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Scrooge Month Day 9: Michael Caine in THE MUPPET CHRISTMAS CAROL (1993)

Muppet Christmas Carol 1993Director: Brian Henson

Writer: Jerry Juhl, based on A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

Cast: Michael Caine, Dave Goelz, Steve Whitmire, Jerry Nelson, Frank Oz, David Rudman, Don Austen, Jessica Fox, Robert Tygner, Steven Mackintosh, Meredith Braun, Robin Weaver

Notes: The early 90s were a rough time for the Jim Henson Studio. After Jim died in 1990, there was a serious doubt in the minds of many that the Muppets could go on. But before his death, Jim had begun working out a deal with the Disney studio to produce more Muppet films, with one of them being an adaptation of A Christmas Carol. After Jim died, his characters were passed on to other performers. This was the first theatrical production for the Muppets after Jim’s passing, and the film is dedicated to him and Muppeteer Richard Hunt, who died in 1991. Although a musical and mostly comedic, this is a pretty faithful adaptation of the original novel, with Michael Caine playing Scrooge, new Muppets created for the three ghosts, and classic Muppets filling most of the other roles. Statler and Waldorf played Jacob and Robert Marley (rimshot), Fozzie Bear became Scrooge’s old boss Fozziwig, Sam the Eagle was Scrooge’s headmaster in school. Most notably, we got Kermit the Frog and Miss Piggy as Bob and Emily Cratchit and Kermit’s nephew Robin as Tiny Tim. The film’s stroke of genius, something that gives it an added dimension of fun, is casting the Great Gonzo as Charles Dickens himself, and allowing him to act as narrator, with additional commentary by his oft-time sidekick, Rizzo the Rat.

Thoughts: Not to put too fine a point on it, but this may well be my favorite version of A Christmas Carol. Yeah, there are probably better films, but something about this one works for me. Maybe it’s the amazing music by Paul Williams (who also wrote the songs for the original Muppet Movie). Maybe it’s the silly charm that I still feel when I see humans and Muppets walking around a set together as if there was nothing unusual about that at all. Maybe it’s because this is the movie that, in many people’s hearts, proved that the Muppets could survive after Jim Henson was gone. Whatever the reason, I love The Muppet Christmas Carol like I do few other Christmas movies.

Michael Caine is, of course, an acting legend. He’s done amazing work in dozens of fine films, such as Jaws: The Revenge, which made him the logical choice for Scrooge. His Scrooge starts out as bitter as any, but he has a quality of containment about him. He’s mean and angry, but even in the first scene you get the sense that his greatest degree of hatred is turned inward. He seems like a man ready to explode, and few people present that quality as clearly as a man who is keeping everything inside. When the film ends, when he lets his emotion finally free, it’s not anger but happiness that explodes into the old town. For all his lively parading through the streets, though, nothing serves to illustrate his reformation as well as the quiet moment where he approaches the charity collectors (here played by Dr. Bunsen Honeydew and his assistant Beaker) to give them a generous donation. Bunsen is speechless, but Beaker (always speechless) finds a way to express his gratitude: giving Scrooge the scarf from around his neck. The surprised look on Caine’s face makes you believe it’s truly the first Christmas present he’s ever been given.

This wasn’t Steve Whitmire’s first time playing Kermit the Frog, but it was here that he really had to prove himself. The simple kindness and sincerity of America’s favorite amphibian was perfect for Bob Cratchit… but it wouldn’t necessarily have been all that funny in and of itself. The solution was to surround him with Muppet rats who alternately support him and sell him out when Scrooge bellows. It’s a funny juxtaposition, and when he’s paired off with Miss Piggy (Frank Oz) for the scene in the Cratchit home, her overbearing personality plays off of him in much the same way. Whitmire has had the Kermit job ever since. He acquitted himself well.

