We Should All Dream of a World With No Scrooges

The Muppet Christmas Carol story rightly insists that greed is a sin and charity a virtue, and trumpets a future where there are no more Scrooges around.

Michael Caine stars as Ebenezer Scrooge in The Muppet Christmas Carol. (Walt Disney Pictures / Jim Henson Productions)

It’s Christmastime, and the cobblestone streets of London are packed with pigs in top hats trucking cartloads of talking vegetables. Gonzo and Rizzo the Rat are selling apples for a tuppence a piece, but Rizzo keeps eating the inventory. Gonzo admonishes him, but Rizzo snaps back with an economic self-justification: “Hey, I’m creating scarcity! Drives the prices up.”

So begins The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992), the fourth feature film starring the Muppets and the first to be produced by Jim Henson’s heirs following the creator’s untimely demise. The film is a fairly straightforward adaptation of Charles Dickens’s 1843 novella A Christmas Carol, the story of a miserly misanthrope who is visited by a series of spirits on Christmas Eve. The story’s sentimentality is both tempered and deepened by the presence of Muppets, who add warmth and humor to the source material.

The Muppet version is narrated by Gonzo, assuming the role of Charles Dickens and using passages lifted directly from the text to frame the action. Much of its comic relief comes from the slapstick antics of Rizzo, who remains Gonzo’s faithful sidekick despite being set on fire, frozen solid, squished, flung into a snowbank, stuck in a chimney, and partially cooked along with the Cratchit family’s Christmas goose.

Like all Muppet movies, The Muppet Christmas Carol is perfectly calibrated to entertain children and adults simultaneously, weaving silliness with serious insights. But perhaps more than any other work in the Muppet catalog, The Muppet Christmas Carol is a story of moral transformation with a powerful message of social responsibility. As holiday films go, you can’t do much better.

“Harvesttime for the Moneylenders”

At the heart of The Muppet Christmas Carol is Michael Caine’s icy portrayal of Ebenezer Scrooge — “a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner” whose only love is making money — and even that doesn’t make him happy. Scrooge is introduced as a “moneylender” who makes his fortune by renting out “dark and drafty houses” to the poor. When he arrives at his office on Christmas Eve, a Muppet named Mr. Applegate is waiting to ask him for forbearance on his mortgage. Scrooge picks him up and tosses him into the street, drawing frightened winces from his undercompensated clerk Bob Cratchit (played by Kermit the Frog) and a chorus of pencil-pushing office rats.

“Let us deal with the eviction notices for tomorrow, Mr. Cratchit,” Scrooge sneers as he returns to his desk. “Tomorrow is Christmas, Sir,” Cratchit protests. “Very well, you may gift wrap them,” the boss retorts, placing an oversize pile of documents in the frog’s skinny arms.

Scrooge then rhapsodizes about how December is “harvesttime for the moneylenders” as borrowers fall behind on their loan payments. When the rats line up behind Cratchit to petition for another shovelful of coal to warm the freezing office, Scrooge responds by threatening to fire all of them.

With the character of Scrooge, Dickens creates an almost cartoonish personification of the cutthroat callousness and greed that animates capitalist logic. By casting Scrooge as a human in a world mostly populated by Muppets, The Muppet Christmas Carol emphasizes the distance this kind of logic creates between haves and have-nots. The Muppets are inherently lovable and delightful; the fact that Scrooge has nothing for contempt for them can only be the result of a kind of warped value system — the only human character in the room is the one who exhibits the least humanity.

As soon as Scrooge leaves his office, the gloomy room becomes a cavern of strange wonders, as rats in waistcoats catapult each other into the air and use the furnace to give each other steam baths as they tidy up. Like the kitchen rats in The Muppets Take Manhattan, who scat sing and bang out rhythms on pots and pans while they mix batter and grease the griddle, these office rats build fun into their workday. Such levity is intolerable to Scrooge, who prizes profitability over all other values.

The only way that Bob Cratchit can persuade him to give his workers Christmas Day off is by appealing to his bottom line — since all the other businesses will be closed, it would be a waste of heating fuel to remain open.

As Gareth Jenkins has pointed out, the class consciousness Dickens expressed in stories like A Christmas Carol was informed by his own life experiences. As a child, the novelist was sent to work in a shoeblacking factory while his father was locked in a debtor’s prison.

This topic is raised directly when Bunsen and Beaker implore Scrooge for a donation to help the poor and homeless. Scrooge replies that if the tax-supported prisons and poorhouses are insufficient, then the poor and homeless are welcome to die and thus “decrease the surplus population” — a nod to the Malthusian population theory that was often used as an argument against charity in Victorian England.

