Jim Henson’s Muppets mesh so well with Christmas. Crazy and chaotic as they are, the characters are just one big family. They are a collection of personalities that reflect Henson’s optimism. And what is Christmas if not a madcap holiday that promotes optimism and family? It’s no surprise that before and after Henson’s death, his felt creations have been in countless Christmas-related films and shows.
We here at Den of Geek have decided to rank these Christmas entries from worst to best. In terms of ground rules, we’re only going with the baseline Muppet stuff. There are a million Sesame Street Christmas things and we’re not touching them. Same goes for Fraggle Rock and Muppet Babies. We’re focusing on Kermit’s crew, stories where Kermit is the host, and one case where one major Muppet makes his debut.
But now let’s get things started.
(Editor’s note: Why don’t you get things started?)
It’s time to get things started.
11. John Denver and The Muppets: A Christmas Together (1979)
Hoo boy. John Denver was a fine musician. I have nothing against that. But as the host of a Muppet Christmas special? He has the charisma of cardboard and brings everyone down like a gigantic buzzkill. The only time there’s any pulse is when Piggy and some of the other Muppets sing “Christmas is Coming” in the dressing room, completely separated from Denver.
I’ve never seen the Muppets so lifeless. It’s like the last half hour of a Christmas party where half of the guests have passed out and there’s nothing interesting to talk about or do. This culminates in the finale, where we get a Baby Jesus Muppet followed by a rendition of “Silent Night, Holy Night” that not only features Kermit somehow looking bored, but it pans over to an audience of children who look like they would rather be anywhere else.
John Denver and the Muppets would collaborate again years later with Rocky Mountain Holiday, but at least that time it looked like Denver had downed a cup of coffee. Luckily, that was more about summer than the holidays, so I don’t have to cover it here.
10. Lady Gaga and The Muppets Holiday Spectacular (2013)
It’s an hour and a half of Lady Gaga musical numbers with Muppets doing their most basic schtick possible, all to promote Gaga’s album Artpop and the movie Muppets Most Wanted. It also includes appearances by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Elton John, RuPaul, and Kristen Bell.
For the most part, it doesn’t mesh right and the Muppets feel more tacked on. The Lady Gaga stuff is fine and the Muppet stuff doesn’t break any new ground. It’s a decent diversion.
There are two highlights in there, at least. At one point before a commercial break, the announcer talks about Miss Piggy hitting her breaking point and with absolutely zero context, it just has her twist her head back and forth while growling, “GAGAGAGAGA!” It makes way more sense when you see the full clip a moment later, but that preview gets a huge laugh out of me.
Otherwise, there’s a moment where Lady Gaga and Kermit sing “Gypsy,” and it’s preceded by one of those awkward, but completely heartwarming moments where Gaga is absolutely talking to the idea of Kermit, like she’s actually meeting this fictional celebrity from her childhood, and not just a piece of lifeless felt with a hand under it. I always love those humanizing celebrity moments.
9. A Muppets Christmas: Letters to Santa (2009)
Falling into the cracks is one of the last major Muppet projects before the 2011 movie gave the property a new lease on life. In this special, the Muppets all live in the same New York City apartment building, along with neighbor Claire. Gonzo promised to drop off her letter to Santa at the post office, but due to a wacky mishap, it ended up back in his pocket. Not that it would have made much of a difference, considering it was already Christmas Eve, but this is the plot they’re going with. From there, Gonzo, Kermit, Fozzie, and Pepe try to figure out various ways to get Claire’s letter to Santa in time before deciding to just take a flight to the North Pole.
There is a good idea in there, but it overall feels a bit bland and like it’s going through the motions. The final minutes with both the resolution of how Santa gets the letter and what Claire asks for feel uninspired. There are plenty of celebrity cameos, but they are very hit or miss. For instance, Whoopi Goldberg gets to be on the cover of the DVD despite having about 10 seconds of screentime as a jokeless taxi driver.
It’s not awful, but it feels so generic that you can understand how necessary it was for the franchise to get its big shot in the arm afterwards. On the upside, it was directed by Kirk R. Thatcher, who would go on to be violently burned to death by Man-Thing in Werewolf by Night!
8. The Muppets: Single All the Way (2015)
The Office-meets-30-Rock sitcom take of the Muppets only lasted for a season and depending on who you are, it was either a huge misfire or an underrated experiment. Personally, I think it started as a bit too cynical and lifeless, only to pick up and find its footing over time. This became complicated when they changed the creative process mid-season, meaning it had to find its footing all over again. Overall, it was a pretty good show that would have really shined with a second season, but I understand why that did not happen.
The basic plot of the show was that Kermit and Piggy had just broken up, but Kermit is also the producer for Piggy’s late night talk show, so they’re stuck having to deal with each other on a nearly daily basis. Other Muppets work on the show in various ways, like Fozzie as the announcer/warm-up act and Gonzo as a writer.