At one point, the plan was to use existing Muppets to play the three ghosts, but the filmmakers decided it would detract from the seriousness of the story. Instead, we got three all-new Muppet creations. Christmas Past is a softly floating, ethereal puppet that looks like a bizarre combination of elf and child, glowing and floating. In fact, the performance was filmed in a tank of water to give it the sort of weightless effect they wanted, then greenscreened onto the film. For such a simple effect it’s remarkably effective, giving the ghost an ethereal quality that truly makes it look like it belongs to a different world than our own (or even an alternate version of our own where Muppets coexist with humans). Jessica Fox’s Ghost takes Scrooge on the traditional trip through his past – the joy as he left school and went to Fozziwig’s Christmas party, the heartbreak of losing Belle (Meredith Braun) when she realized he loved his money more than her. The song they sing together is devastating – she sings “The Love is Gone” with fresh sadness, while behind her Michael Caine joins in. Near the end she turns back and, just for a second, you think she’s going to acknowledge the older Scrooge… but she doesn’t. She can’t hear or see him, of course, but the audience sees the agony in his face – the pain of a man forced to relive the greatest mistake of his life.

Christmas Present is presented in a form much in keeping with other versions. He’s huge, of course, but cloaked in the traditional green robe with a holly wreath and a long red mane of hair. There’s a nice tick they give the character, though – being the Ghost of Christmas Present, he has a difficult time focusing on the future or remembering the past, and frequently repeats himself. Throughout his segment, as he and Scrooge get closer and closer to the end of Christmas Day, the Muppet grows visibly older. At the end, he’s practically ancient, and vanishes with the wind. It’s a brilliant effect that gives a nice subtext to the movie. We’ve already seen that the Past is forever, and Present reminds us the now is transient. But what’s coming next, the future… that can still be changed.

Caine sells the present scenes very well. When he realizes he’s the butt of the joke at Fred’s family party, there’s genuine pain on his face. The scene at the Cratchit family house invites a few uncomfortable questions about a world where frogs and pigs are genetically compatible, and are exclusively male and female, respectively. You forget those things when Tiny Tim launches into his song, “Bless Us All.” This part improves on many versions of the story. So often, you just see Scrooge look upon Tim and start to feel bad for him… his transformation is brought on more from pity than anything else. But here, as Tim sings his song you get an impression of just how good and pure a soul he is, and when he starts to cough Scrooge’s change of heart is no longer that of a man who simply feels bad for a sick child, but a man grieving for a world that will be deprived of such light.

The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, even in Muppet form, is a sight to behold. Although not quite the skeletal figure he sometimes is, he’s got your standard robe and large, oversized hands that make it look like Michael Caine is being escorted by something wholly inhuman and terrible. This segment goes pretty quickly, rushing from one scene of terror to another before they get to Scrooge’s tombstone. Once again, Caine proves himself, begging for his chance to change in a way that makes you believe in him, believe it’s possible to change, maybe even regain a little of your overall faith in the human race.

Surrounding the whole film is Gonzo as Charles Dickens. His antics with Rizzo provide added energy and comedy in scenes that traditionally aren’t that funny – when Scrooge holes himself up in his mansion before encountering the Marleys, for example. Gonzo is smart enough to know when to keep quiet, though, and in fact the characters make a show of running off and hiding just before Christmas Yet to Come pops in, then make a grand return for the finale. Using him as a narrator also allows this film to layer in much of Dickens’s beautiful prose that rarely makes it to screen, as it’s not dialogue. For that reason alone, that helps this stand as one of the most surprisingly faithful adaptations of the book I’ve ever seen.

I mentioned Paul Williams’s music before, but it’s certainly worthy of its own paragraph. The opening song, “Scrooge,” is somehow gloomy and peppy at the same time – a snappy number about a miserable man. It perfectly encapsulates the character, even giving a hint that there may be goodness within him somewhere (although the Muppets quickly dismiss that notion). Kermit and Robin later sing “One More Sleep ‘Til Christmas,” a lovely, happy song that’s worth singing every Christmas Eve. But the crowning gem is Christmas Present’s number, “It Feels Like Christmas.” There’s something undeniably joyous about the song, something that clutches the heart and the ear so tightly that it bubbles out of me at random moments in the middle of July.

