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It's a Very Merry Muppet Christmas Movie

Boo, get off the stage!

Phillip Chapman (11-29-2002) - The Muppets have always been remembered for making Christmas merrier, and thankfully that tradition continues with "It's a Very Merry Muppet Christmas Movie".

This made-for-NBC special directed by Kirk Thatcher takes our favorite classic Muppet characters back to their original roots, the Muppet Theater. When you see your favorites from Rowlf to Scooter to Janice and Sal you will soon realize that you are in for a treat. Even though it's not an exact replica of the set from 25 years ago, it's very impressive that the Henson crew tackled recreating the Muppet Theater for this film. Hopefully if the new Muppet series premieres in the near future, it will also be based in the same environment.

At the performance of the Muppet Show Live last year at MuppetFest, fans were treated to an incredible evening. One of the most encouraging parts of the performance was that the Henson Company knew what characters we love most and those we have missed like Rowlf, Scooter, and Janice since the passing of Jim Henson and Richard Hunt. Thankfully these characters speak again in this NBC television movie.

With puppeteers Eric Jacobson (as Miss Piggy) and Brian Henson (as Scooter), we are beginning to see scripts that revolve around an excellent balance of characters, regardless of the performer's availability. It is obvious that the Henson family loves these characters, just like we do, and now they come full-circle with this special.

While 1992's "Muppet Christmas Carol" relies on the traditional and more sacred nature of Christmas, this special relies heavily on the humorous and zany side of the Muppets. A little serious Christmas cheer is thrown in for good measure along the way, but if you are expecting a lot of outright Christmas merriment and emphases you may be disappointed.

Order "It's a Very Merry Muppet Christmas Movie" on DVD.
The movie begins rather quickly as we suddenly find Kermit and the gang in the midst of a big problem. They are losing the Muppet Theater due to a big business banker Rachel Bitterman (Joan Cusack). It takes the help of an angel named Daniel (David Arquett e) to convince the "Boss" (Whoopi Goldberg) that Kermit needs help saving the Muppet Theater. Daniel is convincing, in part because we can all relate with wanting the best for Kermit and his furry friends.

In order to save the theater, the Muppets are forced to put up a show-stopping production of "Moulin Scrooge". It's a fun parody featuring Piggy on the trapeze, the return of the three Elvis puppets not seen since "Muppets Tonight", and many of our old friends. Even though the Muppets raise enough money, a series of hilarious mishaps that take advantage of Fozzie's goodwill cause the Muppets to loose the theater. It is wonderful to see the writers (Tom Martin and Jim Lewis) have Fozzie's humor not come from a lack of intelligence, but rather having humor come from his loyal attributes and friendship to Kermit.

When our favorite frog finds out the Muppet Theater is lost, he is heartbroken and does not want to live. In fact he wishes that he had never been born. Daniel steps in and shows Kermit what his life would have been like without him. As the "Wonderful Life" sequence begins the Henson crew hit several huge home runs along with a few missteps on the way.

Kermit meeting Gonzo (with Amy his dancing brick) and the introduction of a Kermit-less Fozzie were done very well. The scenes with Piggy depict a nice balance between the silly and the sacred. In this alternate life Miss Piggy doesn't own her devoted dog Foo-Foo, but rather an apartment full of cats. Nonetheless, the tenderness and tension between the frog and the pig thankfully still remains.

Outside of the key character relationships there are some other wonderful moments as Kermit sees what life would have been like without him. Seeing the Electric Mayhem (and their feet!) as Irish Dancers was hilarious. By far though, my favorite scene in Kermit's alternative universe was seeing a modern-day "Doc Hopper's French Fried Frog Legs" restaurant. It was brilliant and even after the scene ended, I was still giddy at the surprise Muppet Movie reference. Seeing Sam the Eagle and Scooter in the club seemed a bit over the top and unnecessary. But being uncomfortable with this is likely the intended effect. Rippled with muscles, Beaker the bouncer was wonderful. Enough said.

Thankfully, Kermit returns to the life he earlier took for granted. Like all of us, we often do not appreciate the blessings and people in our lives until they are gone. And since this is the Muppet movie, the Muppets do end up with the theater and a happy ending. The TV movie concludes with the song "Everyone Matters", composed by Desmond Child and Devitt Sigerson. Dave Goelz and Steve Whitmire soar together on vocals.

