Monday, December 31, 2012

Let There Be Light

Music is essential to our culture.  The original stories, passed down through oral traditions, were often told in song and poetry.  The rhymes, rhythm, meter, and other poetic tropes helped make longer stories easier to memorize.  By setting the stories to music, history would be forever linked with song.

The Fraggle culture is even more dependent on music that we are.  They sing every single day.  Like our primitive societies, this was one of the only ways to stay entertained, sane, and alive.  Think that may seem a bit over-dramatic?  Well, consider "The Day the Music Died."

Once every generational cycle, a Fraggle is chosen to write and compose "The Glory Song."  This would be the defining song for the whole generation, preserving that group's history.  As the current cycle is coming to a close, Gobo is selected to write the Glory Song for the next cycle.  Gobo, considering himself to be more of an explorer, and less of the creative type, has trouble concentrating on writing this very important piece.  So as to not distract him, all of the other Fraggles refrain from singing until he is ready.  And that's when things get dark.


All of the light starts to vanish from the cave.  The last few remaining specks cry out to the Fraggles for help.  These creatures are known as the Ditzies (similar to fireflies) and they are as confused as the Fraggles.  All they know is that they are dying rapidly, plunging the Rock into darkness.  Without any source of light, the Fraggles start to enter into a permanent sleep stasis.

Gobo and Wembley manage to make their way to the Trash Heap in the well-lit garden to ask for advice.  Being as cryptic as usual, she instructs them to "do what they always do."

But that's what got us in this mess in the first place.

Unsure of what to do, Gobo and Wembley head back to the cave to pull the Fraggles out into the light. Unfortunately, Wembley falls fast asleep, and Gobo only has enough strength to lift his guitar.  In a vain attempt to keep himself awake, Gobo begins to improvise a song.  He calls it "Shine On Me" and with each strum of the strings, a Ditzie flies out of the guitar.

The song restores everyone back to life, with a whole new set of Ditzies lighting the caves.  The Fraggles hail this as Gobo's Glory Song and they celebrate to ring in the new cycle.

"Should old acquaintance be forgot and never brought to mind...!"

The Fraggles learned that sometimes a simple, well-intentioned change could destroy years of support and structure within a society.  By removing music from the equation, the Fraggles ceased to be.  What is the point of having Fraggle Rock without any music in it?  The universe has a way of course correcting to ensure that giant populations can get through difficult situations.  That's because everything eventually tries to find a balance, a stasis.

For people, we refer to this as our "comfort zone," with a negative connotation.  As we ring in the new year, millions of people are making resolutions to change who they are, only to find that in a couple of weeks, they'll still be the same person they always were.  This isn't bad.  This isn't good.  It's just the way life is.  Making significant changes can be hard.  And there is always a difficult period to get through.  And sometimes we find it is beneficial to return to the comfort zone.  It's up to you.

Have a wonderful New Year!  May you never lose the music, or the light, in your life!

"...should old acquaintance be forgot and auld lang syne!"

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Light Bird and Dark Grouch

The Taoist concept of "Yin and Yang" refers to the interconnectedness of lightness and darkness.  One cannot exist without the other.  While this concept had been expanded by other cultures to involve similar dichotomies (good/evil, positive/negative), the core idea that both qualities must exist is essential.

Big Bird could not exist without Oscar the Grouch.  Oscar could not exist without Bird.  And neither could exist without Caroll Spinney.

Light, dark, and the bond that holds them together.

Born on December 26, 1933 (Happy 79th Birthday!), Caroll was so named because it was so close to Christmas.  Like a traditional song, Caroll grew up to be one of the most reliable and trustworthy people to ever go into entertainment.  Caroll's interest in puppetry led him to perform on Bozo's Big Top where he showcased his original puppets, Picklepuss and Pop.

The revamped, Muppetized-versions of Picklepuss and Pop that Spinney later revisited.

Henson admired his work, and asked him for the role on the upcoming Sesame Street.  Spinney wasn't sure what he was getting into, but one does not say no to Jim Henson without a lifetime of regret.  Spinney ended up portraying two characters that would immortalize him forever.  Unlike other Muppet performers, who had a handful of signature characters (and played dozens more), these two were all Spinney needed, and it could have worked out more perfectly.

One was a dim-witted giant, small-headed, yellow bird who would play the fool to the humans on the street (both children and adults alike).  The other was an orange, trash-can dwelling monster who would antagonize the neighbors.  Both characters rapidly evolved into the Big Bird and Oscar we know today, but there was more than just a change in the puppets' appearances.

