Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Santa vs. Santa

In my excitement of holidays past, I made a few errors in relating the truth about Muppet Christmas specials.  Originally, I said that 1977's Emmett Otter was the first special created exclusively by the Henson Company.  I knew that Muppets had appeared in other Christmas specials before then, but I wrongfully believed that the critters in Frogtown were the first members of an original Henson Xmas tale.  Turns out I was off by 7 years.  There was actually a 1970 special produced by The Ed Sullivan Show that dealt with a fierce battle between good and evil as horrific Muppet monsters threatened to take over Christmas.  It all went down in The Great Santa Claus Switch.

(Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6) Sorry for the poor quality, but the film is quite rare.

The Muppets had already appeared a dozen or so times on The Ed Sullivan Show (including appearances in a couple Christmas themed skits which I've yet to track down).  So when Henson and script writer Jerry Juhl came to Ed Sullivan with this special, after struggling to find a producer, he allowed them to use his show's time slot the Sunday before Christmas.  Sullivan acted as narrator for the episode, but the main focus was on the Muppets and Art Carney.

Which Santa is he now?

Carney portrayed both Santa Claus and the oddly-named villian Cosmo Scam, who lives in a cave under Santa's workshop.  He schemes with his monstrous Frackles to kidnap and impersonate Santa so that he can easily break into the homes of every family in the world and rob them.  The Frackles come in many shapes and sizes, proud to serve their evil master.

Including the original Gonzo, who resided in Scam's cigar box.

On the surface, Santa Claus prepares for Christmas Eve with his singing elves.  

Not to be confused with the singing Elvises.

The hokey songs and characters seemed to suggest that this Christmas special would be an unoriginal exercise in the audience's patience.  Santa and his good elves and an evil Christmas hater with monsters? Sounds like the cast of every Rankin-Bass Christmas special ever.  But the quality of the show takes a turn for the better when this guy shows up:

It's that blue guy from The Muppet Show opening!  And I just saw him in the new movie too!

This big guy is Thog (Jerry Nelson), partnered with another green giant known as Thig (who never reappeared after this special).  Thig (Frank Oz) was the brains of the group while Thog...is the other one.  His dopey demeanor, childish voice and sad eyes make him instantly lovable.  Never have I been so inclined to want to hug a Muppet as much as I did whenever he appeared on screen.  Scam instructs Thig and Thog to kidnap Santa and the two lumbering brutes set out to accomplish this task.  Fortunately for them, they choose the exact moment that the lowliest elf Fred (Jim Henson) is singing raucously about how he would do anything to protect Santa Claus, distracting him long enough to overlook the kidnapping.

Pictured: The moment this show went from mediocre to amazing.

Once Santa is in his grips, Scam starts masquerading as him up on the surface, arousing the suspicions of Fred.  He locks Fred up in his cave and replaces him in the workshop with a poorly disguised Frackle, setting off a hilarious chain reaction in which elves are replaced with Frackles one-by-one.

In his own cell, Santa starts to bond with his captors.  Throughout the whole process, he has remained quite level-headed.  He treats Thig and Thog with respect because he is Santa Claus, and Santa is nice to everybody.  Also, during the day, we have seen Santa attempt to fool his elves with parlor tricks like making coins disappear.  All of his tricks have failed, leading us to believe that Santa is a hack of a magician.  However, when Thog sheepishly approaches him with a request for a toy train, Santa is able to magically produce one, explaining that once Christmas begins, so does the magic.

The miracle of being imprisoned on Christmas.

The two giants, despite not being very threatening anyway, become huge softies as they learn what it is like to be nice to one another on Christmas.  When Thig exchanges his new teddy bear with Thog's truck, everyone watching this with me couldn't help but utter "Awwwwww."

The rest of the special is just as endearing and it should not be too much of a surprise to hear that Santa and the elves escape, Fred manages to prevent Cosmo Scam from ruining Christmas, and everyone lives happily ever after.   Even Scam is not punished in the end, for Santa understands that evil is as evil does. He gets off with a slight warning and everyone goes off to celebrate Christmas.

Because of the obscurity of this special, I was sure that it was not going to be anything great.  But the puppeteers and Art Carney really blend together throughout the entire show.  Carney does not act like a stereotypical Christmas baddie.  Usually the villains in these specials are over-the-top and ridiculous, but Cosmo just seems like a normal, yet immoral, human being.  Santa is also not this high and mighty omniscient individual, as he is often portrayed.  His goodness seems to stem from a personal choice.  He just notices that life goes better when people are nice to one another, so that's how he lives his life.  The evil Frackles have no choice but to become the good guys because it just makes logical sense.

The duality of a good and evil Santa is an interesting concept to explore.  I've seen evil St. Nicks before, but never paired with a good one to balance him out.  The Grinch has no adversary, Robot Santa Claus was not much worse than Bender Claus, and Jack Skellington really was trying his best.  No, this is the true Jekyll and Hyde of Christmas.

The Christmas spirit is strong with this one, and the laissez-faire attitude towards being kind and peaceful manages to keep this program subtle and charming, rather than preachy and schlocky.

Then, during the credits, we observe Cosmo, pouting outside of the workshop while the rest of the cast parties and celebrates a job well done.  Thog emerges from the small building and offers the villain a gift before escorting him inside to socialize.  It's contrived and schmaltzy, but I just cant help myself....

AAAAAAWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWW!!!!  I  WANT TO HUG HIM SO MUCH!!!!

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