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Scrooge Month Day 16: Oscar the Grouch in A SESAME STREET CHRISTMAS CAROL (2006)

Sesame Street Christmas Carol 2006Directors: Victor DiNapoli, Ken Giego, Emily Squires, Jon Stone

Writers: Rickey Boyd, Jon Stone, Joseph A. Bailey, Christine Ferraro, Tony Geiss

Cast: Caroll Spinney, Kristin Chenoweth, Joey Mazzarino, Matt Vogel, Jim Martin, Tim Curry, Rickey Boyd, Kevin Clash, Jim Henson, Frank Oz, Pam Arciero, Fran Brill, Alice Dinnean, Eric Jacobson, Peter Linz, Noel MacNeal, Jerry Nelson, Carmen Osbahr, Martin P. Robinson, David Rudman, John Tartaglia, Steve Whitmire, Bryant Young, Carlo Alban, Alison Bartlett, Desiree Casado, Emilio Delgado, Will Lee, Loretta Long, Sonia Manzano, Bob McGrath, Roscoe Orman, Imani Patterson, David Langston Smyrl, Brian Gore

Notes: This is, of course, not the first time the Muppet characters have tackled A Christmas Carol, but  sadly the Muppet Show Muppets and the Sesame Street Muppets are so far removed from one another these days that it almost doesn’t even matter. At any rate, this (much toned down) version of the Dickens story casts Oscar the Grouch as the most natural Scrooge since McDuck. New characters – all computer animated rather than traditional puppets – appear as the three ghosts. My favorite bit of this, though, is that the special uses footage from classic Sesame Street Christmas shows, thus allowing us to see performances from the likes of the late Jim Henson and Will Lee and the mostly-retired Frank Oz, all right alongside the modern cast of the show.

Thoughts: Tim Curry starts us off in his usual role as The Best Narrator In the World Assuming You Can’t Afford Morgan Freeman, and introduces us to an Oscar the Grouch (Caroll Spinney) who’s looking forward to sleeping through Christmas entirely. His plan is wrecked, though, when a messenger named Joe Marley (Joey Mazzarino) shows up with news. Marley is there to deliver Oscar the first of three Ghost-O-Grams, beginning with a vintage 1843 baked beans can. (1843, in case you didn’t know, is the year A Christmas Carol was first published. Cute.)

It hardly seems necessary to critique Caroll Spinney as Oscar the Grouch – he’s played the character for over four decades and he’s made him one of the most enduring childhood icons in the history of the world. Let’s instead just agree that Oscar as Scrooge is such an obvious idea that one wonders why they didn’t try it before and move on, shall we?

Rickey Boyd provides the voice for the first “ghost” – Rhubarb, the Grouch of Christmas Past. Rhubarb and Oscar agree to watch the old films of previous Christmases, even as they agree not to enjoy them, and we see the “Gift of the Magi” segment from 1978’s Christmas Eve on Sesame Street, which I wrote about last year. It’s a clever use of the old footage, something very few other versions of A Christmas Carol could even imagine, but it does raise an important question: what’s the point of all this? There hasn’t been any talk of “redeeming” Oscar the way Scrooge usually needs to be redeemed, and even if there was, this clip doesn’t even include him. Why is Rhubarb being sent to show Oscar heartwarming clips? Even Oscar asks this question, and Rhubarb doesn’t have an answer.

But you know what? It’s Jim Henson, Frank Oz and Will Lee, all together. I’m not about to complain about that.

In the next segment, we have an old musical number with Big Bird (Spinney again) singing about how he misses his best friend, Mr. Snuffleupagus, who’s away for Christmas. It’s a cute song, one I don’t really remember, which probably suggests this clip came some time after I grew out of the prime Sesame Street demographic. There’s not really anything to hint as to just when it was made. Once it was over, we cut back to Rhubarb and Oscar, laughing about how bad the clips are. Call me a racist, but this is the kind of typical Grouch behavior that has caused people to have certain opinions about them for decades.

Marley returns with the next Ghost-O-Gram. This time Oscar gets a jack-in-the-box that releases Christmas Carol (Kristin Chenoweth), a woman in a Christmas tree outfit, who decides to dress up Oscar’s trash can with a little holiday makeover. It gets worse for Oscar when she pops a Santa Claus hat and beard on him. Carol presents a contemporary segment featuring Sesame Street’s current cash cow, Elmo (Kevin Clash), on a visit to Santa’s workshop. Santa sings Elmo a song which can be summarized as, “Boy, it’s nice that you’re not a selfish jerk,” and we then spin off into another clip. This time, Elmo has somehow caused it to be Christmas every day, because he’s never seen a Christmas special before, and he sings a song explaining that Christmas is only special because it’s once a year. Oscar sarcastically quips, “Christmas every day is a bad idea,” as if he didn’t know that already. For once, Oscar, I’m with you.