Eventually, it was decided that having the puppeteer visible was just to unsettling.

Oscar, as we know, was based on a child's tendency to be moody, self-centered, and complaining.  Armed with the voice of an unfriendly cab-driver that Spinney witnessed on the way to the studio, Oscar represented all that was wrong with life.  His pessimistic attitude rained on every pleasant occasion, and only the unwanted and disgusting elements of life gave him pleasure.  This may sound unbearable, but frankly, having someone playing devil's advocate to the bright, sunny world of Sesame Street allowed for intelligent conversations and observations.

We love you, you grubby, filthy, ill-tempered beast!

Big Bird, meanwhile, became less of an imbecile and more of a child.  He lacked knowledge, but he was curious and encouraged other children to persevere.  He became the face of optimism, always ready to sing and be merry.  As a result, troubling instances, such as death, unexpected changes and destruction, would hit even harder for the bird, showing that producers were aware of how to approach sensitive topics.

Big Bird ponders his own existence.

The fact that both of these characters are such permanent fixtures to the show is no mystery.  At times in our lives, everyone can identify with Oscar and everyone can identify with Big Bird.  Both even have their own fan clubs (the Grouchketeers and Birdketeers respectively), implying that neither character is inherently "better" than the other.  If the world were black and white, Big Bird would be the hero, Oscar the villain, and that would be final.  But both need to remain on Sesame Street to give the show its necessary depth.

In 2003, Spinney wrote an autobiography explaining what he has learned about life through the viewpoints of these two characters.  It's called The Wisdom of Big Bird (and the Dark Genius of Oscar the Grouch) and is well worth your time.

Although we rarely see the man behind these characters, it is clear that he is a wonderful human being.  He has landed one of the best jobs in the world and, at 79, he still feels like a kid every day.  In 2013 a documentary titled I Am Big Bird shall premiere, and judging by the trailer, life behind the scenes is just as magical as life in front of the camera.

At a time when all other original puppeteers are retiring, he is remaining strong, vowing to continue playing these characters "as long as [he] can keep [his] hand in the air."  Happy Birthday to this wonderful legend, who reminds us to embrace our inner grouch and our inner child.

A hero in bird's legs.

Monday, December 24, 2012

The Greatest Gift of All

On Christmas Day, 1985, Sesame Street got a little stranger.

In 1974, Roscoe Orman, who played Gordon, had originally pitched the idea that Susan and Gordon Robinson should have a child, but the idea was shelved since taking care of an infant on a TV show would be a huge responsibility (especially, when Gordon and Susan have all of those puppets to take care of).  10 years later, Orman had a son named Miles and Caroll Spinney (or his wife) suggested that the baby should play Gordon's son.  This was prior to the relationship of Luis and Maria, and while birth had been dealt with previously on the show, it was never the child of a permanent cast member.  Besides, Miles was already 11 months old.  It would seem kind of hokey to pretend that Susan got pregnant and had a full-grown infant all of a sudden.

So, the Robinsons chose to adopt.

The happy family

The producers decided to introduce Baby Miles to the neighborhood over the Christmas holiday since families would be able to watch with their children and share in the experience.  On Christmas Eve, Gordon and Susan prepared for the big day.

How to Put Together a Crib: Step 1: Make sure you have a giant bird present at all times.

Gordon and Susan are filled with excitement as they struggle to prepare the apartment for Miles.  They are almost radiating with glee, so, although they must remain the rational adults in this situation, they can't help but give in to their joy.  At night, Gordon lets out a "Whoopee!" at the prospect that he is about to be a father, proving that Miles is ready to enter a completely loving environment.

The whole situation is seen through the eyes of Big Bird, who has practically been adopted by Gordon and Susan himself.  The origin of Miles is barely discussed, with the only explanation being that "some children need people to take care of them."  This was done to alleviate fears from the viewing audience, and Big Bird accepts this without question.  However, since Miles is treated like a baby brother, there are still some anxieties from Big Bird.

First, he doesn't understand that, as a baby, Miles won't be able to play with him right away, even if he is no longer a newborn.  He prepares a surprise party filled with games and toys, but Gordon and Susan don't have time to stick around.  As they leave to pick up Miles, Big Bird begins to worry that they'll run out of love when the baby is around, as per suggested by Telly.

This is why you should never listen to Telly when you are having an existential crisis.

