Our review of It's A Very Merry Muppet Christmas Movie, published October 13th, 2010, is also available.
It's a Muppetful Life
The Muppets are back and returning to their television roots with this retelling of Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life. Director Kirk Thatcher, a protégé of the late Jim Henson, flawlessly recaptures the Muppet Theater, its cast of characters, and classic humor, creating a modern holiday classic for generations to come.
Facts of the Case
Kermit is on the brink of losing everything he has worked for—his business, the theatre, and his friends' livelihood. It seems Rachel Bitterman (Joan Cusack), widow of the Muppets' recently departed banker/landlord, has plans to turn the theater into a hot new nightclub. According to their lease, Kermit and crew have until midnight Christmas Eve to pay their rent, thus giving them enough time to stage the biggest, most profitable Christmas show of their careers. To ensure the plan fails, Bitterman enlists the help of turncoat Pepe, who is blinded by love for the unscrupulous tycoon. Turning over the sole copy of the theater lease, Bitterman alters the deadline to 6:00PM, leaving the gang mere minutes to meet their obligation. When Fozzie fails to deliver the payment, Bitterman wins, and for the first time ever, Kermit is unable to save the day. Alarmed by Kermit's uncharacteristic despondency, one of the Lord's most diligent angels (David Arquette) steps in to show Kermit what the world would be like if he had never been born, reviving his faith and proving that nothing is impossible with the love and support of family and friends.
Imagine, if you will, the unique comedy of the Muppets merged with the zany genius of Mel Brooks. It's A Very, Merry Muppet Christmas Movie achieves something very close. Director Kirk Thatcher (writer for Muppet Treasure Island, Dinosaurs, and Muppets Tonight!) alongside screenwriters Tom Martin (SNL, The Simpsons, and MTV's Clone High) and Jim Lewis (Muppets Tonight!) have created a comedic spoof of nearly every famous holiday film or television show, while bringing the Muppets back to their original satirical, pop-culture laden humor.
Chock-full of guest stars—Mel Brooks voicing an abused talking Snowman; Matthew Lillard as an overly affected, expressionistic choreographer; and Whoopi Goldberg as a down-to-earth Almighty Goddess, just to name a few—Very Merry Muppet Christmas takes us on a wild ride through the modern, over-commercialized holiday season and all of its hang-ups. It's refreshing to finally see Kermit getting sick and tired of being the go-to guy whenever things go bad. We all get burned out at times during the holidays. This is a natural human reaction—why shouldn't an anthropomorphic frog feel the same way? In fact, each of the main characters is forced to deal with their own frailties here—Fozzie's continued inability to complete whatever is asked of him; Pepe's lust for love, power, and money; and Piggy's narcissistic obsessions. Through the eyes of a world without Kermit, we see just how each of them would have turned out had they not been brought together by a frog with a dream. Without giving away too much, here's a hint—Scooter would be a go-go boy, nightclub cage dancer. Referencing everything from a holiday stage version of Moulin Rouge to Ron Howard's The Grinch Who Stole Christmas and their own Muppet filmatic adventures, Very Merry Muppet Christmas is a film overflowing with both humor and heart.
Unfortunately, while many of the originating Muppet artists and their vocal talents are missing—Frank Oz, Jerry Juhl, Richard Hunt—their successors do a fine job of staying true to the characters. As was true during the Henson years, the Muppet family continues to grow and change. It's wonderful to see several of the characters created for the short-lived ABC series Muppets Tonight!—Pepe the King Prawn, lounge singer Johnny Fiama and his sidekick Lew, Bobo the Bear—become such valuable additions to the cast. In fact, Pepe has become so popular he is now regularly featured with Fozzie, Piggy, and Gonzo as part of Kermit's core team. He more than proves his worth in this adventure.
Presented in standard 1.33:1 full frame format, the transfer sparkles with high definition broadcast quality. Deep blacks accentuate the many nighttime scenes, while providing a deep velvet backdrop for the brilliant colors of the holiday season. Although, I would have preferred seeing this film in its original widescreen format. The Dolby 5.1 audio track is a welcome surprise and most effectively used during the "Moulin Scrooge" sequence, showcasing the range and talent of composer Mark Watters. The rest is merely adequate and nothing for audiophiles to get excited over. French and Spanish tracks in 2.0 Stereo are also available.
The real gifts to Muppet fans are the bonus materials. An 18-minute send-up of Bravo's Inside the Actor's Studio features Pepe doing his best James Lipton impersonation interviewing director Kirk Thatcher, interspersed with behind the scenes footage and interviews. Well worth the price of admission! The daily double is a five-minute outtake reel featuring the Muppets in their most natural comedic habitat. It's pure genius to see these characters uncensored and off the cuff. Makes one pine for an entirely improvised Muppet short feature. Seven deleted/extended scenes are also included, albeit not very impressive. Curiously, these cuts are presented in widescreen format, which means NBC cropped the original print for broadcast. How very Scrooge of them. Wrap things up with the obligatory cast bios and a basket of carefully placed Easter eggs, and you have a gift any true Muppet fan would love to own.
This telefilm has come under fire from a large number of people who feel the Muppets have been usurped by some evil, malevolent force. For those who have forgotten, the Muppets were created by Jim Henson to entertain adults, not children. They made a name for themselves on The Ed Sullivan Show and Saturday Night Live, for goodness sake. This is not Sesame Street. The relationships between these characters and the humor that propelled the original series and the Henson-guided films were never sold as wholesome kiddie fare. So for those who are expecting the more recent Barney-fied version of the Muppets, you'll be sorely disappointed. Jim Henson was a man who stayed two steps ahead of the game, continually reinventing himself and his evolving his craft to meet the changing times. I believe he would be very proud of this film and the direction his Muppet offspring are headed in for the 21st century. For fans of the original series, this is a must buy. For everyone else, rent it and judge for yourself.
MGM, NBC, and the entire Muppet production crew are free to spend the holidays and everyday creating new stories and venues for this incredible cast of characters. Merry Christmas, Jim—wherever you are!
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Scales of Justice
• Featurette: Inside Pepe's Studio
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