The Christmas episode has a bunch of different plotlines going on throughout, like Yolanda Rat scamming Secret Santa so that she gets all the presents, Fozzie dealing with being dumped by his girlfriend, Sam Eagle trying to stage a situation where he and Janice would be under the mistletoe, and special guest Mindy Kaling insisting on doing a singing number despite being awful at it. There are a couple decent laughs here, but the only one that truly stands out here is the Fozzie subplot, as it leads to some fantastic moments with Piggy.
In helping Fozzie cope, Piggy has a rare moment of self-reflection where she realizes that due to her pride and narcissism, she refused to push back at her breakup with Kermit. Now it’s too late, Kermit has moved on, and Piggy is doomed to be alone. Of course, being that it’s a Muppet Christmas dealy, things work out in the end.
7. The Christmas Toy (1986)
Ah, it’s the Christmas special that Pixar completely ripped off, albeit they spruced it up with plenty of action sequences and body horror. Christmas Toy tells the story of a group of toys who come to life when humans are gone, but centers around a child’s favorite toy, who feels threatened when the child receives a sci-fi action figure that doesn’t quite understand that it is really a toy.
What makes Christmas Toy work is what Pixar didn’t copy for Toy Story. For instance, there’s a danger that if a toy is seen and not in the exact spot where they were left, they will die. Even if a parent finds the toy lying around and figures one of the kids dropped it in the hallway, it doesn’t matter. That toy is dead. This leads to a moment where the toys mourn a mentally impaired clown doll that is shockingly dark.
Another highlight is Mew, a catnip mouse who is looked down upon for being a cat toy, but is one of the only likable characters here. As the sidekick to the protagonist Rugby Tiger, Mew is endearing enough that you almost wish that they could have edited the special just a bit more so he could have been seen as the main character. Especially since Rugby is kind of awful.
Additional props go to the main theme of Christmas Toy, “Together at Christmas,” which would get a reprise in A Muppet Family Christmas years later.
6. Mr. Willowby’s Christmas Tree (1995)
Every now and then, you come across one of those “too weird to exist” pieces of media and by God, this is one of them. Hosted by Kermit, we visit the mansion of Mr. Willowby, an eccentric millionaire played by Robert Downey Jr. As charismatic as Willowby is, including his obsession with finding the perfect Christmas tree, our titular rich guy is but a supporting character. There are two main storylines going on here and one of them is how Willowby is trying to set up his butler (played by Leslie Nielsen) with the maid (played by Stockard Channing).
Meanwhile, there’s a mouse family living in the mansion who also want to go out and find the perfect Christmas tree. It just so happens that every time they’re about to cut off the top of the tree (to make it their size), something happens and they end up seeing how different people and creatures celebrate the holidays. All the way to a trippy Christmas for owls.
Oh, and if you watch the version with all the commercials, you’ll see nothing but ads for cookies and crackers. Nabisco sponsored the special. Sure, why not.
It’s a delightful little story worth checking out, though it’s nothing groundbreaking. Probably my favorite touch is how there are lumberjacks who get their own Muppet-y theme song, but because they’re not truly important to the story, we never see more than their boots and their song is just thrown in the background. Almost like they got edited out of the special near-completely.
5. The Great Santa Claus Switch (1970)
What a wild look at early Muppet evolution. Ed Sullivan hosts a special about Santa Claus being kidnapped by the evil wizard Cosmo Scam (both Santa and Cosmo played by Art Carney). Cosmo intends to steal Santa’s identity so he can go around and loot every house on Christmas night. Seeing Art Carney play off Art Carney is every ounce as good as it should be.
As for Muppets, we don’t have the traditional pack. Santa has his elves, including the protagonist Fred, who comes off as a Pre-Crisis Ernie. Cosmo rules over a bunch of underground monsters called the Frackles. Notably, the Frackle known as Snarl (who lives in Cosmo’s cigar box) is the prototype for Gonzo. We also get Cosmo’s main thugs Thig and Thog. While Thog would go on to be in the Muppet Show intro (the big, blue monster), Thig would fall into obscurity. A shame, since he was a marvel of a full-body Muppet with frighteningly expressive eyes.
There’s a lot of heart in this special and seeing the early Muppet designs (while hearing the classic voices) is a treat. It does drag a bit about 3/4 in and the whole “Christmas spirit turns monsters good because Christmas” plot device feels a bit too lazy, but the final shot of Thog and Cosmo during the end credits is a thing of beauty.
Also, as far as I’m concerned, this is absolutely in continuity with Art Carney’s Twilight Zone episode “Night of the Meek.”
4. It’s a Very Merry Muppets Christmas Movie (2002)
Here we get a Muppets version of It’s a Wonderful Life, meaning you really must be prepared to watch a suicidal Kermit the Frog. It’s not quite as rough as seeing Kermit overwhelmed with grief over having to bury his dead son, but it’s close.
It’s a Very Merry Muppets Christmas Movie is a solid effort, but holy hell is it a time capsule of the early 2000s. Celebrity appearances include Joan Cusack, Matthew Lillard, William H. Macy, Carson Daly, Triumph the Insult Comic Dog, WCW Champion David Arquette, and the cast of Scrubs. There are parodies of Moulin Rouge, the live-action Grinch movie, Steve Irwin, Miss Cleo, and so on. It is a product of its time if there ever was one.