As soon as the new parents return home, they have to quickly rush inside to take care of Miles, leaving no time for Big Bird's party.  Big Bird gets swept up in the ruckus and tries to remain relevant as Gordon and Susan change their first diaper.

Hopefully, baby Miles will not be traumatized by any of this.

But all of Big Bird's fears come to fruition as it becomes evident that Miles demands more attention than he does now.

All Big Bird is good for now is holding baby powder.

When Miles finally falls asleep, Big Bird jumps at his chance, but is once again shut down and told to be quiet.  At the end of his rope, Big Bird becomes a basket case, and Gordon has to pull him aside and reassure him that it's impossible to "run out of love."  A baby is a large responsibility and now he will have less time to play with Big Bird, but that doesn't mean his love will decrease.  Big Bird learns that it is important for the baby to receive more attention, and him less.  Each of them are at different stages of their lives.

Big Bird happens to suffer from arrested development, so his concerns are justified.

Big Bird accepts his new situation and, finally, everyone can meet Miles proper at Big Bird's party.  The next few episodes continued the introduction of the baby, as Big Bird and others learn more about what being a parent/older sibling entails.  It means a lot of sacrifice, but loving parents wouldn't trade it for the world.  Everyone can enjoy the gift of a new life.

Even Oscar loves the fact that the baby keeps everyone up all night long.

That Christmas, everyone on the street received the greatest gift imaginable.  Yes, the gift comes with great responsibility and a relinquishing of old standards and comfort.  But it was a change that all needed to experience.  Gordon, Susan, Big Bird, the children at home, and especially, Miles.  Miles found a new home, probably the most loving home any baby could possibly find themselves in.  Many children grew up on Sesame Street, but Miles was the first to have the chance to grow up on Sesame Street.

Unfortunately, he never developed a healthy fear of vampires, as a result.

To all of you, a Merry Christmas!  May you receive what you desire, what you need and what you deserve, and may the love in your life never diminish.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

This Side of Paradise

Last year, I noted that the Fraggles' winter solstice holiday, the Festival of the Bells, can trace its roots to the traditions of pagan cultures and the origins of our holiday customs that have long been forgotten. But an earlier "Christmas episode" of Fraggle Rock showcases the origin of organized religion itself.

In "Manny's Land of Carpets," Uncle Traveling Matt's latest postcard prepares the Fraggles for an unexpected gift from above.  Having noticed the humans' Christmas routine of sitting on a strange, white-beared man's lap to ask for gifts, Uncle Matt gives it a go.  He asks the red-suited stranger to bring his family and friends up to the surface to reunite with him.  The mall Santa, confused by the request, promises him that he'll make sure his family gets the presents they need.

Coincidentally, Doc receives a brand new radio.  Finding the noise unbearable, Sprocket sticks it in the Fraggle hole where it is discovered by Gobo who shows it to the rest.  They surmise that this is the gift from the "magical wish-granting creature from Outer Space" that Matt told them about.  The fact that such a creature exists is already mesmerizing to the simple-minded Fraggles, so when the magic box starts talking, they are transfixed.

All hail the magic box!

Gobo is the first to hear the radio speak.  It "instructs" him to go to Manny's Land of Carpets, where "happiness is guaranteed."  Gobo acts as a prophet and begins spreading the word to the other Fraggles about the wonderful world of Manny's, where all your dreams can come true.  A mass exodus from Fraggle Rock is in order, but the plans change when some of the other Fraggles hear the wish-granting creature instruct them to go to Bubba's Burger Barn, where they can have "all they can eat!"

A schism develops among the clan, each claiming that the location they heard is the one true path for the group.  Boober, rightfully, sees this box as causing nothing but strife, but even he too is swayed by the box's promise of a place where his laundry whites will look their whitest (Sally's Spotless Cleaners).  Gobo assures people that Manny's is the voice they should follow, because it will have everything they need, including food and laundry.  But still, tension erupts.

Gobo takes some time away from the box to clear his head, and realizes that the Rock is the best place for the Fraggles, because they can't even be sure if those other locations really exist.  He tries to convince everyone to make the most of where they live and not worry about these lofty promises, but the Fraggles still need their gratification.  Giving up, Gobo tells them to just go their separate ways then.

As Fraggle Rock begins to empty out, Gobo sings "Goodbye, Goodbye" to his home.  The words touch the Fraggles so deeply that they decide to get rid of the box, for it is better to be unsure about their future than to throw away the lives they have now worrying about it.

Leave it to Gobo to show us the way.