Then, to ensure that Sesame Workshop maintained its educational grant, we get a couple of Muppet-free segments about Hanukkah and Kwanzaa.

The last Ghost-O-Gram introduces us to a flying robot named i-SAM (Kevin Clash), who is there to show Oscar Christmas Future. Instead of a Sesame Street clip, though, we get an animated segment in which we “tour” a future where homes decorate themselves, giant holiday dinners are reduced to pills, and families are whisked around in oversized Christmas tree ornaments. It’s a silly, charming little cartoon that fulfills the “Future” requirement in a decidedly non-frightening way. Oscar suddenly wakes up and sees it’s Christmas morning, and he’s being visited by Joe Marley again – only this time he claims to be “Little Joey Dickens from Brooklyn,” who tells Oscar all he had was a bad dream. He gives Oscar a present, though – a sticky ball of used wrapping paper – and all seems well. Especially since tomorrow is the best time of the year for a Grouch – the longest possible time until it’s Christmas again.

I don’t usually like stories that end with the “it was all a dream” conceit, but in a way it’s the only thing that makes sense here. There’s no real reason for Oscar to be visited by these ghosts, nothing changes, nothing actually happens in this film. It’s just an excuse to use a classic framing device to show old clips of the show. It’s not the worst premise in the world, but it feels like there could have been more than a little lip service given to Dickens in the framework. It’s cute, and it’s perfectly acceptable as a Sesame Street special, but remembering just how special some of those specials have been, it seems it could have been better.

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!

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!

The Christmas Special Day 19: A Muppet Family Christmas (1987)

muppet-family-christmasDirectors: Peter Harris & Eric Till

Writer: Jerry Juhl

Cast: Jim Henson, Frank Oz, Dave Goelz, Richard Hunt, Kathryn Mullen, Jerry Nelson, Karen Prell, Steve Whitmire, David Rudman, Caroll Spinney, Gerard Parkes

Plot: Kermit the Frog (Jim Henson) and many of the Muppets are off to spend Christmas at Fozzie Bear’s mother’s house (Fozzie and Ma Bear performed by Frank Oz and Jerry Nelson, respectively). They arrive to find that Ma is about to leave, having planned on taking a vacation to Florida for the holidays. Doc (Gerard Parkes) and his dog Sprocket (Steve Whitmire) are renting the house for a quiet holiday. When the Muppets arrive Ma decides to call off her vacation, and Doc finds himself surrounded by strange creatures. (Perplexed, he asks Sprocket if the Muppets are like the “Fraggles” his dog often reports encountering back home.) As everyone settles in, Kermit gets a call from Miss Piggy (Oz again), who is finishing up a photo shoot and plans to join them later. A Turkey (Whitmire again) arrives at the door, having been invited by the Swedish Chef (Henson), and the poultry-loving Gonzo (Dave Goelz) tries to convince him that a turkey at Christmas is more likely to be the main course than a guest. As more Muppets arrive, the farmhouse begins to descend into chaos: the Turkey tells Chef that Sprocket is the turkey, Fozzie Bear attempts to start up a new comedy routine with a Snowman (Richard Hunt), and the Turkey starts to hit on Gonzo’s girlfriend, Camilla. Scooter (Hunt) cheers everyone up with some home movies of the gang as babies, and just before Gonzo and the turkey come to blows, a group of carolers arrive: the Muppets’ friends from Sesame Street. They come in, Bert and Ernie (Oz and Henson) engage Doc in small talk about the letter B, and Christmas Eve.