Fair warning, though – the theatrical release of the film and some of the subsequent DVD and Blu-Ray editions left out the duet between Scrooge and Belle, “When Love is Gone.” Disney thought it slowed down the film too much, but when left out it kills the emotional impact of the scene, and furthermore hurts the finale, which contains a counterpoint mixed with “It Feels Like Christmas.” My DVD, fortunately, includes it, and I’d never upgrade to a Blu-Ray that leaves it out.

If you haven’t seen this version of A Christmas Carol before I can only presume that you hate the Muppets, hate Christmas, or hate joy itself. Again, I do not deny that there may be objectively superior adaptations of the book, but I very much doubt anything will ever take its place as my favorite.

The first Reel to Reel study, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and Smashwords.com bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!

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Dorothy Gale Week Day 5: Fairuza Balk in Return to Oz (1985)

returnozDirector: Walter Murch

Writer: Walter Murch, Gill Dennis, based on the novels The Marvelous Land of Oz and Ozma of Oz by L. Frank Baum

Cast: Fairuza Balk, Nicol Williamson, Jean Marsh, Piper Laurie, Matt Clark, Sean Barrett, Michael Sundin, Tim Rose, Mak Wilson, Denise Bryer, Brian Henson, Lyle Conway, Justin Case, John Alexander, Deep Roy, Emma Ridley, Sophie Ward, Fiona Victory, Pons Maar

Plot: It has been six months since Dorothy Gale (Fairuza Balk) came home following her adventure in Oz. Her Uncle Henry (Matt Clark) is working to rebuild the farm, destroyed by the tornado, and Aunt Em (Piper Laurie) is worried that the little girl is sleepless, stuck imagining the fairy land she “dreamed” about before. Dorothy scolds a chicken named Billina who has been unable to produce eggs, and finds an old key in the chicken coop. The design on the end of it seems to bear an “O-Z” – the symbol of the land of Oz. She shows it to Em as proof of her stories, but it only furthers her resolve to bring Dorothy to the a doctor. She tells Dr. Worley (Nicol Williamson) her stories of Oz, of her friends, of the Ruby Slippers that were lost as she flew home. Worley unveils an electrical device with a “face” that may cure her, and Dorothy sees a reflection of a girl (Emma Ridley) looking at her. The doctor and his nurse (Jean Marsh) prepare Dorothy to stay overnight for treatment. Dorothy is strapped onto a gurney for treatment, but she’s frightened by the device placed on her head. Before the Doctor can turn it on, the power to the hospital is knocked out by a storm. The Nurse goes to check on a screaming patient while the Doctor tries to repair the power, leaving Dorothy alone so the mysterious girl can unstrap her and let her free. Rushing outside, the girls are separated by a flash flood, and Dorothy clings to a floating chicken coop to ride out the storm.

In the morning, Dorothy finds that her hen Billina is in the coop with her, she begins speaking (voice of Denise Bryer). The coop has washed up on the edge of a desert, with lush, green land nearby. Dorothy realizes they must be in Oz, which means the sands beneath them are those of the Deadly Desert, which transforms any living creature that touches it to sand. Dorothy carries Billina to safety, leaping from one stone to another until she reaches the grass, unaware that some of those stones are watching her. The creature watching from the rocks rushes off to inform his king that she has returned to Oz, and has a chicken with her.

Dorothy and Billina find the old farmhouse where it crashed in Munchkinland, but realize the Munchkin City is gone, and the Munchkins with it. The Yellow Brick Road has been reduced to rubble, and she races along it until she comes to the destroyed remains of the Emerald City. The people have been turned to stone, including the Tin Woodsman and Cowardly Lion. They are attacked by creatures with wheels for hands and feet, who chase them into a hidden chamber. The lead Wheeler (Pans Maar) tells them they’ll destroy them, for the Nome King doesn’t allow chickens in Oz. Turning around, Dorothy finds a clockwork man with a plate that proclaims him “The Royal Army of Oz.” Winding him up with the key she found in Kansas, he activates and introduces himself at Tik-Tok (Sean Barrett). Upon the orders of the Scarecrow, he was locked in the chamber to wait for Dorothy’s return after the people began to turn to stone. Tik-Tok defeats the Wheelers and interrogates the leader, who tells them the Nome King is responsible for Oz’s devastation, and that only Princess Mombi can tell them where the Scarecrow is. In Mombi’s palace, they find a beautiful woman with a room full of interchangeable heads. She imprisons Dorothy in the attic, planning to come back for her when her own head is a bit older.