Before we go too much further, the two songs in this episode are amazing, some of the best I've ever seen in the show.  Gobo's "Follow the Road," which gets everyone excited about the paradise of Manny's is really uplifting and fun while his "Goodbye, Goodbye" just hits you right there.  I couldn't find it on Youtube, but there is a wonderful fan cover that is worth a listen.

Although the Christmas influence is very light in this episode, this is worthy of inclusion in your Christmas library.  There is a lot of controversy and ire over the secularization of Christmas, with some choosing to ignore the religious overtones and others choosing to embrace it.  But the ultimate aim of the holiday (assuming we're optimistic) is to celebrate life and togetherness, no matter what your background.  Gobo learns that worrying about the afterlife too much can lead us to miss out on the beauty of what we have in this one.

Take a moment this holiday season to just appreciate the magic in your life.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Santa Ex Machina

There are only so many Christmas-related stories, out there.  After tackling classics such as A Christmas Carol and It's a Wonderful Life, the Muppets decided to scale things back for their next Christmas outing A Muppets Christmas: Letters to Santa, with their version of "Character X Tries to Visit Santa at the North Pole."  Okay, so that isn't exactly a specific Christmas tale, but this scenario has been played out in countless television shows and movies.  But the Muppets haven't done it yet!

This is our year!

After a mishap at the post office, Gonzo realizes that he has ended up with three letters to Santa Claus that need to be delivered.  On of them belongs to Claire, the young girl who lives in the same New York apartment building as the Muppets.  Um, since when do the Muppets live in New York?  Is this just where they spend their winters, to get away from that freezing LA weather?  Is this special confusing the Muppets with Sesame Street?  Is this taking place in the alternate timeline created by The Muppets Take Manhattan?  Whatever the case, we just have to accept that this is where the Muppets live and they are best friends with this girl we've never met before.

Once all of their options run out, Gonzo, Kermit, and Fozzie decide to travel to the North Pole themselves and hand deliver the letters.  Rizzo and Pepe tag along to be snarky and watch them fail because they don't believe in Santa Claus.

Nevertheless, there is an airline that takes them directly to the North Pole and Santa's workshop.  But they have just missed Santa, so Gonzo and Fozzie sing a sad song about how they wish they could be Santa Claus.  Santa Claus hears their plea and returns to take them in his sleigh.  They open the letters, and learn that Claire's Christmas wish was to just have her friends with her for Christmas.  They return and everyone has a nice Christmas celebration.

Another Christmas crisis averted!

There is something preventing me from considering this a "Christmas classic," but it has its charms. Compared to It's a Very Merry Muppet Christmas Movie, there are vast improvements.  There aren't many pop culture jokes and references this time, meaning that this special can be enjoyed for many years (as long as the postal service is still around).  It is only an hour, so the story moves more swiftly than a movie-length feature.  And Paul Williams returns from The Muppet Movie to compose the music!

And play an elf!  Oh, Paul Williams!

Sure, the songs aren't quite as memorable as his greater hits (and I really found the finale to be a tonal mess), but the central song "I Wish I Could Be Santa Claus" is worthy of its Emmy nomination.  We can always count on Gonzo/Dave Golez to keep the modern Muppets grounded.

And speaking of celebrity cameos, the human characters are subdued and nicely balanced, compared to the last Christmas special.  Nathan Lane appears as a security guard named Frank Meany, the closest thing this special has to a villain.  But he goes through his whole arc of evil-to-redemption in a single scene, which is pretty funny and doesn't detract from the main plot.

And once again, Bobo is the villain's sidekick.  One day, I'll get to you Bobo, don't worry.

Jane Krakowski as Claire's mom is a little bizarre, but she doesn't overplay it like Jenna Maroney would.  Whoopi returns as a cab driver, because she just loves working with the Muppets.  And even Mayor Bloomberg has a funny cameo, which warrants the whole New York setting.

He has one line and he nails it.

And then there is Richard Griffiths as Santa Claus and Uma Thurman as his assistant Joy.  Both are perfect for their parts, exuding Christmas cheer and happiness.  Especially Thurman, whom I'm so used to seeing in Tarantino-esque dark roles that I didn't realize how pleasant and fun she could be.

This special needed more Joy.

