Sunday, December 25, 2011

A Gift for Everyone

The Christmas special is an odd beast.  Because we place such importance on the holiday, we expect any tributes to the 25th of December to adhere to certain guidelines.  Many deal with some threat to the event, requiring the "saving of Christmas."  Others are used to rehash classic stories, to remind us of Christmases past.  Even those that take an unusual approach wrap up everything nicely, revealing the "true meaning of Christmas."  They exist for a moment to make us smile and then we forget about them until the following year.

Rarely does the Christmas special focus purely on pleasing the audience.  Yes, we are pleased when Charlie Brown's friends decorate his tree and we are pleased when the Grinch's heart grows three sizes and we are pleased when Ralphie gets his BB gun from his old man but that is because that is what these stories entail.  We expect Christmas stories to have happy endings.  They are pleasant out of necessity.

But I am referring to a kind of special that is crafted solely to make the audience smile from beginning to end.  One where conflicts are minimal, jokes are aplenty, and each moment is endearing, unique, and memorable.  That Christmas special is A Muppet Family Christmas.

Three of the best words in the English language.

In 48 minutes, nearly 100 Muppets appear and 22 Christmas songs are sung.  Yet, it never feels rushed or overstuffed.  Instead, it is the perfect gift for any Muppet fan.

The invitations sent from the Muppets to you to celebrate Christmas with them.

Because of the copyright nightmare that this special created, it is impossible to find an unedited version on video or DVD.  For many years, the only full version could be viewed at the Henson Archives at the University of Maryland's Performing Arts Library in the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center.

But, thanks to the modern age, the entire uncut special can be found here.  (Also, so as not to repeat what many others have already said about this program, a great analysis can be found here and some fans' scene-by-scene commentary with brilliant observations can be found here.)

I'll give you some time to watch it first.

As you can see, there is very little by way of story.  The Muppet crew unexpectedly arrives at Fozzie's mother's house to spend Christmas.  This premise just exists to gather every single character that we love into one location and see what happens.  What is marvelous about this special is that it is just a series of moments, allowing all of Henson's characters to interact.  Everyone has a favorite Muppet from The Muppet Show or Sesame Street or Fraggle Rock and each one gets their moment in the sun (save for Elmo, who hadn't yet become a star).

Each moment is presented so as to appeal to the fans in the biggest way possible.  One segment that is unfortunately cut from the video versions is the Muppet Babies footage, which returns to that iconic scene from The Muppets Take Manhattan. Plus, it introduces the puppet version of Baby Animal!

The numerous crossovers allow for a lot of humor at the expense of the creators (such as how Cookie Monster and Animal are basically the same character, or how Rowlf can talk while Sprocket can only bark, or how the Sesame Street cast have to talk about pre-school-related topics).  But they also allow some new dynamics to unfold, such as the subplot about the Swedish Chef trying to kill Big Bird for the Christmas feast.

A once-in-a-lifetime moment: a beloved character's brush with pre-meditated death

Despite all that is happening, there is still time to introduce two new characters with their own story arcs!  In Fozzie's story, he creates a snowman that comes to life, becomes his new comedy partner, and is shot down during his first attempt at stand-up by Statler and Waldorf.

It's better this way.  He probably would've melted before he hit it big.

In Gonzo's story, he competes with the suave, cunning Christmas Turkey for Camilla the Chicken's affections.  All this after the Turkey convinces the Chef to roast Big Bird.  That is a lot of plot for a brand new Muppet.

What a weird looking creature.

And of course, it would be ignorant of me not to mention Kermit and Piggy's story, as the blizzard separates them on this Christmas Eve night.  Unlike the John Denver special which focused mostly on Piggy and Denver's relationship, this reminds us of the chemistry between the frog and pig, which, for all of it's absurd problems, is sweet and genuine.

Actually, everything about this show is what the John Denver special should have been.

Thanks to the skills of go-to writer Jerry Juhl, each scene stays focused and unforgettable as each character is treated with dignity.  He makes sure that we remember what it is exactly that we have loved about these characters for so many years.  Not one puppet seems out of place in this gaggle of crazy individuals.  The spirit of each original show is captured in each scene.  While everyone my have their favorite moments, the piece-de-resistance is the journey down to Fraggle Rock where Kermit and Robin learn of the Fraggle gift-giving tradition.  Instead of everybody buying new gifts each year, there exist a few small gifts that are annually passed from person to person.  The honor comes from being the next recipient, being trusted to hold on to it for another year.

Mokey gives her gift, a yellow pebble to Boober, who, in turn, passes his new gift to Robin.  Later on, as Robin passes it on to Grover, we can truly feel this Henson universe expanding.  A bit of memorabilia has crossed the hands of multiple unrelated characters, forming a bond that shall forever remain.

This special is the gift Jim Henson gave to all of his fans during the 30 years he spent with the Muppets. This was the last Christmas special he made before passing away and it is a fitting tribute to the legacy he left behind. During the final moments of the show, as the dozens of characters join together in song, we get a rare glimpse of Jim, overseeing the festivities. As the '80s drew to a close, Henson had been working on separating himself from the Muppet brand. It wasn't that he no longer cared about them, it was just that they had become too big for him to handle. He was always trying to create new stories and test different ideas. But the Muppets were an entity unto themselves and demanded a lot of attention. Eventually he would have to say goodbye. And this how he chose to depict that.

The Muppets are no longer his. They belong to the world. This was Jim's gift to us.

It is up to us to pass it on.

"Yeah, I like it when they have a good time."

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