Christmas in July: Revisiting Letters to Santa

Published: July 22, 2009
Categories: Feature, Reviews

A Muppets Christmas: Letters to Santa aired way back in December of oh-eight, but the DVD won’t come out until September (Click here to see the recently released, craptacular, PhotoShopperifc cover image, and click here for ToughPigs readers’ clever redesigns). I wanted to revisit the special, but I’m way too impatient to wait until September, so I recently watched it again to see how it looks all these dozens of weeks later.

Right after the special aired, we had a poll on the Tough Pigs forum called “What did you think of Letters to Santa?” My vote was for “I liked it,” which means I wasn’t willing to go so far as “I loved it,” but I enjoyed it more than to say “It was somewhere in the middle there.”The first time I see a new Muppet production, the “new show smell” can be intoxicating. There are some fans who immediately look for things to complain about, because they’re just itching to have more evidence for their theory that the Muppets have been RUINED.

I, on the other hand, get so excited to see Kermit on my television screen that I tend to laugh a little too loud at all the jokes, and I’m a little too quick to overlook the flaws. (Except in the case of Studio DC Almost Live. I knew that thing was a stink bomb from the very beginning.) Was that the case with Letters? Would I like it more or less when watching it out of season?

As my viewing gets under way with the Muppets waiting in line at the post office on Christmas Eve, I’m reminded of a criticism voiced by Tough Pigs forum member (and occasional Tough Pigs website contributor) Anthony: The Muppets seem so ordinary in this special. And it’s not because the post office is an ordinary location. It’s the dialogue, which just kinda sits there when it should be popping in our faces like comedy popcorn. Kermit says he wishes it were snowing and Fozzie says “Me too,” Miss Piggy says the line is taking too long and Kermit says “We have to be patient just like everybody else.”

Yeah, I’m unfairly picking on just a few lines. But my point is that the Muppets spend a lot of time in this production talking like normal people when they should be talking like… well, like the Muppets used to. The Muppet Movie begins with a roomful of gags as a roomful of Muppets gather to watch their own film. The Great Muppet Caper opens with Kermit, Fozzie and Gonzo in a hot air balloon trading lines that make us chuckle while perfectly re-establishing their characters. Even the more recent TV movie It’s a Very Merry Muppet Christmas Movie starts with a backstage party with a series of “Gift of the Magi” jokes.

Oh, but hold on: There’s a musical number! I like “Delivering Christmas,” which is by far the best of Paul Williams’s new tunes for the special. It’s jaunty, it makes the most of the TV-level budget, and even Sweetums gets to sing a line. All the Muppets accidentally get pulled into a baffling mail-sorting machine, except for Gonzo, who deliberately jumps on the conveyor belt. Isn’t that just like the crazy, incorrigible Gonzo we all love? Yes, it is… and unfortunately, that concludes the “Gonzo in character” portion of Letters to Santa. From here on out, he’s soulful, earnest, and sad. Very, very sad.

Soon enough we see the gang at home, and that brings me to what is probably my favorite thing about this special: Muppet camaraderie. This is the first time in years that we’ve seen all the major characters together where they really feel like a group. The character dynamics were lacking in The Muppets’ Wizard of Oz because they weren’t playing themselves, and Studio DC stuck them with a bunch of snot-nosed kids. Here, the Muppets all live together on one floor of a New York City apartment building. It’s kind of like a college dorm, but with less vomiting.

And I’m getting ahead of myself here, but although the song “It’s All About Heart” is really boring, I loved seeing Kermit, Fozzie and Gonzo doing choreography together. When was the last time we actually saw those guys all acting like buddies? They act like buddies here, and I buy it completely. I would almost go so far as to say it reminded me of The Great Muppet Caper. Almost.

So anyway, the Muppets have a pleasant but not especially memorable little friend named Claire, who lives on the same floor along with her mother, played by Jane Krakowski. Krakowski’s attitude toward the Muppets — she’s polite, but obviously repulsed on the inside — is one of the script’s better ideas, and Krakowski gives good funny. In fact, if I had to describe Krakowski’s performance in one word, it would be “goodfunny.” While I’m at it, let me go ahead and describe a few more of the celebrity cameos in this special in one word, but using words that are real:

Nathan Lane: Amusing
Uma Thurman: Delightful
Jesse L. Martin: Brief
Paul Williams: Elfin
Mayor Michael Bloomberg: Unnecessary
Whoopi Goldberg: Pointless

Sorry, Whoop. And then the Muppets forgot to mail Claire’s letter to Santa, and now they find themselves with a handful of other letters for Santa, but uh-oh, the post office is closed. Pepe guesses Santa’s e-mail address: JollyFatMan@completelymadeup.coms (I’m pretty sure that’s not a real e-mail address. Actually, I’m completely sure, because I tried writing to it.) But Bunsen confirms that Santa can’t get wireless internet. So what to do with Claire’s letter? Scooter says, “Maybe if we look around, we can find someone to help us!” Which is a really vague and not-very-useful thing to say, but it’s nice that Scooter gets some lines. I don’t think David Rudman’s Scooter sounds quite as much like Richard Hunt’s original Scooter as Rickey Boyd did in Wizard of Oz, but he’s Scooterly enough.

Miss Piggy doesn’t care about kids’ Santa letters. In fact, she doesn’t care about anything except her vacation to the Caribbean with Kermit. Over on the Tough Pigs forum, we’ve had a lot of discussion about exactly what makes Piggy Piggy, and why it’s been so hard for recent writers to get her right. She’s not in this special much, but her limited time onscreen is mostly pretty unpleasant. She’s just so cranky all the time… I don’t claim to be the world’s biggest Miss Piggy expert, but instead of yelling at Mayor Bloomberg at the post office and demanding he let her cut in line, shouldn’t she have batted her eyelashes at him and tried to charm her way in before resorting to aggression? I do laugh when she slams the door and smooshes Kermit’s face, though.

