Judge Clark Douglas asked Santa to make The Muppets good again. Santa just laughed in his face.
"Well, it's not quite a mop, and it's not quite a puppet…"—Homer Simpson
Oh, how the Muppets have fallen. The talking puppet characters were a breath of fresh air when they first appeared on television during the mid-1970s, and their first few cinematic outings remain genuinely delightful family films. Alas, after the passing of the great Jim Henson, the Muppets quickly started to lose their way. The films became less and less interesting, the writers and producers had a lot of trouble recapturing the characters voices, and the productions became less and less prestigious. These days, The Muppets have been relegated to the occasional Christmas special (It's a Very Merry Muppet Christmas Movie) or made-for-TV movie (the cringe-inducing The Muppets' Wizard of Oz). The latest item is A Muppets Christmas: Letters to Santa, an hour-long television special that aired during the 2008 holiday season.
The plot (what little of it there is) kicks off when Gonzo realizes he has forgotten to mail three children's letters to Santa. Unfortunately, it's Christmas Eve and the post office has already closed, so the logical thing must be for Gonzo and all of his Muppet friends to travel to the North Pole and deliver the letters to Santa personally. Along the way, they will encounter a wide variety of B-list celebrities like Jane Krakowski, Nathan Lane, and Whoopi Goldberg, get involved in a series of wacky hijinks, and…wait for it…learn The True Meaning of Christmas—the fashionable and innocuous "It's all about spending time with the people you love," version, not the "Linus tells the story of Baby Jesus," version. Truthfully, I've seen worse Christmas specials, but this falls well short of the high standards set by previous Muppet productions and classic Christmas-themed television specials of the past.
The one thing that kept running through my mind as I watched A Muppets Christmas: Letters to Santa is, "What are kids going to think of this?" The best Muppet stuff has always found a way to appeal to viewers of all ages, but this production is too witless for adults and a bit too snarky and reliant on in-jokes for kids. For instance, there's a sequence in which Kermit and friends encounter New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who has a throwaway line about how New Yorkers are best known for being polite and friendly. It's a bit too obvious for adult viewers, but most kids aren't going to care because they won't get the joke and have no idea who Mayor Bloomberg is. There are also a number of references to specific adult programming, such as the moment in which Pepe the Prawn has a sit-down with Steve Schirripa and Tony Sirico (Hey, Paulie Walnuts!) of The Sopranos. Sirico threatens to dip Pepe in cocktail sauce and bite his head off. Haha?
In addition, many of the cameos are irritatingly gratuitous. Consider the scenes featuring Uma Thurman, in which she appears as an airport employee. She hyperventilates and speaks her lines enthusiastically, but there's no real reason for her character to appear, other than to cause viewers at home to exclaim, "Oh, Uma Thurman! She's pretty, isn't she?" before the actress disappears. The same applies to the scene with Jane Krakowski as the mother of a little girl. Or how about the extended sequence with Nathan Lane in which the actor seems to aimlessly improvise his way through a seemingly never-ending conversation. I would not be one bit surprised if the entire script read, "Send puppets to North Pole, insert as many available celebrities as possible, share true meaning of Christmas at conclusion, toss in songs. Make up the details as you go."
Speaking of making up details as you go, that feeling also applies to the songs by Paul Williams. I've always found Williams an appealing guy, but these tunes are so run-of-the-mill you could probably have written something equally compelling in less than an hour. Just consider the following lyric: "I'd make the world a better place/I'd do that if I could/I like the way it feels inside/it makes me feel so good." Williams also appears in the film as (what else?) one of Santa's elves and is supposedly responsible for co-writing the screenplay. Sure, there are occasional moments that made me smile (a couple of amusing puns, some funny sight gags, and the casting of Richard Griffiths as Santa), but overall this is a stale and uninspired production.
The transfer is bright and appropriately Christmasy, offering a vibrant color palette and reasonably solid detail. There are a few action sequences that seem a bit awkward and choppy, but otherwise everything looks fine. Audio is perfectly adequate, though doesn't really take advantage of the 5.1 soundscape. The only extra is "The Muppets Stocking Stuffer Smorgasbord," which offers interview clips and deleted scenes whcih can be accessed by clicking on Christmas ornaments, stockings, and assorted items on the screen. Eh, no thanks.
Guilty of continuing to make The Muppets an irrelevant part of modern pop culture.
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