So, production-wise, this special was wonderful.  What hurts it is, unfortunately, the story.  Because this is a story that has been told countless times, we needed to see something new.  What made it more difficult was the fact that Claire is a completely new character and was given very little personality and history with the Muppets.  Oh, she's just a sweet little girl.  Great.  Why else should we care?  Why is Gonzo so gung-ho on this journey?  Claire also seems a little too...old to be writing to Santa.  She just seems so mature compared to the Muppets, than I don't really by into the importance of this plot.

Had she been this girl from Christmas Eve on Sesame Street, then I would understand.

There is one other big issue with the story: the Muppets should NEVER have met Santa Claus.

The Muppet canon is pretty loose.  If all Muppet productions exist in the same universe, then I suppose technically Santa would exist because Elmo met him in Elmo Saves Christmas and Sesame Street has crossed over with the Muppets before.  BUT Sesame Street has established itself to be a world where child's fantasy is real.  Nursery rhyme characters and other fictional figures can visit the street at anytime.  So when Kermit the Frog interviews Santa for a news flash segment, no one thinks twice.  But even Sesame Street knew that Santa's existence was a touchy subject for kids and adults, as seen in Christmas Eve on Sesame Street where Big Bird waits for him all night at just maybe has a brief encounter.

The Muppets have an even closer tie with our reality.  These are characters that suffer from the same problems we do, even if they get to be a little exaggerated.  During Henson's day, Muppet Christmas specials focused on the realistic side of the holiday, with family gatherings and pageants and such.  Sure, there could be a wink and a nod that suggests the possibility of Santa's existence as many sitcoms and movies like to do.  But a full-on sleigh ride with the man?

Even if he is a charming man.

The minute the Muppets landed at the North Pole that was represented by an actual physical North Pole, I stopped caring about them.  These were no longer real characters to me.  This was a cartoon.  At this point, the whole thing writes itself.  Of course, Santa will show up and help them.  Of course, they'll realize that the most important gift was being together.  There was nothing dramatic riding on the story anymore.

This story is very similar to the Christmas special Winnie the Pooh and Christmas Too, where Pooh also worries about his friend's mail not getting to Santa.  But even though he attempts to travel to the North Ploe, he never makes it, and he certainly doesn't meet Santa (even though he is just as fictional).  That story, I consider to be a classic because it's relatable and realistic.  No magic involved.

Sure, I expect to suspend my disbelief when it comes to Christmas specials.  Yes, things have to work out in the end.  But I always thought the Muppets were above these kinds of things.  Even as I child, I knew there was a difference in the Muppets and the characters on Sesame Street.  Sesame Street was for children, the Muppets were for adults.  It may seem like I'm bringing out my inner-Scrooge to harp on such a petty point, but there is a reason I always return to A Muppet Family Christmas every year and not Letters to Santa.

 It's the moments like these that say "Muppet Christmas" to me.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Winter is Coming

The world is going to end.

Maybe not today, but eventually, the world must come to an end.  It's not a concept we can ever fully grasp because we'll never be able to witness life after humanity.  As long as we're still here, we're safe.

The end of the world is a popular concept for stories to explore.  Some fill them with action and humor, while others are more somber, cautionary tales.  But in the end, even if all of our main human characters die out, at least we can look around the movie theater and take comfort in the fact that it was just a story.

Dinosaurs didn't have that luxury.  From the very first episode, we knew that extinction was imminent. Unlike The Flintstones, Dinosaurs presented a world filled with allusions to their demise.  This isn't a fantasy world that's all fun and games.  This is our prehistory.  And we can fill it with as many jokes as we like, but it doesn't change the ending.

So, for the series finale, Dinosaurs was able to do something that no other show was capable of.  It presented an actual world-wide extinction.

It's the end of the world as we know it.

The show was filled with arrogant, dim-witted dinosaurs who never cared or thought about their future.  There was a dramatic irony present every time a dinosaur proclaimed his power and indestructibility.  Usually, these claims came from the mouth of Earl Sinclair.  So, of course, it only made since that he would be the one to bring about the end of days.

Father of the Epoch

As the population of Pangaea awaits the arrival of the bunch beetles, who will devour the invasive cider poppies, Earl revels in his modern technology which can beat nature anytime.  Of course, these advancements end up beating nature as the construction of a WESAYSO-owned factory over the bunch beetles' mating swamp causes them all to die out.

It's sad for the beetles, but at least we can enjoy some fake fruit!

The death of the beetles causes the poppies to cover the entire globe.  In order to get rid of the poppies, Richfield puts Earl in charge of a poisonous spray that could take care of the infestation (since Earl is the only one foolish enough to believe this technological process is beneficial, and therefore can take the blame if it fails).  Earl's spray wipes out the poppies, and all plant life on Earth.