Then we have the UPS (United Pigeon Service) scene, which adds absolutely nothing. Then Pepe talks to some mobsters, which is all right. The absolute highlight of that scene is the Swedish Chef’s fake Italian moustache over his real Swedish moustache. But I have to confess something: You know that joke where one of the Sopranos guys says “We better not catch you around here again, or you’re gonna sleep with the fishes!” and Pepe says, “Oh, I already do.” I don’t get that. Is it supposed to mean Pepe has sex with fish? Or just that he sleeps underwater, because he’s a prawn?

You know what happens next. All the Muppets leave town for vacation, but sad Gonzo is really, really sad about those letters, so he talks Kermit and Fozzie into delivering them to Santa themselves, and Rizzo and Pepe tag along, despite the fact that they don’t believe in Santa Claus. Kermit, Fozzie, and Gonzo don’t get many jokes, so it’s all up to the rat and the prawn. A lot of their lines sounds like ad libs… Rizzo initially says he and Pepe can’t go to the North Pole because their flying unicorns are “in the shop,” then as they exit laughing, Pepe says, “Because flying unicorns aren’t real!” to which Rizzo responds, “Yeah, and they don’t go to shops either!” Which, I just realized, doesn’t translate to the printed word at all, but I thought it was funny.

Then it’s off to the airport, and thank goodness for Bobo. He makes all his scenes funnier just by being in them, and he works well with Nathan Lane. There’s not an ounce of tension when the Muppets get detained at airport security — we don’t believe for a second that they’re not going to get to the North Pole — but “He’s got cards! He’s got cards!” just might be the best two seconds of the whole special, and “Ding da-ding ding ding” is funnier than it should be.

Come to think of it, there’s a whole stretch of time in the special — from the Muppets’ arrival at the airport to the moment when Elf Paul Williams leaves them out in the cold — where this is a Pretty Good Muppet Production. Take the exchange that happens while they’re hanging for dear life from the wing of the North Pole Airlines plane:

PEPE: What are we doing?
FOZZIE: We’re winging it!
KERMIT: That’s not funny!

Three hours later…

RIZZO: I don’t know if I can hold on any longer!
PEPE: I don’t know if I can scream any longer!

See? Those are jokes! So why aren’t there more of those? And then they jump off the plane wing, and Kermit frantically tries to dig Gonzo out of the snow, and Fozzie loses his hat and then it falls from the sky. Cute gags all around. If the whole show had been as good as these eight or ten minutes, I bet a lot more folks would have voted “I liked it” or “I loved it” in that Tough Pigs poll.

But they’re too late, and soon Gonzo is sad again, very, very sad, and he sadly sings the sad song “I Wish I Could Be Santa Claus” sadly, which might have been a lovely, serious moment for him if he weren’t so subdued throughout the special. What’s up with that guy? His character has always been tinged with melancholy, but he’s so depressed it makes me want to show him something funny to cheer him up. Like, say, Gonzo bits from old episodes of The Muppet Show. Dave Goelz gives a great performance here — you really do feel bad for Gonzo. But where’s the guy who lusts after chickens and puts starfish in his pants?

And then Santa magically shows up and saves the day, which raises the question of why couldn’t Santa have just teleported into the Muppets’ building and read those letters in the first place. Then some stuff happens, and everyone ends up spending Christmas at Claire’s place (“Let me put some newspaper down first!” says Claire’s mom). The resulting parade of Muppets is lots of fun — Lew Zealand (bearing a gift of fish), a Muppet turkey bawling over a roasted Christmas turkey, a penguin, Rowlf, the Electric Mayhem (Zoot’s “Happy Hannukah” cracks me up). Hey, does Sweetums have bangs?

The song “My Best Christmas Yet” is upbeat and heartfelt, but the musical arrangement is anemic. It’s lite smooth jazz when it should be a big, boffo number that expresses the Muppets’ love for December 25th, which is their favorite holiday to star in specials about. Was the music in this special synthesized? That’s probably another concession to budget concerns, but it would have been great to hear a real orchestra.Still, the song manages to capture some of that Christmas vibe. And it’s packed with Muppets who are all happy to spend the holidays together, and you know, I love those guys so much that I can’t help but get a pleasant sensation somewhere in my torso.

So. Letters to Santa. It has its faults, and watching it again some months removed from the novelty factor, I found a few more faults. A truly great Muppet production is like a comedy salad with musical dressing and just the right number of croutons of sentimentality. In this special, there are so many croutons, it’s almost impossible to taste the Romaine lettuce.

But I’m still going to say it’s a step in the right direction. The Muppets playing themselves, working together, multiple musical numbers… These are all things I want them to do.  My suggestion for the next Muppet thing, then, is as follows: Do the same stuff, but do it all better. More jokes, more memorable songs, more in-character Muppets, more ambitious musical numbers. And how about doing a new Muppet project soon, instead of making us wait three years?

To put it in Christmas terms: With Letters to Santa, the Muppets have about four of those eight tiny reindeer hitched to their sleigh. If they can give us all eight next time around, they’ll really be flying.Did I really just say that? Jeez, that was cheesy.

Click here to re-evaluate Christmas on the Tough Pigs forum!

by Ryan Roe –

Tagged:Christmas | review

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