Well, here I was, thinking I could go a whole calendar year without having to review a Sesame Street special. After seven years, I could finally ride off into the sunset as ToughPigs’ resident Sesame special critic, with a legacy of having enjoyed nearly every offering I saw. Some were better than others (and some have started a blood feud between myself and our own Becca Petunia on the merits of “The Magical Wand Chase” vs. “When You Wish Upon a Pickle”), but hey, that’s what being a critic is. If you don’t have nuance in your opinions, what’s the point? But just when I thought 2022 would pass me by without Joe, Ryan, and Jarrod threatening me to review a special or be fired, I’m somehow back where I started all those years ago: with a new Sesame Street Christmas special and a few thoughts.

WARNING: This review contains spoilers. All complaints about said spoilers will be directed to the Sugar Plum Fairies.

As the title may suggest, this is a very loose adaptation of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s timeless ballet, and when I say very loose, I mean looser than the head of Betty Lou’s Dolly. The special opens with a holiday party at Elmo’s home. As Elmo straight-up tells us in the one moment where he breaks the fourth wall, this is Tango’s first Christmas, and he wants to make it very special for her.

Given that I’d like to actually finish this review in a timely fashion, I’ll willingly overlook the fact that Tango debuted in August 2021, making this her SECOND Christmas. But despite making numbers a core part of the show’s format, their count on anniversaries hasn’t always been accurate, so on we go. We get an enjoyable opening scene as Elmo sings a song about his excitement for making this the best Christmas ever for his recently-adopted pooch. (Meanwhile, my own excitement rose when in the following scene, we get a blink-and-you-miss-it glimpse of Dorothy, still swimming away in her bowl. Good on ya, Dorothy. But I’m getting ahead of myself.)

Several Sesame Street residents arrive to celebrate the season and fill out the chorus for the number, but the biggest entrance goes to Count von Count. He comes bearing gifts for everybody, including Tango, who gets a nutcracker-shaped dog toy, which makes our beloved number-lover the Drosselmeyer of our story. (And much like Drosselmeyer, you won’t see him again for the rest of the special.)

Obviously, a full ballet condensed into 26 minutes is going to have to make some cuts to the story, so as Elmo gets ready to go to sleep, Louie reads what amounts to the highlights of an ersatz version of The Nutcracker: a girl gets a nutcracker, it’s taken by a mouse, and she has to travel to a fantastic world to retrieve it. As far as an adaptation of the ballet goes, sure, there’s a girl, a nutcracker, and mice, but that’s about where the similarities end.

Soon Elmo falls asleep, and has a vivid dream (which he makes sure to let us know is a dream) where Tango can now talk, and is voiced by child actor Royina Patel. A child’s voice is clearly what the producers envisioned for this, and for that, Patel makes for a fine Tango, but it just feels like a safe choice. I can’t help but wonder what it would’ve been like had they used one of the regular Muppet performers instead. But hold on, because you’ll never guess what happens next! As Elmo and Tango sing and dance with each other, a mouse (voiced by another child actor, Donovan Monzon-Sanders, who previously appeared in a season two episode of The Not-Too-Late Show with Elmo) comes into the room, looking for a friend. He strikes up a conversation with the toy, which he dubs “Squeak” for his Rubber Duckie-like squeak, and decides to show it his magical home.

Elmo and Tango spot the mouse leaving with the dog toy, and give chase through a magical world, where Abby Cadabby and Cookie Monster just happen to be hanging out, and help them out with the challenges they face in a world that feels like a cross between The Nutcracker and Labyrinth. (Unfortunately, the only worm you get in this world is a toy that looks like Slimey.) I don’t want to give away the ending, but this is Sesame Street after all, so if you bet that friendship and kindness would factor in, let’s just say you’d win that bet.

Overall, it’s… inoffensive. Using animation over puppetry makes more sense in this special than it did in last year’s “Furry Friends Forever”, as it allows them to explore more fantastic worlds and get to do some dancing, which, considering this is based on a ballet, feels necessary. As an adaptation of The Nutcracker, it misses the mark. The most recognizable part of the ballet is the music, and here, it feels reworked to the point where I could just barely identify which sections they were using. Perhaps other listeners who are more familiar with The Nutcracker will have better luck than I, but I was sort of lost.

Only listening to the ballet’s score after watching the special was I able to say, “oh yeah, I can tell what that is now.” It only carries the base elements of the story, which is disappointing, considering how smart Sesame usually is about these things. Still, for all my criticisms, I can’t say that I truly disliked it either. The lyrics of the songs are fun, the visuals are solid, the pacing is brisk, and it has a good, if predictable, message. It’s fine. Just fine.

But are we okay with “just fine” from a television vanguard like Sesame Street? If the mission was to keep kids occupied and entertained for half an hour, it’ll likely achieve its goal. But I’ve watched my fair share of specials. I know they can do better than this. They have done better than this, and not too long ago at that. While watching, I couldn’t help but compare this to their last holiday special, “Once Upon a Sesame Street Christmas,” and it’s really no contest.

“Once Upon” was creative in style and presentation, the music was great, and it had a big heart. (It also didn’t hurt that it used puppets and celebrity appearances. The latter isn’t required to make it a good special, but it certainly doesn’t hurt, either.) “The Nutcracker,” despite being half the runtime, feels more like a necessity. The heart just isn’t there for me. I get that I’m not the target audience for this stuff anymore, but I have to believe Sesame Street’s at its best when it’s aimed at both kids and parents (and older hardcore fans who got my Dolly reference from earlier, but that goes without saying).

I can’t imagine parents being as invested in this as their children. I’m looking forward to rewatching “Once Upon” this holiday season. I honestly doubt I’ll be watching “The Nutcracker” again. Unless they decide to make a “special edition” next year, and Joe gets the dart gun out again.

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by Matthew Soberman – Matthew@ToughPigs.com

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