There's no recovering from this, not for a while anyway.

To bring back the plants, Richfield convinces Earl that they should bomb the volcanoes of the world (since volcanoes make clouds which can make rain).  This instead results in an impenetrable sulfur cloud that covers the Earth's surface, causing temperatures to plummet and an unending snowstorm.  With the weather forecast predicting that the next appearance of the sun will be in tens of thousands of years, the dinosaurs must accept their fate.

This is the end for them.

Bundle up.  It's the apocalypse.

Earl takes this opportunity to meagerly apologize for his pig-headedness.  After years of despicable actions, he has finally learned his lesson.  As a representative of the stock sitcom male trope, Earl is able to experience the ultimate life lesson.  Sure, Homer Simpson can mess up and end the world in a Halloween episode, but only Earl Sinclair can actually erase his species permanently.

As the incoming Ice Age approaches, Earl has to explain to Baby Sinclair what exactly is going to happen to the world.  Like when Big Bird learned about Mr. Hooper's death, Baby's new knowledge is difficult to sit through, but necessary to hear.  He will never grow up and his family tries to make sure that his last moments are filled with love.

And he still never quite gets it.  Stay innocent forever.

There is a heavy environmentalist message associated with this episode, but when it comes down to it, the end was inevitable.  Sure, it's not wise to bring about Armageddon, but it cannot be avoided forever.  The writers of Dinosaurs knew that even if they lasted millions of years, the dinosaurs time on this earth was brief.

Whether we are mockingly scoffing at today's doomsday predictions or hunkering in our bomb shelters, we should remember that our time is short.  We've got to make the most of it for ourselves and for future generations.  Otherwise, it had might as well end now.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

It's a Very Merry Muppet Christmas Movie, Part 5: Every One Matters

Kermit rushes back to the mall to find Daniel so he can return to his own world.  Instead he finds Gonzo, singing about his Christmas woes.  But Kermit reminds him to lift up his spirits because he  has learned that "Everyone Matters."  The lyrics are a little too on the nose, but it's pleasant.  So let's just listen to the instrumental version and imagine Gonzo and Kermit are singing nice things about friends.

Isn't this nice?

After Gonzo leaves, Daniel sends Kermit back to his own world (after a brief misstep) and Kermit happily runs back to his friends, just happy that he can share the world with them, regardless of whether they keep the theater or not.

Merry Christmas, you old savings and loans!

Kermit reconnects with all of his friends, kissing Miss Piggy forgiving Fozzie's mistake.  Unfortunately, Ms. Bitterman comes back to gloat and kick the Muppets out of the theater.  After a *sigh* kung-fu fight between Piggy and Bitterman, Pepe arrives to reveal that, with the money given to him by Ms. Bitterman, he bought a permit that declares the theater to be a historical landmark that must never be destroyed.

Oh no!  What will happen to Club Dot?!

Bitterman leaves in a huff, Bobo announces that it's snowing, and the whole crew rushes out to sing Christmas carols and be happy together.

The magic was in them all along!

Daniel and the Boss summarize the lesson of the movie which brings us to the end! Merry Christmas!

This film...was not as awful as I had remembered.  It's clearly not up to par with any of the theatrical releases (Muppets from Space, aside), but it isn't an absolute travesty.  The main issues come from the fact that there was clearly a better original script that aimed for a feature film debut and it had to get "dumbed down" for television.

First, let's just get this out of the way.  This is essentially the same movie as The Muppets.  The Muppets is far superior, but we must remember that this came out a decade earlier and, thus, should be able to stand on its own merits.

Where This Movie Went Wrong:

1) It's Not Timeless.  The celebrity cameos and pop culture references were added to the script without longevity in mind.  This is fine for television.  We look to TV shows to relate with us in the moment.  We see one episode and then we are done with it and move on.  This is necessary because the characters are also growing and moving on.  It makes sense for them to talk about the present and make quick jokes without staying power.  For a film, a grander approach must be taken.  This is something that future generations may inevitable want to watch.  It should be welcoming to them and not restricting.  This film reeks of 2002 the way Muppets from Space reeked of 1999.

2) Shameless NBC Plugs.  Even when the film poked fun at itself for doing it, it was still annoying and took me out of the film.  By constantly reminding me, "You are watching NBC," I wanted to change the channel...on my DVD.  I guess this was necessary for budgetary reasons, but it could have been handled better than "Let's watch Scrubs!  Let's watch Fear Factor!"