In the attic, Dorothy finds a pumpkin-headed man named Jack (Brian Henson), who tells her he was built by Mombi’s former servant to scare the witch. Instead of destroying him, Mombi tested a “Powder of Life” on him, then locked up the remaining powder with her original head. Jack believes his “mother” was enchanted by Mombi and hidden away. Dorothy and Jack sneaks out to steal the powder, but Mombi is alerted when her original head (Jean Marsh again) wakes up and shouts for help. The others have constructed a flying contraption from couches, leaves, and the mounted head of a Gump (Lyle Conway), which they bring to life with the powder and escape. They fly until the Gump comes apart and crashes on the mountain of the Nome King (Williamson), where the Scarecrow (Justin Case) is imprisoned.

The Nome King (happy that Billina has seemingly disappeared, although she is merely resting inside Jack’s hollow head) has transformed the Scarecrow into an amusing ornament for his vast collection, and claims his conquest of Oz was simply taking back what belonged to him – the gems from the Emerald City were all mined from his underground kingdom, after all. As she weeps for her missing friend, the Nome King seems genuinely touched by her tears, and offers her an opportunity to win him back – if she or her friends can guess which ornament he is, he will be set free. The Gump goes first, but fails in his effort and is transformed into an ornament himself – a condition of the contest the Nome King failed to mention before. Jack goes next, then Tik-Tok, and each are transformed. The Nome King offers to send Dorothy back home using the Ruby Slippers, which he found after she lost them, but she insists on trying to save her friends. She manages to rescue the Scarecrow, who was turned into an emerald, and realizes the people from Oz are all green ornaments. They quickly rescue the Gump, and the Nome King grows angry, sending an earthquake through the mountain. They find and transform Jack as the Nome King attacks them, enraged, tired of the games. He grabs Jack, lifting him to his mouth, but he’s stopped by a sudden clucking sound. Inside Jack’s head, Billina lays an egg, which rolls into the Nome King’s mouth. As he shrieks, he begins to crumble away, revealing that eggs are poison to Nomes. The mountain collapses, and Dorothy takes the Ruby Slippers from the Nome King’s body, using the magic to bring them back to the Emerald City, bring the people back to life, and return Oz to its former glory. With them is a green medal that was somehow stuck to the Gump. Dorothy guesses the truth, and transforms the medal back into the missing Tik-Tok.

The people of Oz ask Dorothy to stay and be their queen, but she wishes to return to Kansas. As she debates what to do, the women whose heads Mombi took tell the truth about her serving-girl: she is Ozma, queen and rightful ruler of Oz. (Also Jack’s “mother” and the girl who helped Dorothy escape the hospital), lost after the Wizard came. Freed from Mombi’s magic, Ozma is restored to the throne and promises to send Dorothy home, on the condition that she signal her should she ever wish to return to Oz again.

Thoughts: This film is an old favorite of mine, probably my first experience with Oz beyond the MGM Musical. It may, in fact, be what first stirred me on to read the further Oz books, when I heard it was essentially a combination of the second and third novels in the series, The Marvelous Land of Oz and Return to Oz. (Honestly, I don’t remember if I read the books before I saw the movie or vice-versa. I would have been 8 years old when this movie was released, and certainly old enough to have discovered the Oz shelf at the St. Charles Parish Public Library where I would be utterly lost for the next few years – a sojourn for which I am eternally grateful.) The writers took the characters and plots of both books and blended them together in a very satisfying way, creating a story that evokes parts of each of them, but manages to feel complete in and of itself. I won’t go into what parts came from which book (read them yourself – they’re in the public domain and free on the internet), but I can say that if I hadn’t read them myself, I wouldn’t have guessed the movie is a mash-up.