For the most part, the parodies are a wonderful touch and add a lot of humor to the film. From the "Gift of the Magi" to "Moulin Rouge" (with Miss Piggy in the Nicole Kidman role), "How the Grinch Stole Christmas", "Cirque du Soleil", and "A Christmas Story", the film is filled with parodies. Even "The Crocodile Hunter" and "Star Wars" steal a few laughs.

For a TV movie, this is a huge step in the right direction. The film's budget was 10 million to produce, significantly less than a theatrical feature would cost. Shot in high-definition, the characters look bright, crisp, classic and yet hip all at the same time. While it doesn't compare to the greatness of the original Muppet films, it has never been more evident that the Henson Company is in tune to many of the characters and relationships we have missed during the past ten years.

This film does have some major pacing issues especially during the first hour. The heaven scenes are dragged out a little longer than necessary. Also, the flashback sequence during the first-half of the film seems too long (the audience might forget they are in a flashback). Most of the jokes are wonderful, but some are over-the-top. The script could have been a little tighter at the beginning, and then explored more of Kermit's alternate universe later in the film. I would have liked a little more music even if it served as an accompaniment to some scenes.

What "It's a Very Merry Muppet Christmas Movie" does brilliantly is begin to return casual viewers and die-hard fans to the glory days of the characters. If this project does well in the ratings and through on-line video sales, we may see another made-for-TV Muppet movie on in 2004.

And if Kermit ever asks if I run "one of those Muppet Internet fan sites", I'll have to smile and say yes.

Trevor Kimball (11-30-2002) - As a Muppet fan, I find it difficult to look at this movie as a whole. I think it accomplished some things well and not-so-well in other ways. The frog score above is an average rating of these different categories. Here's how I saw it.

Story - 2 Kermits

While I really liked the whole idea of Kermit and the gang fighting to keep the theater, the movie had some real pacing issues. The first half was really slow, particularly the human-only, heaven scenes. Everyone seemed to be in slow motion. Why would you have long, all-human scenes in a Muppet movie anyway? When the story returned to our furry and felt friends, the action, particularly in the theater, seemed to be all over the place and lacked a clear thrust.

Ultimately, though the story idea was sound, I don't think it was developed enough. Perhaps when the gang figured out their money dilemma they could have been sent out in teams to find great things to put in their show or to help solve the problem. Unfortunately the way the movie really ended, the theater isn't owned by our friends and they've been cheated. They are happy but there could have been a better resolution.

Production Value - 4.5 Kermits

The sets (especially the theater) looked great and I was particularly impressed with several of the shots the showed our friends in full-body. In the past a lot of these kinds of shots look unnatural. There were several shots, particularly of Kermit resting on a bench or chair that looked just wonderful.

Human Casting - 3 Kermits

Joan Cusack did a great job in a different kind of role for her. She has great timing and really picked up the energy when she entered a scene. David Arqette was fine and really talks to Kermit when he's performing with him. I generally like Whoopi Goldberg but she seemed to be sapping the energy of the show whenever she appeared.

The long list of quick cameos were nice - particularly Triumph, a fellow puppet. They didn't serve a great purpose story-wise but they're fun to see nevertheless.

Characters - 4.5 Kermits

Though there were lots of old friends in attendance, the theater overall seemed a bit sparsely-populated to me. If being shorthanded (pun intended) was the problem, I wish that a wide variety of different characters were used in the background just walking by (like the "Muppets From Space" boarding house scenes).

Fozzie and Piggy, formally voiced by Frank Oz, seem to be in good hands and voice with Eric Jacobson. Though their "spirit" (for lack of a better word) is a bit different, they seem very close and seem to be getting closer all the time.

After years of painful absences, this movie marked the (speaking) return of several of our old favorites. For the first time in years, we heard Scooter and Janice speak complete sentences of meaningful dialogue. Were they dead-on? No but Richard Hunt is sadly gone so that's just not going to happen. I applaud the effort to bring back missing characters and to keep the current ones alive. On a creative and emotional level, it can't be an easy task for our favorite crew of performers.

Inside Jokes - 4.5 Kermits

This movie was chock full of inside jokes and parodies for both movie and Muppet fans alike. However, as Statler and Waldorf know, the Muppets are best when they joke about themselves. I enjoyed fellow puppet Yoda's cameo, the appearance of a Doc Hopper froglegs stand and the other Muppet movie references. Of all the in-jokes, I particularly liked the opening gift-giving scenes that mirrored and parodied a similar skit from the "Christmas Eve on Sesame Street" of years ago. Obviously a lot of thought went into this material. I think the Muppets work particularly well in sketch comedy and these bits reinforced my opinion.