3) It Forgets Its Original Purpose of Being a Parody.  The opening sequence hints at the movie we were supposed to be getting.  This was The Muppet Christmas Show and it was going to spoof as many Christmas movies and Christmas specials as possible.  But, aside from the  It's a Wonderful Life plot and the references crammed into the beginning, there is very little reminder of that tone.  Had it fully embraced this endeavor, this could have been another Christmas classic, destined for repeated airings each holiday season.

4) It Strangely Misses the Point of It's a Wonderful Life.  Despite talking about how friends and family are the most important aspect of Christmas, there isn't a moment at the end to signify that (Pepe's brief redemption aside).  When George Bailey returns to his life in Bedford Falls, he is greeted with confirmation that the time and effort he put into helping people has caused everyone to return the favor. Here, Kermit comes back and everyone hugs him and...Bitterman still comes in like a big bully.  Piggy briefly fights her and Pepe has his little ruse, but the point is that EVERYONE should be helping Kermit at this point.  Fozzie!  Gonzo!  Everyone!  Quit sitting on your hands and do something!

5) Joan Cusack, I Love Ya, But Ms. Bitterman is Not a Classic Muppet Villain.  Ever since Muppet Treasure Island, the Muppet films have struggled to hit that balance of what makes a great foil to the Muppets.  Yes, they have to be more cartoonish than the average person, but they also have to be believable and fun.  Bitterman has some great insults, but they aren't really part of her character.  Charles Grodin, Tim Curry, even Mel Brooks's over-the-top mad scientist.  They were clearly having fun in their roles.  They enjoyed being evil.  Bitterman claims to enjoy being evil, but she just feels like she's filling a necessary role.

So, What Worked?

1) The Actual Muppet Christmas Show.  We only got to see two acts ("Moulin Scrooge" and Pepe's stand up) but they were both funny and memorable.  This was a chance to see a show we'd never gotten a chance to see.  Indulge a little bit.  Had they taken out a majority of the annoying references and replaced them with more Animal in a manger, they could have hit Christmas classic status.  What we saw was great.

2) The Emotional Moments.  It was hard to spot them with so much going on, but just about everything from the moment where Fozzie loses the money to Kermit's reunion with his friends was very strong.  Kermit's interactions with Fozzie, alternate Piggy, and alternate Gonzo were great moments that didn't have to really on humor to be entertaining.

3) Whoopi Goldberg as God.  I dunno, that just made sense to me.  If any celebrity would be looking out for the Muppets, it would be her.

4) Alternate Reality Sam the Eagle.  I'm a Sam fan.  His role as "Baron von Scrooge" was cut from the "Moulin Scrooge" segment, so let me enjoy the little time we spent with him.  Even if it wasn't technically him.

5) The Fact That I Find Myself Supporting the Film.  Sure, a lot of it didn't work.  But this repeated viewing has managed to charm me.  Maybe I'm just getting into the Christmas spirit.  But whatever it is, It's a Very Merry Muppet Christmas Movie is worth a revisit (or a first visit if you've never seen it).

Just make sure you have the ability to fast-forward.

Then you can play God from your couch!

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

It's a Very Merry Muppet Christmas Movie, Part 4: Alternate Realities

Kermit makes one last attempt to plead with Bitterman to reconsider her dastardly deed, but she shuts him down, hammering home the point that Kermit's foolish quest to follow his dreams has not only ruined his life, but the lives of his friends.

We cut back to the beginning of the film with Kermit alone on the snowy bench, and Whoopi God decides to send Daniel the Angel down to assist Kermit.

For some reason, he's dressed like an ice cream man from Hello Dolly.

Kermit is initially skeptical that Daniel can help him, and figures that he is only aware of his problems due to the fact that he probably runs a Muppet fansite.  On behalf of Muppet fansites, such as Tough Pigs, The Muppet Mindset, and Muppet Wiki, thanks for the shout out, movie.

Kermit concludes that he should have never been born (and goes a little overboard with his conviction) forcing Daniel to alter the universe to show what the world would have been like without Kermit.

Well, first, they must travel by way of pop culture references.

Kermit and Daniel end up in the middle of Bitterman Plaza, a mall that has replaced the park that once housed a Kermit statue with a quote from "The Rainbow Connection."  Now, everything is a big commercialized Christmas!

The horror!