Fairuza Balk is the most age-appropriate Dorothy we’ve had yet (she was 11 at the time the film was released), and puts out a decent performance. She’s a young actor, obviously still learning, and you frequently hear the stilted delivery of a child actor trying to remember her lines. But there’s a nice bit of emotion and determination in her voice, even during those abrupt and unnecessary pauses. She feels like a Dorothy who’s already been through a lot and has to reconcile the world she experienced with the ordinary one in which she was raised. It’s a nuanced idea, one that Baum never dealt with much in the books (except perhaps in The Emerald City of Oz), and rather daring for Disney to attempt in the 80s.

Except for Dorothy and Mombi, most of the cast is realized through the use of Jim Henson’s Creature Shop, doing a job that these days would probably be mostly CGI. I find the practical puppetry of Tik-Tok and Jack Pumpkinhead far more impressive than most computer animated creations, however, and they add a sense of realism to this fantastic setting. The character designs also skew very close to the illustrations in the original Oz books  — even the three characters from the original Wizard of Oz are made up to look like their book versions rather than Jack Haley, Ray Bolger or Bert Lahr. Of all the versions of Oz I’ve looked at this week, this is the one that feels most like the fantasy epic it is at its heart, and I attribute a lot of that to the designs of the characters and sets used here. There’s also some well-done stop motion animation for the Nomes, which are more like living rocks here than the dumpy creatures of the novel. The animation, done by Claymation creator Will Vinton, looks very impressive, and I can try to reconcile the changes to the characters with an attempt to make them more menacing – although the Nome King in Baum’s novels is one of the few truly credible threats to the power of Ozma and Glinda, his appearance is by no means something that will inspire fright.

Return to Oz was thought of by many people as an attempt to do a sequel to the Judy Garland movie, but this film has only a few nods to the MGM musical – the use of Ruby Slippers being the most obvious. The sequence in Kansas at the beginning, like in the MGM movie, introduces actors that would reoccur in Oz and elements that would reflect back on Dorothy’s second adventure (the pumpkin, the lunchpail, and the mechanical man most obviously). Fortunately, the end of the movie makes it pretty clear this time, it’s not just a dream, which Baum never intended in the first place.

As far as deviating from Baum’s intentions, the villains are farther off than anything else. Mombi has little in common with her counterpart from the books, borrowing her most distinctive aspects from Langwidere, the head-swappin’ princess from Ozma of Oz. The Nome King himself, though, is the biggest departure, showing a sense of compassion that doesn’t bespeak the character from the book at all, although the temper he displays at the end feels appropriate. His appearance is also very different from the pudgy, deceptively silly character he is in the books. In this version, he begins as a creature made of solid rock, and slowly becomes more human with each person added to his collection of ornaments. Once Dorothy starts setting her friends free he grows more and more inhuman again, finally crumbling to skeletal rock after Billina’s egg poisons him. It’s an interesting idea that would probably work with some villains, but doesn’t really fit the Nome King of L. Frank Baum’s novels all that well.

Despite that, this movie feels more like Baum’s Oz than any Oz movie I’ve ever seen – not perfect, mind you (the Emerald City’s sudden proximity to the very edge of Oz still strikes me as being somewhat ridiculous in the context of any version of the first story), but closer than anything else. We’ve still yet to have a truly faithful big-screen adaptation of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, let alone the rest of the books in the series, but if we ever get them, the look and flavor of this movie wouldn’t be a bad template to use at all.

Now I know I promised you five films for each week of this project, but I feel a little bad, as the most recent significant version of Dorothy Gale I can find in cinema is nearly 30 years old. Hollywood really needs to pick up the pace. But in order to have something a little more recent, just for perspective, come back tomorrow for a Dorothy Gale Week bonus! This time we’re going to the small screen to see how Zooey Deschanel depicted Dorothy Gale (or “D.G.”) in the 2007 Sci-Fi Channel miniseries Tin Man.