In Summary

Overall, I think the movie is worth seeing and is a step in the right direction for the Henson gang. My real complaint was with the story -- the way it moved along and held together. Everything else about the show indicates a lot of thought and heart, in the grand Muppet tradition we have come to expect.

Tom Holste (12-9-2002) - After a few creative misfires that unfortunately caused the Muppets to fall off the pop-culture radar, a serious bid is being made to bring these wonderful characters back to the public consciousness, and one of the first steps in that plan is this TV-movie.

While not as good as "Muppet Family Christmas" or "Muppet Christmas Carol" (both high-water marks for me anyway), it's a notable improvement over "Muppets From
Space" and much of "Muppets Tonight." The movie's success is largely due to the return of many Muppets that have been missing for some time.

THE MUPPETS

One thing that I really liked about this movie: the amount of screen time given to each of the characters seemed more well-balanced than anything I've seen in a Muppet production in years. Kermit was at the center of the story, as he should be. Piggy and Fozzie had major supporting roles. And Gonzo was all the more loveable and funny because he wasn't forced to be the center of the action again. Pepe had a beefy, significant role fitting for a star on the rise.

Showing up for small but funny appearances were Rizzo, Robin, Scooter and Janice, Johnny Fiama and Sal, Sam, and Pops. I haven't seen the characters this well-used in a production since probably "Muppet Vision 3-D," Jim's last project.

Jim Lewis and Tom Martin (the writers) nailed all the characterizations perfectly. Kermit is good-hearted but still has the ability to get frustrated. Fozzie's not stupid. He is just a sweet-natured bear for whom things often tend to get wildly out of control. Piggy's both vain, which makes her funny, and vulnerable, which makes us love her. Gonzo finally shows his zanier side again, while we got to just enough of his soul in the song "Everyone Matters." Pepe walks a certain "nasty" line without becoming, say, J.P. Grosse. The writers hit a bull's eye with him, and with all the other characters, this time around.

Eric Jacobson is dead-on with his vocal characterization of Piggy and Fozzie. I completely forgot it wasn't Frank 5 minutes into the movie. Eric's a welcome addition to the "upper tier" of Muppet performers. Scooter and Janice (both voiced by Brian Henson) and Sam (voiced by Kevin Clash) were all only passable, but I was just happy to see them back in action. Meanwhile, the inexplicable absence of Jerry Nelson was worrisome, and like everyone else I hope he's able to return soon. I know the Henson Company has been against the idea of hiring outside voice actors for these characters, but why not give it a shot? True, it was painfully evident when Frank was only dubbing in recent performances. But dubbing has been done in the past with wonderful results, such as when Jim performed a duet with himself as Rowlf and Kermit in "I Hope that Something Better Comes Along". I think it's an idea worth considering.

Great to see Rowlf in all those scenes, but why didn't they give Bill Barretta any lines for him? I was also looking forward to hearing from John Kennedy as Dr. Teeth and Brian as the Newsman. Oh, well.

THE HUMANS

Initially, I liked the performances overall, but as the week wore on, these left the worst aftertaste in my mouth. Thankfully, David Arquette avoided his "twitchy" performance from "Muppets From Space". His nebbish angel was much more charming by comparison.

Whoopi Goldberg does as well as possible in a role that's just annoying in the way it was written. She plays God as some kind of couch potato more interested in watching Spongebob Squarepants than about the affairs of people (or puppets). Though no one here is the embarrassment that Hollywood Hulk Hogan was in "Muppets From Space", it's still a long way from the day when show-biz luminaries like Bob Hope would show up just to give Fozzie some ice cream.

CHEERS AND JEERS

I liked most of the pop-culture references. While one can only hope and pray that the "Fear Factor" reference will feel dated in 10 years, I loved the tribute to "Moulin Rouge" (one of my favorite movies) and the cameo by the "Scrubs" cast was great. For those who complained that the Henson company sold out by being such close bedfellows with NBC, I can only say that "The Muppets at Walt Disney World" was produced while Jim was still alive, and it's widely considered to be one of the best Muppet specials ever. At least NBC allowed the Muppets to make a couple of jokes at their expense (Kermit called Fear Factor "horrible", and at one point Kermit reveals he's got an NBC logo stuck on his bottom flipper).

The Kermit-initiated kiss was touching and a natural result of the progression of the storyline. And before the sentiment could grow leaden, it was followed by the gag of Piggy falling in the orchestra pit. Perfect.

