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.

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