Chef gets the Turkey into the kitchen and begins sizing him up for the pan, but the Turkey deflects his attention by pointing out the most delectable dish of all: Big Bird (Caroll Spinney). The news reports a terrible storm approaching, and Kermit begins to worry about Miss Piggy, who still hasn’t arrived. The different groups begin bonding, with Janice (Hunt) and Cookie Monster (Oz) “sharing” a plate of treats, drawing Animal (Oz)’s admiration, Oscar the Grouch (Spinney) offering to share his trash can with Rizzo the Rat (Whitmire), and Bert and Ernie leading the Sesame Street gang in a performance of “Twas the Night Before Christmas.” Kermit gets a call from Piggy and tries to convince her to stay off the road during the storm. The pigheaded (rimshot) Muppet doesn’t listen, though, and tries to hail a taxi. The Chef summons Big Bird into the kitchen, planning to prepare him for dinner, but is touched when Big Bird – feeling sorry for him spending Christmas so far away from his home in Sweden – gives him a present of chocolate covered birdseed. When Doc sees Kermit staring out into the snow again, he offers to head out and look for Piggy. As Kermit waits, his nephew Robin (Nelson) summons him to the cellar, where he’s found what he believes to be a Fraggle hole. The two frogs wind up in the subterranean world of Fraggle Rock, where the Fraggles are in the midst of their own midwinter celebration, in which Mokey (Kathryn Mullen) is giving Boober (Goelz) a yellow pebble – which has been a present from Fraggle to Fraggle 37 times. Boober gives the pebble to Robin. As the Frogs return to the farmhouse, Doc arrives on a dogsled wearing a Mountie uniform – all things Miss Piggy just happened to have for him when he found her in the snow. After all, Miss Piggy knows how to make an entrance.

With everyone finally safe and warm in the farmhouse (which is now so tight on space Gonzo and Animal have to sleep on hangers on the wall), Ma Bear officially welcomes everyone to her home and Rowlf the Dog leads the extended Muppet family in their annual Carol Sing. The music summons the Fraggles into the farmhouse, and they join in. Gifts are exchanged – Kermit gives Piggy a mink, and Robin passes the Fraggle Pebble on to Grover – and in the kitchen, Jim Henson himself watches on and smiles… then recruits Sprocket to help him wash the dishes.

Thoughts: We finally get to Jim Henson’s most famous family of characters, the Muppet Show Muppets, making the Henson company’s final entry in our countdown. This special hits on several levels. First of all, it’s full of fantastic Christmas music – in and of itself, that’s enough to make it worth watching. We get a lot of traditionals in the Carol Sing at the end, as well as plenty of other songs throughout. There’s also a song plucked from Fraggle Rock – the joyful “Pass it on” – and the show caps off with a slightly modified version of “Together at Christmas” from The Christmas Toy.

It’s also impressive just how many different stories the special manages to juggle. Kermit and Piggy’s story is ostensibly the A-plot, but it doesn’t really have much more screen time than the Chef’s attempts at dinner, Gonzo’s rivalry with the turkey, Fozzie’s new act, Ma’s effort to find room for everybody, or the introduction of the Fraggles to the rest of the family. All of these things could command a larger chunk if they eliminated the other stories, but it would be a real loss to do so.

It’s also worth noting that most of the stories are pretty original – no retreads of Dickens or Capra or O’Henry, even though Henson has turned to that well before. It’s interesting to note, though, that of the four specials we’ve watched from the Henson company, all four have dealt with gift-giving and self-sacrifice on a fairly significant level. Food for thought.

But the thing that makes this legendary for fans of the Henson company is because this is the only time the casts of all three major Henson families came together on-screen. We saw the Muppet Show and Sesame Street characters interact on several occasions in the past, but throwing in the Fraggles (at the height of their popularity when this special was made) makes it… well, extra-special. There’s even a small bit with the Muppet Babies, when Scooter shows the home movies, allowing us to see them as puppets for only the second time. (Their debut was in the feature film The Muppets Take Manhattan – for their own show, they were animated.) Unfortunately, due to rights issues with the music used in that scene, most of it was cut from the special’s DVD release. There are actually several scenes removed or abbreviated for this reason, so a complete version has never made it to DVD. Even worse, because of the fracturing of the Jim Henson company, in which the Muppet Show characters were sold to Disney and the Sesame Street characters given to the Children’s Television Workshop (now Sesame Workshop), the three families are now all owned by three different companies. Because of this, the DVD has been out of print for years, and can only be obtained used. Good luck – I managed to snag it when it was new and I’ve been watching the same disc for ten years, and it’s now extremely hard to come by. (Although you can find the whole thing on YouTube, and it’s worth it.)

Jim Henson was one of those creators that comes along once in a generation. While he wasn’t the sole force behind the creation of the Muppets, and probably gets too much credit for Sesame Street in some circles, the fact that he was the epicenter of so many different creative movements in his too-short time on this planet is nothing short of astonishing. The fact that so many people continue to use his creations to tell new and wonderful stories 20 years after his death is astonishing. He made something magical and lasting, and this special is one of the few places you can see the scope of his talent all at once, all together, as it should be. That, in and of itself, is a Christmas miracle of a kind.

