, after being forced to confront his fate if he remains unchanged, Scrooge repents. He is now full of Christmas cheer and good will to all (or at least scared of the consequences if he acts otherwise). It is unbelievable that this is the same man who started the film as a cruel and sometimes violent man beyond saving. In the only significant divergence from the sincerity Caine promised to practice throughout, he is singing and dancing with the Muppets by the film’s climax, and treats his loyal worker Bob Cratchit to the Christmas he deserves. Again, Caine is near faultless. Say what you will about his vocals; ‘Thankful Heart’ is loaded with the happiness and optimism that it needs to be worthy of a heartfelt singalong. Caine’s disarming persona and cheeriness suddenly come flying out, and his genuine glee at wishing everyone a Merry Christmas is utterly endearing.
There have been many takes on Scrooge of course. Alastair Sim, Albert Finney and more recently Colin Baker are among many actors to have a stab at bringing Ebenezer Scrooge to life. A different take can be seen courtesy of Jim Carrey in Robert Zemeckis’ animated retelling, while most recently Scrooge has been brought to life by Simon Russell Beale in David and Jacqui Morris’ adaptation. Yet Caine remains unparalleled, unique, and a joy from start to finish. The way he manages, embodies and sustains Scrooge’s change from a cold-hearted villain to a man full of Christmas cheer is masterful, and a central part of why The Muppet Christmas Carol remains such a stalwart festive favourite.