The first Reel to Reel study, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and Smashwords.com bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!

The Christmas Special Day 16: The Christmas Toy (1986)

christmastoyDirector: Eric Till

Writer: Laura Phillips

Cast: Dave Goelz, Steve Whitmire, Kathryn Mullen, Jerry Nelson, Richard Hunt, Camille Bonora, Brian Henson, Marsha Moreau, Zachary Bennett, Jim Henson

Plot: Rugby the Tiger (Dave Goelz) and the rest of the toys in Jesse and Jamie’s playroom (Zachary Bennett and Marsha Moreau, respectively) have an active existence, coming to life and playing whenever their children leave the room. They have to be careful to be in the same spot where the humans left them, though, for if they’re found out of place, they’re frozen forever. When the toys learn it’s Christmas Eve, Rugby is astonished. He remembers last Christmas, when Jamie found him in his brilliant box beneath the tree and he became the center of her world… he never imagined it would happen again. The old teddy bear Balthazar (Jerry Nelson) tells the toys to be ready to welcome the new toys into their midst, pointing out how the doll named Apple (Kathryn Mullen) was upset when Rugby stole her spotlight the year before. As Bathlazar tries to talk to Rugby about what’s about to happen, the catnip mouse named Mew (Steve Whitmire) tells them Rugby has left the playroom to get back under the Christmas Tree, where he believes he belongs. A clown doll named Ditz (Goelz again) steps out of the room to call Rugby back, but he’s found by the children’s mother, who tosses him back into the playroom. Ditz is now “frozen” – unable to move, unable to speak… essentially dead. The rest of the toys sadly bring him to a sort of graveyard in the closet for other frozen toys. As the rest of the toys grieve, Mew sneaks out alone to try to save Rugby.

Mew finds Rugby trapped in the linen closet, locked in after he got mixed up with some clothes. When he tells Mew how spectacular Christmas is (for Rugby, that is), Mew decides to help him back under the tree, showing him the real cat’s trick for opening the door. Back in the playroom Apple assembles a rescue party to go after Rugby and Mew. Rugby makes it to the Christmas tree, where a lovely box for Jamie is waiting to be opened. Mew gets the ribbon off just as Apple and the others find them. She implores him to leave the box alone, but Rugby ignores her. When he opens the box, instead of it being empty, he finds a new doll, a beautiful warrior woman who proclaims herself to be “Meteora, queen of the asteroids (Camille Bonora)!” Meteora rushes off and Rugby tries to seal himself inside her box, but Apple re-tells him the story of last Christmas from her own perspective, when Rugby took her place as Jamie’s favorite toy. As Rugby finally realizes the truth, he still tries to get in the box, and Apple and Mew remind him that he’ll be frozen if the humans find him. Meteora knocks over a chess set, and the noise summons Jamie and Jesse’s father. Before he sees the toys, Mew lets out a very convincing “meow.” Believing it’s just the cat, father goes back to bed. The other toys convince Meteora to return to her box by singing her praises and telling her how she’ll be recognized as a star come Christmas morning. Once she’s wrapped again, they head back towards the playroom. Just as most of them make it back, though, Mew slips from Rugby’s tail and is caught in the hall as the children’s mother opens the door. Rugby rushes to try to save him, but he gets trapped in the linen closet again when mother finds Mew and takes him downstairs to the cat. Heartbroken, Rugby retrieves his friend’s frozen body and tearfully sings him a song to tell him he loves him. Miraculously, Mew begins twitching, and wakes up. In the playroom, the rest of the toys take up the song as the frozen toys in the closet pick themselves up and stumble back to life. The next morning, Jamie and Jesse bring their new toys to the playroom (while the cat, Luigi, drops off a new mouse), and the rest of the toys welcome them. Rugby feels a moment of sorrow while Jamie tells Meteora she loves her, but spirits are lifted all around as she says the same to Apple, and to Rugby himself.

