On paper, a 19th century novelist, a bunch of puppets and a serious actor known for playing outlaws make for an unlikely cinema mix.
Yet 30 years after The Muppet Christmas Carol was released, with Michael Caine in the lead role, it is still a much-loved festive classic.
To mark the anniversary, the musical drama – renowned for being one of the best adaptations of a Charles Dickens novel – will return to cinemas this month.
And this time around, it has been specially extended to include a ballad by Paul Williams, called When Love Is Gone, which was dropped from the original theatrical release.
Disney+ subscribers will also be able to watch the new version from today.
When the movie was released in 1992, many felt the film – based on Dickens’ moving 1843 novella – would flop, even with Caine in the lead role.
Henson Studios had already made three Muppet movies and the TV show was well past its 1970s heyday. The team had also lost two creative giants – Muppet creator Jim Henson, who died suddenly in May 1990, followed by puppeteer Richard Hunt in January 1992.
Agent Bill Haber was enthusiastic about the project but Henson’s son Brian, who was then 29 and thrust reluctantly into the director’s chair, was less sure.
Brian recalls: “The whole industry thought, ‘Oh well, without Jim Henson that’ll be the end of the Muppets’.
“We were all worried that it couldn’t continue and knew that it all did hinge on Muppet Christmas Carol.”
Losing Jim Henson also meant losing the voice of Kermit. Brian chose long-standing cast member Steve Whitmire to play the frog in the role of Bob Cratchit, the struggling clerk to miserly Ebeneezer Scrooge.
The classic book was adapted by Jerry Juhl with a soundtrack by Miles Goodman, the man behind the music in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and Little Shop of Horrors.
The original plan was to only use puppets but the decision was made to include Caine as Scrooge.
The Oscar winner accepted the role to impress his then seven-year-old daughter. In a 2016 interview, he said: “It was absolutely perfect at that time for what I wanted. I could make it and my daughter could see it. That’s why I did it. And it was lovely.”
Shot at Surrey’s Shepperton Studios in the summer of 1992, Christmas Carol was the first Muppet film to be produced by Walt Disney Pictures and won rave reviews from critics and audiences.
It was released in America on December 11 and in the UK the following week, leaving little time for audiences to see it before Christmas, especially as it was competing with Home Alone 2.
It cost around $12million to make and grossed $32.5million worldwide – a modest hit at the time.
But the film became a true classic when it was rushed to video release by Disney the following year, skipping the rental market and earning millions as a stocking filler. Muppet Treasure Island followed in 1996.
Dr Andrew Dix, a film studies lecturer at Loughborough University, rates The Muppet Christmas Carol as one of the best festive films of all time.
He says the mixture of the Muppets’ slapstick and the seriousness of Dickens’ story make the movie unique.
Dr Dix adds: “The film works so well because it brings together two much-loved cultural institutions.
“Adapting A Christmas Carol perhaps allows the Muppets a bigger range of tones and genres than in their TV shows.
“Yes, there’s plenty of the usual comedy and songs, but there’s also a pathos that responds to their source material in Dickens. Think of the scene of one of the puppets freezing under a covering of newspapers in the street or the sadness of seeing Tiny Tim’s cap and crutch on his chair when it seems he’s died.”
Puppeteer Louise Gold has worked with Henson Studios for 46 year since being hired aged 20.
She told how the job requires incredible skill and strength to bring the characters to life.
Louise, 66, says: “You are holding a puppet above your head, watching a monitor, not tripping over cables and acting as well because with the Muppets, you do the voices live.
“It is like being an actor but then having to do all the technical stuff at the same time.
“A lot of us have neck and shoulder issues now. You would see us sitting around on set massaging each other!”
Louise believes the combination of Dickens’ story, Caine’s sincerity and the Muppets’ heart ensured the movie stood the test of time.
She says: “Michael Caine was brilliant. He absolutely pitched it right with the sincerity. He was playing Scrooge – he wasn’t playing Scrooge in the Muppets.
“I was in awe of him because, technically, he knew exactly what he was doing, but without losing the heart and emotion.”
Like Dr Dix, Louise also praised the marriage of traditional tale and modern characters for the film’s lasting appeal.
She adds: “A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens is an incredibly poignant, moving story. What is wonderful about the film is it doesn’t play down the sinister sides, but there are also those wonderful Muppet characters.
“The thing about the Muppets is the heart and the vulnerability. There is such love between them.
“I always describe the original performers as like a dysfunctional family. We drove each other mad but there was huge love and respect for each other as well and I think you can sense that through the film.
“It is not a flippant thing – they did it with great love and great care.”
Mum's old coat led to a global hit
The Muppets were originally created by US puppeteer Jim Henson for a five-minute show, Sam and Friends, in 1955.
They appeared in adverts and on Sesame Street before Henson persuaded TV execs a sketch series would appeal to adults.
American channels passed over the pilot, but Henson’s idea was taken on by British producer Lew Grade in 1976.
Existing characters Kermit and Rowlf were joined by Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear and Gonzo. Most are hand puppets but several have rods to move their limbs.
By Christmas 1976, 14 million Brits tuned in every Sunday night and The Muppet Show was soon broadcast worldwide, going on to win four Emmys.
The first Muppet movie was released in 1979, followed by seven more over four decades, plus a host of musicals, albums and merchandise.
The first incarnation of Kermit was made out of Henson’s mum’s coat and some ping pong balls.
He refuted rumours he got the frog’s name from a childhood friend or an early a puppeteer.
Meanwhile, drummer Animal was allegedly inspired by The Who’s Keith Moon.
Fans also spotted that Jim Henson named a Fraggle Rock character Wembley – the London area where Moon was born.