It's A Very Merry Muppets Christmas Movie Is Practically Perfect
The little-seen TV movie is both hilarious and sweet, and gives hope that the Muppets can live on in a changing world.
While I hold my childhood memories of John Denver dear, my favorite Muppet Christmas special* is 2002's It's a Very Merry Muppet Christmas Movie.
There's something about A Very Merry Muppet Christmas Movie, despite being a project from after Jim Henson's death, that just speaks to me. The Muppets have always been for adults as well as for children, and when it comes to balancing both audiences, there's a fine line between crass and treacly which Henson and his team (principally Frank Oz and Jerry Juhl on the directing and writing side) always managed to walk perfectly. IAVMMCM walks right up to the edge of this line from both sides, but manages to keep its balance. The adult stuff seems practically made for me, and the kid stuff still chokes me up a little. One of the writers worked on Muppets Tonight (another fairly successful post-Henson project) and various kids' shows, and one worked on Clone High and The Simpsons. Most of the original Muppet cast was on board, and the guys performing Henson and Oz's characters got the voices as close to right as they're ever going to.
IAVMMCM focuses, as so many Muppet stories do, on the Muppet Theater being in danger. I love seeing the old Muppet Show backstage set, but more importantly, I love a showbiz story, which is what the Muppets do best. My non-crackpot contention that The Muppet Show at its best is more 30 Rock than SNL is a topic for another day, but watching the Muppets struggle to put on a show will never not be delightful to me. Joan Cusack gets the Muppet tone perfectly, essentially channeling Madeline Kahn as she comes to collect the Muppets' overdue mortgage payment on Christmas Eve. "Working for a dream," she tells Kermit. "That's beautiful. My employees work for salaries." (Like last year's movie, this story hinges on the Muppets defaulting on a contract and essentially the bad guys are 100% right, but let's not dwell on that too much.) With everyone about to be out of a job, Kermit decides that the gang would have been better off if they'd never met, which sets off a riff on It's A Wonderful Life in which angel David Arquette shows Kermit what the world would be like if he had never been born. Of course it's a crass, commercial world without joy, in which "90% of TV is reality shows" (they mean Fear Factor — if only they'd known what was coming); Doc Hopper has achieved his goal, from The Muppet Movie, of opening a chain of frog leg restaurants across the country; and, of course, all of the Muppets are destitute or worse. The Muppet Theater is now Cusack's nightclub, with a staff that includes Dr. Honeydew as a goateed host, Beaker as a 'roided-out bouncer, Robin as a waiter, and, in my favorite "so wrong it's right" gag, Scooter as a cage dancer. Lesson learned, Kermit goes back and teaches his friends that Cusack "can never touch the Muppet Theater in our hearts," before Pepe saves the day by getting the theater landmarked (it's not clear how this would keep the Muppets in the theater even though Cusack can't turn it into a club, but I like how it involves proper legal and bureaucratic maneuvering!).
It's all very 2002, for better or for worse. Better: the Muppets' holiday show is Moulin Scrooge (a dead-on parody and one of my favorite bits the Muppets have ever done), cameos from William H. Macy as an angel and Whoopi Goldberg as God (holding an "I Love NY More Than Ever" mug), the entire cast of Scrubs (I'm as surprised as anyone to be putting that in the "better" column, but Miss Piggy brings out the best in them), Molly Shannon. Worse: References to A Beautiful Mind, Steve Irwin, Propecia, the Mission: Impossible movie, the aforementioned Fear Factor, "converting my records to MP3s," Matthew Lillard, and Triumph the Insult Comic Dog. It's interesting how most of this feels almost as dated now as the fashions and guest stars in The Great Muppet Caper do, but it works anyway. Every decade has its Muppet cameos, and some will always hold up better than others.
It's not perfect (a draggy sequence focusing on Fozzie's incompetence feels like filler and is something no one needed; Pepe is weirdly sexual; there's a pretty offensive gay choreographer pig), but it speaks to me and my sense of humor — one formed in many ways by The Muppet Show in the first place — in a very particular way. I don't know if IAVMMCM captured the hearts and minds of a new generation of children (and I'll concede that, if it didn't, then it maybe missed the mark), but for this adult fan, it succeeded in precisely all the ways last year's reboot film failed. It's a perfect balance of sweet and subversive, heartfelt and silly, sincere and winking. There's nostalgia in it, but nostalgia isn't the entire point. It stands on its own even if you've never seen the characters before. I like that it tells a story (unlike 1987's Henson-led A Muppet Family Christmas, which is lovely but basically an excuse to sing Christmas carols and cross-promote other Henson projects — and call me a crackpot purist but Fraggles are not Muppets). And not to get all hipster Bunsen Honeydew, but I like that IAVMMCM is a bit obscure. It's rarely aired — though it's available on DVD, iTunes, Google Play and some cable companies' on-demand, so you can easily watch it (and you should!) — so it's always felt like my weird Christmas secret.
IAVMMCM sadly ended a period (which started with Muppets Tonight and included the vastly underrated Muppets From Space) in which the Muppets were totally working for me. Without the consistent leadership of Henson, Oz, and Juhl, I guess the Muppets' quality is bound to go in waves now, and their next couple of projects were so bad I won't even name them here. Based on the trailer, I'm cautiously optimistic that Muppets Most Wanted will be a return to form. If not, I'll always have chickens singing "Lady Marmalade."
*Emmet Otter's Jugband Christmas, despite a brief, tacked-on appearance by Kermit, is not technically a Muppets special, so there's no need to yell at me about it in the comments. It is awesome.