Thoughts: Once more to the Jim Henson company, friends, and to one of my favorite lesser-known Henson productions. The Christmas Toy, from 1986, was one of these specials that led into a (sadly short-lived) TV series, The Secret Life of Toys, about toys that come to life and play whenever their humans leave the room. Nine years later, of course, Pixar Animation would take the basic plot of this special and turn it into a billion-dollar franchise for Disney. And I’m not just talking about the “toys coming to life” part – let’s be fair here, everyone who has ever been a child has imagined that their toys come to life and have adventures of their own when they aren’t around. Of course, there’s also the notion of the comfortable favorite toy suddenly having his prominence threatened by the introduction of a cool new space toy… who doesn’t realize she IS a toy and thinks she’s really in… outer… space… Okay, look, I love Pixar as much as anybody, but if Jim Henson’s ghost had started haunting the crap out of their studio after the first Toy Story came out, he would have been entirely within his rights.

I remember watching this special as a child (I would have been nine the year it came out, so it’s likely I was part of the audience for the premiere) and loving it immediately, even wearing out a VHS copy taped from ABC. Looking back at it as an adult, it’s impressive to me how dark Henson and company were willing to get with these characters. Rugby, at the beginning of the special, is terribly arrogant and unlikable. When he starts singing that he was “the greatest Christmas toy of all,” you kind of hope he does get frozen.

Then there’s the “frozen” concept itself – for a small child, this could be terrifying. Think about it here… you’re little, you’re just starting to gain a comprehension about what death actually is and what it actually means… and then you watch a Muppet special where the lovable mouse drops dead because somebody looks at it. I don’t actually remember the spin-off TV show very well, but I’m pretty sure they dropped this particular aspect when it went to series, and that’s probably a good thing. It definitely adds a note of suspense and danger to the story, but it may have been too difficult to deal with on a weekly basis. (If you really want to be a stickler for continuity, you can probably argue that whatever Rugby did to bring Mew back at the end of this special broke that spell forever, but if you’re thinking that hard about it you’re probably thinking too much about this. Yes, I am speaking from experience.)

Like any good Christmas special, of course, the unlikable character finds redemption in the end. And like any good Jim Henson production, that redemption comes with the help of his friends. The relationship between Rugby and Mew is wonderfully constructed. They’re not buddy-buddy like Kermit and Fozzie or Bert and Ernie. Instead, at the beginning, Mew hangs out with Rugby mainly because all of the toys reject him (he’s “just a cat toy”), but Rugby gives him slightly more attention than the others. It’s not even good attention – Rugby mocks and degrades him more than anyone, but Mew latches on to him anyway. When Mew saves him, twice, we see Rugby’s attitude shift, becoming more accepting not only of Mew, but of Meteora as well. And all of it is part of his true education – the growing knowledge that he isn’t the center of the universe after all, but merely an important part of it for one child. Once again, Henson is teaching children a lesson: “It ain’t all about you, kid.”

The music is okay here, but the final number is fantastic. “Together at Christmas,” Rugby’s song to Mew, briefly became something of a Henson anthem, and we in fact will hear it once more a few days from now, when we pay our fourth and final visit to the Henson workshop, and look in on his most famous creations.

Speaking of those creations, like Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas, this film sadly isn’t available uncut. Both Emmet and the Toys are still owned by the Jim Henson Company, but a few years back they sold the Muppet Show characters to Disney, which means they had to trim the introduction for both of these films, starring Kermit the Frog, to put on DVD. (Sesame Workshop got special permission from Disney to use Kermit in some of the DVDs of their older shows. I don’t know if Henson even asked…) The special is lovely in its own right, but the beginning is terribly abrupt, you feel like you’ve turned it on after it already began, and that’s why. The DVD itself is horribly barebones, not even taking you to a menu before starting the film. If they ever decide to dress this up and do a better home video release, I hope they come to some sort of agreement to give us Kermit’s welcome back again.