Everyone has those one or two movies which signify to them that the Christmas season is upon us. You know ... the movie or TV special which opens up your cynical little heart and lets the Christmas spirit charge on in and take control for a while. For some people, it is Miracle on 34th Street, or the Charlie Brown Christmas Special, or Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Typically, they are films you watched with your family while you decorated the tree as a child, or something equally nostalgic and appropriate. For me, it is the Muppets. This weekend was tree weekend for my wife and I, and we gathered to us some of our closest friends for a weekend of tree cutting, popcorn stringing, and hot cocoa drinking. The entire weekend was filled with Muppet Christmas shows, and life was good. For the casual Muppet fan -- those of you who are trying to figure out how we had more than one or maybe two movies to watch this weekend -- allow me to enlighten you. 12 Days of Cinematicalmas brings you Christmas with Jim Henson:
- Emmit Otter's Jug Band Christmas. Everybody loves a good version of the Gift of The Magi, especially when it is played out by a cute otter family. Henson's adaptation of the classic children's book is a little campy, a bit rough around the edges and thoroughly packed with adorable. You can tell Henson and company are still operating on a small budget, but they really make it go a long way. And despite the obvious places where the puppetry is a bit weak, the town and the characters in it are completely believable. It features an all woodland creatures jug band, a river creatures rock band, and one of the most soulful songs ever performed by the Muppets, "When the River Meets the Sea."
- Christmas Eve on Sesame Street. If you haven't seen this one hour TV movie, you have a gaping hole in your childhood which you must remedy immediately. This is the Sesame Street special, and it is 100% timeless. Starring Big Bird (yes, remember the days when Sesame Street movies starred people other than Elmo) and prominently featuring Kermit and Grover (remember the days when a cute little monster meant Grover and not Elmo?) discussing the physics of Santa and chimneys with kids, this movie has it all. Bert and Ernie re-enacting the Gift of the Magi (hey, that story again), Cookie Monster trying desperately to write to Santa asking for cookies, and ... and ... Mr. Hooper! Sesame Street today is a depressing place with no Mr. Hooper and tons of Elmo.
- The Christmas Toy. A rather odd made-for-TV special by the Henson company which didn't feature any of the usual Muppet characters. This one wasn't great; it has pacing issues and a totally creepy girl doll, but the strength of the Muppet performers provides enough entertainment to make it worth watching. The story was Toy Story ten years before Toy Story happened -- toys come to life and interact with each other when humans aren't around, and the "favorite" toy is highly concerned because Christmas is bringing a favorite toy into the playroom. The new toy is an impressive outer-space action figure who has yet to realize what a "toy" is. Together, the rest of the toys teach these two how to deal with the new situation. ...
- A Muppet Family Christmas. This film is a tour de force for Jim Henson and the Muppet team. Henson has created a very large world at this point, and he uses this special to show it all off. Fozzie and the gang (almost the entire gang) visit Fozzie's mom for Christmas. The Sesame Street gang shows up as a band of roving carolers (with Elmo in the background only, and not actually saying a word), and the Fraggles make a short appearance via a Fraggle hole in Emily Bear's basement. There is no real plot, except for a weird thread about the Swedish Chef cooking Christmas dinner and wanting to baste Big Bird, which ends in a Bird/Chef duet you have to hear to believe. If you like anything the Muppets have done, you simply must watch this special. You can find it on DVD, but you're better off hunting down a friend who recorded it from TV back in the day, because several really amusing scenes got hacked out of the DVD release.
- Muppet Christmas Carol. This full-length feature film breaks your heart right off the bat, because the opening "in memory of" reminds you that Jim Henson and Richard Hunt have died. This movie begins an era of without Electric Mayhem, Rowlf, or Scooter -- an era which the Muppets are still struggling to emerge from. The Muppet team does a great job crafting a tribute film to Jim Henson, and the Muppet cast is a fantastic fit for the classic Christmas tale. This film was when Muppet writer Jerry Juhl (God rest his soul) found the friendship between Gonzo and Rizzo; a team-up which allowed Kermit to take a non-lead role for a bit while Steve Whitmire got used to bringing him to life. "It Feels Like Christmas" is one of my favorite Christmas songs, and the whole movie aches with Christmas spirit. A great job of pulling together the Muppets and showing the world the characters could go on in a post Jim Henson world (at least, for a while -- we'll not talk about the state of the Muppets right now, as it makes me very sad).
- A Very Merry Muppet Christmas Movie. This was a brief Christmas special from just a few years back, and the last thing they put together which was even arguably worth watching (although I still hope they can return to some measure of greatness eventually). Yes, it has Whoopi Goldberg in it, but she's not in it much. The special has quick throw-away parodies of a lot of classic Christmas stories, and is obviously an overall parody of It's A Wonderful Life. After a plot set up which puts the future of the Muppet Theater in jeopardy, we're treated to a view of what the world would have been if Kermit the Frog had never been born. Let me tell you, this kid would never want to live in a world without Kermit the Frog. This certainly isn't the Muppets at the top of their game, but it is a solid TV movie Muppet production.