Scrooge’s miserly outlook is challenged by a series of ghostly visitations on Christmas Eve. First, he sees his deceased business partners Jacob and Robert Marley — portrayed by spooky all-white versions of Waldorf and Statler — who are spending the afterlife shackled in chains forged by their own cruelty. Then, he is visited by the ethereal Ghost of Christmas Past, who searches his childhood and a failed engagement for the roots of his anhedonia. (Unfortunately, a pivotal song establishing the impact of a painful breakup on Scrooge’s psyche has been cut from the most accessible versions of the film.)

With the aid of the next spirit, the jolly Ghost of Christmas Present, Scrooge sees how Bob Cratchit’s home is filled with love and joy, despite the clerk’s poverty. Scrooge is especially affected by the sight of Cratchit’s youngest son, the sickly yet optimistic Tiny Tim (played by Robin the Frog), who rides on his father’s shoulder singing in a capella harmony.

The final visitor is the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, a towering, grim reaper–like Muppet with a hollow void for a face. This ghost shows Scrooge a future that will come to pass if events remain on their current trajectory: Scrooge is dead and no one mourns him; Tiny Tim is also dead and remembered warmly by Bob Cratchit in a speech about “the first parting among us.” (This scene doubles as a memorial for Jim Henson, who had performed Kermit the Frog until his death in 1990.) When Scrooge expresses sadness over Tiny Tim’s fate, he is confronted with his own callous characterization of the poor as “surplus population.”

Scrooge is sincerely moved by what the spirits show him and resolves to change both himself and the future through acts of generosity and kindness. On the morning after his visitations, he delivers a large turkey dinner to the home of Bob Cratchit, with the promise of raising the clerk’s salary and paying off the mortgage on his humble home. His cheerful munificence takes everyone by surprise, especially Bob’s wife Emily (played by the incomparable Miss Piggy), who comes to the door prepared to give her husband’s boss a piece of her mind.

With this change of heart, The Muppet Christmas Carol drives home its social and moral thesis: the spirit of Christmas is only accessible through the love of one’s fellow man (and Muppet).

“A Promise to Share the Wealth”

Dickens’s decision to write A Christmas Carol was inspired, in part, by a visit to the factories of Manchester, less than a year after Friedrich Engels had become radicalized by the poor working conditions in the city. Engels’s “Outlines of a Critique of Political Economy” was written at almost the exact same time as A Christmas Carol, and there is some overlap in their themes — for instance, in the common invocation of Malthusian population theory as a justification for greed.

While Engels rails against the very idea of private property, Dickens makes an emotional appeal to the moral sensibilities of the rich. But the social power of Scrooge’s transformation should not be underestimated, as it represents a complete reorientation toward the Other.

In the film’s final musical sequence, Scrooge sings as he embarks on a spree of generosity, “With an open smile and with open doors, I bid you welcome, what is mine is yours — with a glass raised to toast your health, and a promise to share the wealth.” Capitalist exploitation relies on feelings of separation and alienation to undermine the possibility of solidarity; Scrooge overcomes this alienation and is a new man. Such newly discovered good cheer isn’t enough to overthrow capitalism, but maybe it’s a start.

Prior to the nineteenth century, Christmas was thought of as a drunken, raucous holiday in the English-speaking world, and had even been outlawed in New England by the Puritans. By the 1840s, however, a new conception of Christmas was emerging, which sought to recover something wholesome that was perceived as having been lost to industrialization and modernity.

In his vision of Christmas Past, Scrooge’s ruthless ethos is contrasted with the generosity and festive spirit of his former employer, Mr. Fezziwig (played by Fozzie Bear as “Fozziwig” in the Muppet version). Dickens points to the dehumanizing effect that industrialization was believed to have on business operations. According to this common Victorian sentiment, the communal festivities of Christmas could be an occasion to rekindle the sense of camaraderie and playfulness that had disappeared from the lives of bosses and workers alike under capitalism.

A Christmas Carol was instrumental in helping to popularize this new kind of Christmas celebration. Its memorable characters and images — particularly the Father Christmas–like Ghost of Christmas Present — were also mined by advertisers in their efforts to turn Christmas into the vehicle for mass commerce that it is today. (This tension between conscience and commodification is also felt in the fact that it is now virtually impossible to watch The Muppet Christmas Carol without giving money to Disney — another company with an aggressive anti-union history — which has owned the Muppets since 2004.)

Global media conglomerates and overly commodified holidays notwithstanding, The Muppet Christmas Carol is a warm, charming holiday classic. Not only does the film rightly insist that greed is a sin and charity a virtue, it also suggests that even the worst people are capable of changing for the better — a possibility we must keep open if we have any hope of living in a post-Scrooge society.