The pacing seemed off to me, especially during the first 20 minutes or so. Though I know the writers were mirroring "It's a Wonderful Life," starting the movie with Kermit being depressed, followed by long scenes of the boring humans, followed by a flashback, just sucked more and more energy out of the film. The pacing picked up around the middle, but the ending felt strangely anticlimactic (especially since nothing really changed for anyone).

CONCLUSION

The Muppets are once again at a crossroads. In this production, all that remained of the original performers was Dave Goelz. At the same time, we saw more of the classic characters than we've seen in quite a while. The Henson creative troupe (appropriately) no longer feels the need to cover up for missing performers. This production showed they are charging full speed ahead. And the ending of the movie oddly seemed to mirror the Muppets' own current predicament - the theater is still owned by the heartless corporation, but the Muppets remain committed to each other no matter what. Everything about this movie reflected a sea of change, and for the most part the Muppets seem to be weathering the storm just fine.

Nick Marion (12-20-2002) - The Muppets are back, this time on NBC, with their very own "It's a Very Merry Muppet Christmas Movie". With all certainty, it is very refreshing to see them back on television instead of all the other nonsense that gets put on television these days. Just seeing the Muppets is always a sign of good hope for fans and peace-loving people alike to rejoice in. However, the Muppets seem to be lacking inspiration these days. When David Arquette says thank-you to God on behalf of the Muppets, you have to wonder if this is what the Jim Henson Company is thinking, "Thank you just to have this little time slot".

Yes, the Muppets are back, but I wonder what sort of bang they are back with. It is a continual problem that seems to face them lately. They cannot find the running ground to get them rolling and back into public consciousness. As great as it is being able to see our felt-like beloveds back on the air, I wonder if they could be doing better. The Muppets seem to be suffering from the same corporate take-over that threatens the theatre in their Christmas special. In one of the funniest scenes in the special, Kermit lifts his flipper and there is an NBC logo branded on him. As hilarious as it is, I have to wonder if it is a cry for help. Corporate synergy is breaking the Muppets down.

It seems like they are all just trying a little bit too hard to be hip. I miss my gritty Muppets. Are the Muppets making cameos or are the stars making cameos? I cannot figure it out. It is as if each Muppet gets one or two jokes. None of them are actually characters. The only real Muppet character we get is a suicidal Kermit the Frog. He is essentially the only one with a character arc. The stars seem to have more presence here than the actual Muppets do. Although Miss Piggy, Fozzie, Pepe, and others have parts in the script, it never seems as though they actually have parts in the script. When you think back on other Muppet movies, you can quickly recall the substantial amount of screen time each character got. Now, that seems to be lost.

Also, I had an especially hard time with the production of this special. For me, the Muppets used to be almost grassroots. Now, they are trying too hard to fit in with today's big flashy cinema. From the fancy editing to the extreme close ups, a lot of the camera work does not feel, well, Muppety. Everything also seems to be in extreme Technicolor here. There are no bland, earthy colors in the background to offset the brilliant colors of the Muppets. One of the reasons why is the abundance of sets. One of the beauties of the Muppet movies was actually putting the Muppets outside, on location, instead of in controlled sets. Perhaps there was too much CGI work here as well. The very first Muppet Christmas Special used REAL fake snow. Now, they use CGI FAKE, fake snow. One of the beauties of the Jim Henson Company is their ability to create effects with tangible things. I am not saying CGI cannot be used, I am just saying that it should be kept at a minimum.

Of course these are the technical aspects. As far as the script goes, it was not completely bad. There were certainly scenes that made me laugh out loud in fan delight. It was nice to see the Muppets make jokes at today's society, while still staying true to themselves, and never getting too out of their element. (For instance, the Christmas Special Snowman, "I'll ruin your life," the harp, Spongebob, Beaker's hands getting crushed, sexual innuendo man, cell phones, Moulin Scrooge, the Grinch, corporate synergy, Fear Factor, and in a brilliant nod to "Who Framed Roger Rabbit?", a beefed up Beaker throwing Arquette and Kermit out of Club Dot). And, as much as I wish the Muppets were more of the stars, the actors did a great job here. Joan Cusack was absolutely marvelous as a Muppet Villain, Whoopi Goldberg was perfect as God in a Muppet-satire type of way, and when David Arquette got to interact with Kermit, he was really quite good. The rest of the actors, minus the Steve Irwin impersonator, were great little cameos as well.

In short, I am not going to disown my Muppets. They still have charm. I just wish someone, a true Muppet fan, a leader, could save them, save them from this very corporate world, give them what Jim Henson once gave them, a message, one of love and thrift, and take the world by storm once again.

 
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