Due to it being made in 2001 and coming out late 2002, there’s an unintentional moment of notoriety where Kermit visits Piggy in the reality where he was never born. Outside her window, we see the New York skyline, which includes the World Trade Center. In other words, Kermit’s very existence somehow caused 9/11!
One thing I love about this movie that’s missing in It’s a Wonderful Life is that there is more to the alternate universe than Kermit just being shocked and disbelieving at seeing the dark state of this reality (though Beaker is probably better off as a jacked bouncer). After seeing how much worse things are without him, Kermit visits struggling artist Gonzo and creates a new connection with him via a heartfelt duet. It’s a powerful moment that makes this movie stand on its own despite the unoriginal premise.
Similarly, the moment where Kermit meets Piggy is especially heartbreaking. Unlike It’s a Wonderful Life where George Bailey is acting like a raving lunatic when he sees Mary, Kermit acts grounded and tries to reassure the frumpy, down-on-her-luck version of Piggy. He genuinely loves her despite her lack of glamor, but Piggy rejects the situation because she can’t love that version of herself.
3. Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas (1977)
Centering a whole Christmas special around a widow and her son barely scraping by in poverty can be hard to get through, even if they are adorable otter puppets. We get a quaint and heartwarming little story here, but one that I can’t really sit through every single Christmas. Well, maybe if you just skip right to the talent show when things start to pick up.
The story here is that Emmet and his mother are poor and while they work jobs fixing stuff up and doing laundry respectively, others take advantage of them and they’re having trouble scraping by. The fact that Christmas is coming adds a magnifying glass to this. There’s a talent show coming up with a huge grand prize of $50 and both Emmet and his mother secretly intend on competing.
From there, it becomes kind of a selfish, gambling version of Gift of the Magi. Emmet ruins Ma’s washtub to create an instrument and Ma sells Emmet’s toolbox for flashy dress material. It’s depressing enough that you know it probably won’t end well, but it’s also a Christmas story, so it probably will.
In the end, it’s a charming little special that has some great sets and props that make up its environment. More than anything, it teaches us all the true meaning of Christmas: a pretty girl dancing to jug-band music.
2. A Muppet Family Christmas (1987)
A Muppet Family Christmas was too beautiful for this world. Legally. Stupid rights issues.
This is the ultimate Muppet crossover, but in the form of a casual Christmas get-together. The Muppets decide to crash at Fozzie’s mom’s place for Christmas unannounced, not realizing that she’s renting the place out to Doc from Fraggle Rock. More Muppets appear, the cast of Sesame Street join the festivities, they watch live-action footage of Muppet Babies, and not only do the Fraggles show up, but so does Uncle Traveling Matt (with zero explanation).
There are some minor plot threads mixed throughout. Miss Piggy is stuck in a blizzard, Swedish Chef tries to cook Big Bird, Fozzie doing comedy with a living snowman, and Doc gradually warming up to all these weirdos. Really, it’s the crossover aspect that brings a lot to the table, as we see Oscar the Grouch pal around with Rizzo, Animal become infatuated with Cookie Monster, and an absolutely hilarious moment where Doc first meets Ernie and Bert.
Things get wrapped up so early that the last ten minutes of the special is just dedicated to Muppets singing as many Christmas carols as they can come up with. Fittingly, the Count gets to sing, “I Saw Three Ships,” because of course he does.
1. The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992)
Really, it just had to be this one. As the first Muppet movie after Jim Henson’s passing, this one proved that his work could live on and thrive without him. Even with the pratfalls and humor, the whole thing takes itself seriously just enough that it hits the right balance. Yes, we get to constantly watch Rizzo fall from great heights or get horribly burned, but at the same time, Michael Caine is acting his ass off. Hell, Kermit plays it completely straight the entire time too!
There’s even brilliance in making the three ghosts Muppets, but not established Muppets. While I would have loved Lew Zealand as the fish-throwing Ghost of Christmas Past, I’m way happier with the creepy and ethereal child spirit giving Scrooge all the feels. The Braun Strowman Ghost of Christmas Present isn’t so bad either.
If you want to see a great adaptation of Christmas Carol, but don’t want to see Bill Murray go on a crazed rant, this is where to go. Everything hits in this movie. The soundtrack is filled with bangers. The pacing is on point. The Muppets are mapped to the Dickens characters to perfection. That lingering shot of a slightly confused Sam Eagle after breaking the fourth wall makes me laugh every single time. On the opposite end, it is soul-crushing to see them pull no punches with Tiny Tim/Robin’s death by showing Kermit and Piggy as completely shattered and hopeless.
But on the upside, they do show Bean Bunny suffering a lot! Good! I hate that guy! Screw you, Bean Bunny! You were the worst part of Muppet*Vision 3D and I’m the only one with the guts to say it!
Ahem, yes. So anyway, Merry Christmas.