This article comes from Den of Geek UK.
The Muppet Christmas Carol is wonderful. It’s perfectly pitched, sharp and witty, yet also genuinely moving. It’s genius lies in how seriously it takes the material. It lets the full horror and pathos of Dickens’ original tale fill the screen, letting the Muppets maneuver around it, instead of dominating, so it’s just as riveting as it is hilarious. But without wanting to get heretical here, it might not actually be the best holiday themed Muppet special. I’d argue that title actually falls to a criminally under-seen 1987 ABC television special, called A Muppet Family Christmas.
Adored by those who’ve seen it, it’s been mostly keep out of circulation due to a copyright mess. A mess that results mostly from it’s greatest selling point – that is the one big, non-cameo, crossover of The Muppets, Sesame Street, Fraggle Rock, and The Muppet Babies.
The Muppets‘ anarchic, post-modern sensibility is what has really made them a sustainable pop culture entity, and not just a Gen X nostalgia kick. Sometimes this manifests itself brilliantly (the 2011 reboot/comeback film) and sometimes it’s just crass (the Lady Gaga Christmas special). Yet, contrary to all this, A Muppet Family Christmas is simple to the point of banality, and that’s partly what makes it so delightful.
It has the barest of set ups. Fozzie Bear is driving the Muppets to spend Christmas at his mom’s remote farm. He hasn’t bothered to inform his mom however, who is intending to go to Malibu for the holidays. To look after the farm while she’s away, she’s hired Doc, the kindly old human narrator of Fraggle Rock, who just wants to spend a quiet Christmas with his faithful dog Sprocket. The Muppets’ arrival takes both Fozzie’s mom and Doc by surprise, and while Mrs. Fozzie welcomes her son’s friends with open arms, Doc is initially grumpy about having his peace disturbed.
And that’s really it. It moves at a languid, relaxed pace for most of its 48 minute running time, often stopping for musical numbers, and a few low-stakes storylines run throughout it. Miss Piggy gets stuck in a snowstorm on her way to the farm. Fozzie befriends an aspiring stand-up comedian snowman and the two form a double act. The most entertaining strand comes from the Swedish Chef trying to cook the turkey he’s ordered. When the turkey arrives, however, he turns out to be the most incredibly ’80s yuppie turkey. He’s got big sunglasses, a scarf draped around him and a tennis racket – he looks liked he’s walked straight out of American Psycho. While the Chef goes around trying to cook various other characters, the turkey starts putting the moves on Camilla, Gonzo’s chicken girlfriend.
Half way through, the Sesame Street characters arrive as carol singers, and Bert, Ernie, Big Bird, and the rest end up staying Christmas for as well. Instead of any metatextual reasons for the two casts to hook up, like a latter Muppet movie might try, they just hang out because it’s Christmas. The special just sits back and lets the comedy come from the delightful interactions between the characters. Bert and Ernie insist on telling people what letter their names start with (that’s apparently what passes for small talk where they’re from). Rowlf and Sprocket try to communicate, with Sprocket barking and Rowlf just saying the word “Bark” over and over again (“Don’t you hate it when you can’t speak the language,” remarks Doc). The Swedish Chef thinks Big Bird is the turkey and tries to cook him.
The Muppet Babies and Fraggle Rock characters only really pop up for a single scene each. Kermit’s nephew Robin (my personal favorite Muppet, just for his hilariously exaggerated mawkishness), discovers a Fraggle hole in the basement and the Fraggles sing the special’s only original song “Pass It On”. Scooter finds a film reel of an old Christmas and we get a short live action Muppet Babies sequence. I believe it’s the only time the Muppet Babies have ever been shown in live action (apart from the scene in Muppets Take Manhattan that inspired the show, which doesn’t really count), and it’s as adorable as you’d imagine.
The final ‘crossover’ moment, right at the end of the special however, is easily the most powerful, and most heartbreaking.
A Muppet Family Christmas was the final full-length Muppet production completed before Jim Henson’s death in 1990. The last ten minutes or so of special consists of an extended singalong from the entire cast. Right at the end, Henson himself (along with Sprocket) peers out from the kitchen, and says “Well, they certainly seem to be having good time out there… I like it when they have a good time.” He then laments that he and Sprocket are going to have clean everything up. Of course, no one knew that this would be the last Muppet film that Henson would oversee, but in retrospective, it’s the perfect epilogue. We can obviously talk about how innovative The Muppet Show was, or how much great work Sesame Street has done, but at the end of the day Jim Henson just provided us with so many good times – and he was happy to see us have a good time. I’m welling up just writing this.
The title of the special is interesting. It’s called A Muppet Family Christmas, and while of course Fozzie is going back to his mom’s and Kermit’s nephew is there, none of the other characters seem to be spending Christmas with their families. Of course, this is because we just want to get all the fictional characters from the shows we like into one big Christmas special. But it gives this odd yet beautiful message about the importance of friendship and connecting with other people.
While the Muppets themselves are of course ageless, it’s easy to see themselves as struggling performers in their 20s or 30s, still trying to find their way in the world. They’re at the age between being a kid and having a family of your own, where your friends actually function as more of a family than your actual family does. When you think about it, it’s actually painfully sad that Doc wants to spend Christmas alone with his dog. He gets increasingly cranky as more and more people turn up, but he eventually relents and realizes it’s much better to be around people. That’s the family of the title.
In the US the VHS, and subsequent DVD release, were severely cut, as they couldn’t secure the rights to the various classic Christmas songs performed. This meant the entire Muppet Babies scene was excised, along with a lot of Fozzie’s snowman friend, and the whole thing was generally rendered incoherent. The UK VHS and DVD thankfully were released unscathed. But those who’ve seen it and loved it keep passing it on, and you can certainly find it on the internet. “Pass It On”, the Fraggle Rock song from the special, is all about the passing on of a special pebble every Christmas between friends, and how important it is (it ends with Robin The Frog giving it to Grover). And despite its legal limbo, A Muppet Family Christmas keeps on getting passed on. It’s truly delightful, even for a cold-hearted cynic like me. Seek it out. Pass it on. And watch out for the icy patch.