The Christmas Special Day 13: Christmas Eve on Sesame Street (1978)

christmas-eve-on-sesame-street-dvdDirector: Jon Stone

Writer: Jon Stone, Joseph A. Bailey

Cast: Caroll Spinney,Jim Henson, Frank Oz, Jerry Nelson, Richard Hunt, Linda Bove, Northern Calloway, Debbie Chen, Will Lee, Loretta Long, Sonia Manzano, Bob McGrath, Roscoe Orman, Alaina Reed

Plot: On Christmas Eve the gang on Sesame Street takes a trip to the local ice skating rink. While everyone else is having a good time, Oscar the Grouch (Carroll Spinney) decides to poke fun at the naive Big Bird (Spinney again), asking him how Santa Claus can possibly fit through the tiny chimneys the buildings on Sesame Street have. Dismayed at the thought that Santa may not be able to get in, Big Bird and his friend Patty (Debbie Chen) set out to solve the mystery. They turn to Kermit the Frog (Jim Henson, and if you didn’t know that stop reading my article right now, you heathen), who suggests turning to the Santa Claus experts – the children – to find the answer.

Meanwhile, Bert (Frank Oz) is stuck for a Christmas present for his best friend Ernie (Henson again, I mean it, stop reading if you didn’t know that already because I don’t want you here). When he comes across Ernie’s Rubber Duckie, he gets an idea. Ernie, facing a similar dilemma, stumbles across one of Bert’s prize paperclips and decides to get him a cigar box to keep his paperclip collection safe. Going to Mr. Hooper’s store, Ernie finds he doesn’t have enough money for the box, and offers Mr. Hooper (Will Lee) his Rubbier Duckie as a trade. As Ernie leaves, Bert enters with a similar offer: he wants to trade his paperclip collection for a soap dish where Ernie can keep Rubber Duckie. Mr. Hooper takes both deals, even though Bert and Ernie are both clearly distraught over surrendering their prized possessions.

When Kermit’s investigation proves fruitless, Big Bird and Patty recruit Mr. Snuffleupagus (Jerry Nelson) to try to test out a method for squeezing into a chimney. Snuffy, unfortunately, gets stuck. Outside, as Bob (Bob McGrath) and Mr. Hooper exchange holiday pleasantries, Oscar groans and launches into his own seasonal anthem: “I Hate Christmas.”

Bert and Ernie exchange gifts, and both are stunned to realize they’ve been given a gift intended specifically to compliment the very item they have sacrificed. Neither wants to confess to the other that his gift is now useless, and before either of them have to, there’s a knock at the door. Mr. Hooper is there with gifts for the boys – Ernie’s Rubber Duckie and Bert’s paperclips. Bert and Ernie are overjoyed at having their treasures back, but sadly say they haven’t a gift to give Mr. Hooper. The kind old man smiles and tells them they’ve already given him the best gift ever: the chance to see everyone get what they want for Christmas.

When the snow begins to fall that evening, Big Bird sends Patty home. As she leaves she tells him not to worry, she’s certain Santa will come, even if they don’t know how he’ll do it. Left alone, Big Bird decides to go to the roof and wait for him. Patty later turns up at Gordon and Susan’s apartment (Roscoe Orman and Loretta Long, respectively) to tell them she went back to Big Bird’s nest and he’s gone. Everyone on Sesame Street begins searching for him, while on the roof Big Bird watches them, wondering what all the fuss is about. With the temperature dropping and everyone worrying Maria (Sonia Manzano) confronts Oscar over upsetting Big Bird in the first place. Guilty, Oscar sets out to find him. On the roof, away from his safe, warm nest, Big Bird falls asleep, unaware of the figure that has joined him there. When he wakes up he sees nothing, not even footprints, and decides to go downstairs and warm up. He meets Gordon and Patty on the stairs, and Gordon refuses to let him go back outside. In Gordon and Susan’s apartment, he finds a beautiful Christmas tree and stockings loaded with presents for everyone – Santa must have passed while he slept. Gordon explains to Big Bird that it isn’t important to explain a miracle; the important thing is that they’re all together again. Oscar turns up and tells Big Bird he’s glad he’s back… but the Grouch can’t resist one last dig. “How do you think the Easter Bunny can hide all those eggs in one night?”