Kermit is about to meet alternate versions of his Muppet friends, and I think it would behoove us to examine these new iterations on the plausibility scale.

Alternate Gonzo:  A homeless busker who attempts to earn money with "Amy the Dancing Brick"

Plausibility: 80%

If we are accepting The Muppet Movie as canon (which this movie claims to be doing), Gonzo would be back in the midwest running his plumbing business with Camilla.  However, assuming that he made it out to LA to pursue his dreams, Gonzo definitely would end up on the street, without his Muppet support system.

Alternate Rizzo:  A prop/meal in NBC's sadistic Fear Factor

Plausibility:  40%

 Rizzo's origin is a little confusing, since Muppet rats just sort of showed up at the theater.  Rizzo's "official" introduction was in The Muppets Take Manhattan as a waiter.  Had he remained in New York, it seems unlikely he'd appear in LA for the filming of Fear Factor.  The reason I'm giving this so much weight is because it gets me through these obnoxious NBC crossovers.

Alternate Doc Hopper:  A popular fast-food chain owner

Plausibility:  99%

Despite not appearing in this film, Doc Hopper's influence comes back in a big way, having covered the nation with his frog killing restaurants.  Nice callback.

Alternate Electric Mayhem:  An Irish stepdancing team called "O'Mayhem Celtic Troupe"

Plausibility:  2%

No.  This makes no sense.  It's an amusing joke for a second, but it doesn't take any of the members' personalities into account.

Alternate Dr. Bunsen:  Hipster doorman at Bitterman's Club Dot

Plausibility:  10%

Bunsen is a man of science.  Only Andie MacDowell could make him behave this way.

Alternate Sam the Eagle:  Glow-stick-waving, pacifier-sucking raver at Club Dot

Plausibility:  100%

It would explain so much.  The very existence of the Muppets has been keeping him so repressed...

Alternate Scooter:  Cage dancer at Club Dot

Plausibility:  0%

Scooter's uncle owned the Muppet Theater, meaning that he would have been the one who Bitterman bought it from.  And since his uncle was greedy, he would have happily turned it over.  Scooter would have gone elsewhere.  Thanks for this horrible image, movie.

Alternate Johnny Fiama:  Bartender at Club Dot

Plausibility:  30%

Why are so many Muppets drawn to Club Dot?  Is this supposed to imply that the Muppet Theater is some sacred ground that telepathically attracts Muppets to it, no matter the dimension?

Alternate Waldorf and Statler:  Deadbeat barflies

Plausibility:  20%

I guess this is supposed to mean that the Muppets give these two purpose, despite their negativity, but you just know that without the Muppets, they'd be harassing some children's birthday clowns or some other form of innocent entertainment.

Alternate Robin:  Busboy at Club Dot

Plausibility:  90%

Originally, I was going to put this as an impossibility, but it strikes me that Robin is virtually the same in this universe as he is in the other.  I could imagine that without Kermit, he would have been the first frog to leave the swamp for greater things, but, being so young and naive, ended up here, struggling to do the right thing every day.

Alternate Beaker:  Bodyguard at Club Dot

Plausibility:  100%

Without Bunsen to push him around, Beaker would become a force to be reckoned with.  Also, this is a great visual and auditory joke.

Alternate Fozzie:  Homeless pickpocket

Plausibility:  75%

To me, this is the saddest moment of the film.  There's a chance that Fozzie is the same old nice bear that he always was.  But, without Kermit's help, he had no chance in LA.  As seen earlier in the film, we know that Fozzie would do anything for his friends.  Since he never met Kermit, he never had any friends and learned only to care about himself.

Alternate Piggy:  Struggling actress/fake hotline psychic

Plausibility:  100%

The move sets this up to be the most distressing change of the new world.  Miss Piggy, after having won Miss Bogen County as in The Muppet Movie travelled to LA thinking she'll remain on top of the world.  But without that Muppet support group, she had no place in the city.  A nice touch is that the moment she sees Kermit, she gets that "love at first sight" twinkle in her eye that she got when she met him in The Muppet Movie and The Great Muppet Caper.  She doesn't understand what it means at this moment, but tries to masquerade as someone more important than she is, even though Kermit is just a stranger to her.  This forces Kermit to be the one to highlight her positive qualities, admitting to himself that she is special.

But unfortunately, this only serves to upset the woman, as she drives Kermit away so she can have her annual Christmas cry.

Thankfully, we don't have to stay in this world too much longer.  Check back later to see the conclusion to It's a Wonderful Frog.