Thoughts: Jim Henson and company return, although this time he’s joined by some of the other great “J”s of his era – Jon Stone, the writer responsible for so many of the greatest Sesame Street moments of your youth; Jerry Nelson, who gave us the Count and Mr. Snuffleupagus (a word which, somehow, is not in my spellcheck); producer Joan Ganz Cooney, the woman who conceived of using entertaining television to educate children in what would become the Sesame Street style. Henson and his Muppets were integral to the success of this show, but he sure didn’t do it alone. Regardless, as fantastic as each of those creators are, the true magic of Christmas Eve on Sesame Street isn’t brought to you by the letter J, but rather by C and S: Carroll Spinney, the Muppeteer responsible for both Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch.

Unlike the regular daily episodes of the show, this prime time special didn’t have any of the cutaway educational segments, didn’t include lessons on counting or spelling… instead, the Children’s Television Workshop used the opportunity to teach a moral lesson or three. And like they did in all their finest moments, they did so without preaching, presenting the lesson in a way that would be easy for children to accept, understand, and internalize.

The A-plot of this special belongs to Oscar and Big Bird in a way that shows off their relationship for what it is: an older sibling (Oscar) who enjoys picking on the younger (Big Bird), but still feels guilty and tries to set things right when confronted with the consequences of his actions. Anyone who has a brother or sister can probably relate – it’s crafted in a very realistic, natural and believable way. Spinney plays their relationship with Oscar’s edge and Big Bird’s unrelenting sweetness clashing at every turn, allowing the kids to worry along with Big Bird until the obvious conclusion is reached at the end. Spinney is a master performer, and I only wish I could have been there to watch him rushing back and forth between the two characters as the camera cut away. Dude must have been exhausted.

The story reveals a depth of character I don’t think is obvious when you’re a child watching these specials. It’s telling to me that only Maria, out of all the adults on Sesame Street, is able to convince Oscar to go out and look for Big Bird and fix what he did wrong. That’s not an accident – Maria and Oscar have a surprisingly complex relationship, in which Maria plays both mother and big sister to the Muppets. It’s one of the few moments in Sesame Street history where I remember seeing one of the human characters get genuinely, justifiably angry, and Sonia Manzano pulls it off wonderfully. Oscar comes across as the problem child who reacts to a stern but loving hand when gentleness fails. (I also maintain that Oscar – at least in my formative years of watching Sesame Street – was written to harbor a forever-unspoken crush on Maria, but that’s neither here nor there.)

The B-plot, featuring Bert, Ernie, and Mr. Hooper, is surprisingly only the second story in our countdown to play with the “Gift of the Magi,” although this is a much more straightforward retelling than Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas. Bert and Ernie fill the roles nicely, with writer Jon Stone playing on their legendary friendship and slightly childlike outlook to create a story where you can naturally accept them sacrificing for one another. Seeing Mr. Hooper step in to save the day is a lovely moment, and one that still touches the heart all these years after actor Will Lee’s death. (A rare non-Christmas tangent: if you’ve never seen the Sesame Street episode where Big Bird learns that Mr. Hooper has died, watch it on YouTube. And if it doesn’t make you cry, stop reading my blog forever and go back to your day job strangling baby owls and selling their feathers to stuff pillows for Neo-Nazis.) Although this story was once copied almost as often as A Christmas Carol, it’s fallen a bit by the wayside in recent years. That may be a good thing. A child seeing this special now wouldn’t necessarily see the ending coming, and the message of the piece will more likely remain intact.

One thing I didn’t mention much in my synopsis of the episode are the musical numbers peppered throughout. In truth, most of these do little (or nothing) to advance the plot, so they didn’t really belong there, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t memorable in and of themselves. Bob McGrath and Linda Bove (playing Bob and Linda, respectively) lead the children of the cast in the haunting “Keep Christmas With You (All Through the Year),” and the whole cast joins in for “True Blue Miracle,” another one of those songs that has transcended the special that birthed it and become something you may well hear on the radio or in a shopping mall. It’s nice to have some traditional music in there as well – Bert and Ernie’s duet of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” is lovely. Hardcore Muppet fans can probably hear just a bit of Frank and Jim’s friendship in the performance as well. And Oscar’s “I Hate Christmas” is just a joy whether you’re a true believer or an eternal humbug.

There are other moments that don’t actually contribute to either of the two main plots. Grover has a few scenes where he interviews children about Santa’s efforts to enter the chimney, similar to scenes in the regular episodes of the TV show. There’s a running gag about Cookie Monster trying to write a letter to Santa and eating his assorted writing implements as well. It’s a good bit, but there may be no moment of sheer comedy in the special as great as when he realizes the traditional Santa Claus exchange: when he leaves you a present, Gordon tells him, you should leave him a plate of cookies.

But as far as those moments that don’t go with the plot are concerned, the champion is the very first scene in the ice skating rink. As wonderful as the rest of the episode is, this opening scene is still bizarre, with ice skaters wearing full-size costumes of the Muppets skating on the ice. Seeing a six-foot Bert and Ernie or an adult-sized Count is just bizarre. And yes, I know they’ve been doing essentially the same thing with the Sesame Street Live shows for decades. I think it’s weird there, too.

This special won two Emmy awards, ironically beating out A Special Sesame Street Christmas, which aired in prime time on CBS. Both of these shows are now available on DVD, and a quick comparison makes it clear why Christmas Eve walked home with the awards. Out of the two, this special is far more special than Special.

The Christmas Special Day 9: Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas (1977)

emmett-otterDirector: Jim Henson

Writer: Jerry Juhl, based on the book by Russell & Lillian Hoban

Cast: Jerry Nelson, Frank Oz, Marilyn Sokol, Dave Goelz, Richard Hunt, Eren Ozker, Jim Henson

Plot: With three days to Christmas,Alice Otter (Marilyn Sokol) is having trouble getting together the money to give her son Emmet (Jerry Nelson) a happy holiday. Emmet sets his heart on a $40 guitar in a music store window, but their shopping afternoon is disrupted by the appearance of a group of rough animals calling themselves the Riverbottom Boys. As the Otters return home, Alice tries to discourage Emmet from getting too hopeful about Christmas, but the boy continues to dream about the days when his father was alive and money went farther. Alice is practically down to using her washtub as their only means of support, while Emmet uses his father’s tools to do odd jobs. Both Alice and Emmet learn the town’s upcoming Talent Competition has a grand prize of $50. Emmet’s friends form a jug band and ask him to borrow his mother’s washtub to make a bass, but Emmet refuses, knowing you can’t make a washtub base without putting a hole in the washtub. Alice is reluctant to enter either, knowing her only way of having a dress for the competition would be to hock her late husband’s tools. Later, as Emmet and Alice play on the frozen lake, they share memories of Pa Otter, and each becomes convinced that he would have made the sacrifice for the other’s sake. Alice wants to buy her son the guitar he admired, while Emmet wants to use his share of the prize money to put a down payment on a piano to replace the one she sold some time ago. Emmet makes his washtub bass, while Alice sells the tools and buys fabric for a dress.

As Emmet’s band practices, the Riverbottom Boys mock their efforts to win the talent contest. Their nerves are shaken even worse when they arrive at the contest to find the opening act is performing the same song they’ve rehearsed. They rush off to learn a new song, but the stage manager forces them back into the theater, afraid they’ll miss their cue. Alice performs “Our World” to a thunderous round of applause, and Emmet’s Jug Band follows up with “Brothers.” The competition is supposed to be over, but the Riverbottom Boys come on and perform a harsh, angry rock number, “Riverbottom Nightmare Band.” The Nightmare Band wins the competition, and the Otters are despondent. Outside they’re told the judges liked both of their acts, but felt like they were missing a little something extra. Alice realizes what their songs were missing was each other. She begins singing and the jug band joins in, resulting in a beautiful combination of the two pieces, “Brothers in Our World.” As they sing, the townspeople come out to listen. Doc Bullfrog, one of the judges, offers them a job performing at his restaurant – free meals included. As they walk home, Alice and the boys sing Pa Otter’s favorite song in his memory.

Thoughts: The great Jim Henson makes his first (but most assuredly not last) appearance in our countdown with this 1977 TV special, adapting a folksy little tale with a hint of O. Henry and a lot of Henson-style sweetness. Although Henson was a veteran puppeteer at this point, and Sesame Street had been on the air for eight years, this special still shows some of the marks of early work and low budgets. The establishing shot is very obviously a model, control rods and seams are often all too visible, and the car the Riverbottom Boys ride through town looks like a wind-up toy. Amazingly all of these things actually contribute to the charm of the special. It gives it a homey, old-fashioned feeling that suits the characters and the world Henson and company created.

The plot has an interesting dash of “Gift of the Magi” in it, but with a clever twist. Rather than trading their own possessions for gifts (which turn out to be useless, thanks to their partner doing the same thing), in this special both Otters trade something important to the other in the hopes of getting the money for a decent present. I’m not quite sure what the message here is… “If you take away your family’s only means of support, make sure you can use it to get them a musical instrument” seems like kind of a bizarre theme for the Christmas season. What makes it work, however, is how the movie uses the focus of the absent Pa Otter – Henson convinces us that both Otters are doing what they believe their late husband/father would do, which is what makes it not only acceptable, but admirable. It helps, I think, that they don’t actually accomplish their goal. Losing the contest makes for a slightly less sugary climax, and the way they get their happy ending anyway feels more natural, more emotionally honest.

Emmet and Alice themselves are sweet, old-fashioned characters. There’s a bit of saccharine to them, but just a bit – enough for the obnoxiously cynical among us to cling to in an attempt to deride this special, unfortunately. For the rest of us, the Otters are simply a hard-luck family in need of a break at Christmas.

The star of this special, I’d argue, isn’t any of the Otters or even Henson, but songwriter Paul Williams. Williams would go on to have a great history with Henson and the Muppets, and the songs he composed for this special (“There Ain’t No Hole in the Washtub,” and “Bar-B-Que,” for instance) have transcended Christmas and become folksy classics. There’s an interesting phenomenon when you rewatch the special, though… having heard the “Our World”/”Brothers” mashup at the end, when you listen to each song performed on its own it feels oddly incomplete. “Brothers” especially sounds like a backing track, with odd pauses and harmonic notes that don’t seem like a proper melody. It’s been far too long since I first saw the special to remember if I would have noticed such a thing upon first viewing, but it stands out to me now. Also amusing, to a Muppet fan like me at least, is “Riverbottom Nightmare Band,” which has some riffs and beats that seem to echo Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem in musical energy, if not in actual tone or message.

A few years ago, Williams wrote a few extra songs to expand the special into a full-length stage play, which ran for two Christmas seasons in Connecticut. Would that I could have seen that one – I’ll bet it was magnificent.

For those of you wondering if the inclusion of this special means you won’t be seeing any other Muppets in the countdown thanks to the “one-per-franchise” rule, the answer is heck no. Using the same logic that allows me to include multiple Rankin and Bass specials, I consider each “family” of Muppets a different franchise. Since this one doesn’t include any of the Muppet Show or Sesame Street Muppets, except Kermit in an intro that is no longer included on the DVD, I hereby declare this a standalone film. You’ll definitely see the Henson company again.

Lunatics and Laughter Day 5: An American Werewolf in London (1981)

an-american-werewolf-in-londonDirector: John Landis

Writer: John Landis

Cast: David Naughton, Griffin Dunne, Jenny Agutter, Anne-Marie Davies, John Woodvine, Frank Oz

Plot: American college students David Kessler (David Naughton) and Jack Goodman (Griffin Dunne) are backpacking across Europe, beginning in northern England with plans to work their way south to Italy. The plans are shattered, though, when they stop at a small-town pub called the Slaughtered Lamb in the town of East Proctor. The locals distrust them, and Jack distrusts the five-pointed star painted on the wall. They leave, disturbing the barmaid and prompting warnings to stay on the road and beware the moon. The Americans are attacked by a huge wolf, which kills Jack and bites David before the villagers arrive and shoot it down. As he passes out, David sees that the beast has turned into a man.

He wakes up in a hospital in London three weeks later, where the police take his statement, but believe he was attacked by a lunatic rather than an animal. One of the Nurses, Alex Price (Jenny Agutter) takes a personal interest in him, convincing him to eat even when he isn’t hungry, keeping him company at night. He begins having dreams of running through the woods, naked, slaughtering and eating animals, then later seeing himself in a hospital bed, threatening Alex. After a particularly bad dream, Jack appears in his room, chatting jovially with his friend despite the fact that he’s a mutilated corpse. As David struggles to figure out if he’s dreaming, Jack starts quipping about his own funeral, putting him at ease before he can drop the bomb on his buddy. They were attacked by a werewolf, and since he was killed by a supernatural being Jack is cursed to walk the earth until the werewolf’s bloodline is severed. David, bitten by the wolf, is now part of that line, and Jack begs him to kill himself so they can both find peace. Jenny comes into his room, thinking him waking up from another nightmare, and he kisses her and declares himself a werewolf. When David is discharged, Jenny invites him to stay with her, and their relationship progresses quickly. Despite his newfound happiness, Jack’s corpse continues to haunt David, again begging him to kill himself before tomorrow’s full moon.

David’s doctor, Dr. Hirsch (John Woodvine) drives to the town where David was attacked, trying to figure out why David’s version of events differs so greatly from the official report. He finds himself blocked by the same villagers who turned out David and Jack, but this time, one is willing to talk. He warns Hirsch that David is in danger, and will “change” with the full moon. That night, as Jenny works a late shift at the hospital, the predictions come true – David undergoes a terrifying change from man to monster. He rushes into the night and attacks people, as the previous werewolf attacked him. Hirsch returns to London and compares notes with Jenny. Convinced that something is wrong in East Proctor – and wrong with David by extension – he calls her apartment. When David doesn’t answer, he calls the police.

The next day, David wakes up in the zoo, naked, in a wolf pen. With some quick thinking, he covers up and gets away. Hirsch, meanwhile, finds the morning paper full of stories about a brutal series of murders where the victims were half-eaten. When David returns to Alex’s apartment, particularly excitable and enthusiastic, she plans to take him back to the hospital. Along the way, the cab driver tells them about the murders, and David flees, planning to turn himself into the police, but the officer dismisses him. He runs away and Alex, Hirsch and the police who investigated his attack begin searching for him. David calls his family in America, hurriedly telling his sister he loves her before attempting to slit his wrists. Finding himself unable to do so, Jack’s corpse appears again, leading David into an adult ovie theater. The corpse, now more decrepit than ever, introduces David to the people he killed the night before, now trapped as a living dead just like Jack. He’s still in the theater when night falls again, and the killing begins again. The wolf escapes into the London streets, going on a bloody rampage, killing some and causing traffic crashes that kill many more. The police corner it in an alley and Alex rushes to the scene, approaching it and trying to draw the real David out. It lunges at her and the police open fire. The beast turns back into David as it dies, and Alex weeps.

Thoughts: Reportedly, director John Landis wrote the first draft of this script in 1969 and fought for over a decade to get it released, as studios thought it was too funny to market as a comedy and too scary to market as a horror film. You’ll excuse me if I find that just precious – as the whole point of my project is that the two both can, and have worked hand in hand for decades. On the other hand, the fact that I’ve located so few great horror/comedies before 1980 to include in this project seems to indicate that it wasn’t always the relatively easy sell it is today, and I have to suspect the success of An American Werewolf in London is one of the things that helped turn the tide and convince filmmakers that the conflicting styles could, and do, work together.

Landis is clearly a fan of the old Lon Chaney Jr. Wolfman pictures, even throwing out several references to them throughout film. He goes much farther than Universal could in the 40s, though, showing extremes of violence that wouldn’t have been allowed at the time. His special effects are, as to be expected, considerably more advanced as well. The transformation scenes are very good – simply done, but effective. Not to harp on it, but there’s no way this movie would be made today without giving in to the temptation to do the entire transformation via CGI (see the 2010 remake of The Wolfman if you don’t believe me), and that would really kill one of the most memorable sequences in this film. Naughton’s performance during the transformation is really excellent – even before any of the special effects show up he’s putting on a terrific, very convincing show of agony that makes you receptive when the limbs and face start to transform and the hair begins to sprout.

But the truly innovative thing about the movie, to me, is the tone of the film. This takes us back to a Type A picture, and an extreme Type A at that, far more horror than comedy.  Landis basically wrote a monster movie, a modernized retelling of the Lon Chaney Jr. picture, and laced it with just enough humor and off-the-cuff commentary to market it partially as a comedy. Most of the humor actually comes through Jack – a snarky type even when he’s alive, but he becomes the master of the deadpan quip after he dies. David gets a little bit of physical comedy later, once he transforms for the first time. The sequence where he tries to sneak out of the zoo naked, stealing bits and pieces of cover-up along the way, feels like it could have fallen out of an old Marx Brothers or Hope and Crosby routine.

Landis is great at pulling an emotional reversal as well. When David calls home and tells his sister he loves her, there’s a horrible sense of finality to it. It’s a very genuine moment, where you understand you’re listening to a man who’s planning to die, trying to get everything straight before it happens. Considering that David was dancing around in a red fur-trimmed coat just minutes before, the viewer is left completely unprepared. The pace of the film as a whole is surprising, in fact. There’s a very long build-up to David’s first transformation, and once he realizes he’s responsible for the murders you blink and realize there are only about 20 minutes left in the film. It feels like there should be more, like everything has happened much too fast. When the end finally comes, it’s over in the blink of an eye. BAM-David is shot! Alex cries! Begin credits! There’s no denouement to cling to, no moment to allow your emotions to work themselves out before you feel a bit of a tear turn up for the poor American who became something he never wanted to be, did terrible things he never wanted to do, and died in a way he never would have wanted to die. It was a departure for Animal House director Landis and it’s a bit of a departure for this project, but it’s a good one.