On December 9, 2021, Julia Gaskill and her boyfriend, Stephen, watched Mr. Willowby’s Christmas Tree. Julia had not seen it since 2000. Stephen had literally never heard of this special. What follows is a (condensed) transcript of their conversation during their viewing.

Julia: Hi! We’re back! This year we have a special treat – the last couple years we’ve watched and discussed specials that I watch on a regular, yearly bases because I’m weirdly religious with what I watch every Christmas season. But! This year, we’re watching something I don’t think I’ve seen since I was maybe ten. Stephen, do you know what we’re going to be watching tonight?

Stephen: [joking] Yes I do, cause I watch it very religiously.

J: What are we watching then?

The screen currently is paused on the words Jim Henson Productions.

S: Something from Jim Henson Productions.

J: I’m interested to see if you know anything about this one. We’re going to watch Mr. Willowby’s Christmas Tree.

S: I know everything about it.

J: [skeptical] What do you know?

S: It’s about a Christmas tree that dreams of becoming a real boy… and his father is named Mr. Willowby…

J: Do you know any people who are in it?

S: Mr. Willowby. And his Christmas tree. Pretty much the top two members of the cast. And John Denver, probably.

J: I mean, you’re not necessarily wrong about the first two. John Denver does not make an appearance in this one, unfortunately.

Julia hits play. The cast of celebrities is shown, along with the Muppet performers.

J: Whoa! Julianne Buescher is in this?? She’s been around for forever!

Mr. Willowby flings open the doors and begins asking about his tree. Stephen notices immediately that he’s dressed exactly like Scrooge in his evening gown.

S: Well this is just Scrooge.

J: He does have a very Scrooge-like look. Especially how close this would’ve come out after Christmas Carol… [suddenly dumbfounded] Wait. It does look exactly like – did they just reuse Scrooge’s outfit??

S: I mean, this is just what Scrooge wears for most of that movie.

J: It… is one hundred percent…

Update: RDJ is not wearing the exact same outfit Michael Caine wore in Christmas Carol. However, the two costumes are uncannily similar to one another.

S: Is this a continuation of the story that Christmas Carol finished telling?

J: This would be the sequel with Scrooge hyped on Christmas.

S: That’s what I mean. This is the part of Christmas Carol that you never get, which is the rest of the Christmases.

The mice family is introduced.

J: Also from Christmas Carol.

S: Pretty much, yeah! But these meeces have cheeses this time!

J: Yeah, because Scrooge became so generous.

Pa Mouse sings about this trusty axe. Stephen holds onto this.

S: This mouse is a villain.

The scene goes back to Mr. Willowby singing.

J: [laughing] Robert Downey Jr. is really giving it his all.

The song ends with Mr. Willowby striking a pose and looking skyward.

S: What is he looking at?

J: Where the tree should be!

S: Okay, but he’s inside.

J: I mean, the tree’s gonna be inside too.

S: Not when you don’t have one!

The mice family is outside, looking for a tree of their own.

S: I don’t trust these mice.

J: We’re going to get two simultaneous stories. One is about Mr. Willowby’s need for a tree, and then this family of mice trying to find a tree to cut down.

S: They could just cut, like, a sprig.

J: Yeah, that’s going to be a plot point.

S: These mice are absurd. I’m telling you, this one mouse…

J: Cause of his tiny axe?

S: He’s carrying an axe, he’s got the crazy murder eyebrows, he’s seen the thing he wants to kill. He’s probably gonna sing a song about it in a second.

The mice climb up their perfect tree to cut off the top, but the tree is suddenly cut down by humans. The mice freak out about people being worse than bears and owls.

J: Yeah, people are worse.

S: Than giant bears and owls?

J: Bears and owls aren’t killing the Earth.

S: This is true.

The tree is taken inside the house while Mr. Willowby watches.

S: If he is Scrooge, is there going to be a part where they explain how Scrooge got younger? Does the love of Christmas entering your body de-age you?

J: I mean, he’s Mr. Willowby, not Scrooge. But I can’t argue that he’s wearing what looks to be a replica of Scrooge’s outfit, and I am really curious if they just reused the costume along with a handful of the puppets. Muppet Christmas Carol came out in 1992, so it’s possible they pulled a lot of Christmas-themed stuff out of storage for this.

Baxter offers to cut the top of Mr. Willowby’s tree off with an axe.

J: Leslie Nielsen has an axe now.

S: Leslie Nielsen is also a bit of a madman.

J: Just anybody with an axe, huh?

S: Anybody with an axe is a scary deal.

Mr. Willowby over dramatically plays up how alone Ms. Adelaide is.

J: I want to be very clear that when I said RDJ is really bringing it, I was being very sarcastic.

S: He’s really bringing it.

J: It feels so much like he’s phoning it in.

S: I feel like Robert Downey Jr. was probably going through a lot around this time…

J: That’s totally fair, this is probably where his career was slumping.

S: There’s nothing slumping about appearing in a Muppet production. Especially on the heels of a Muppet production like Muppet Christmas Carol.

J: Sure, but y’know, this is a time of – 

S: A time of joy? A time of caring?

J: – a time when the Muppets were a little lost at sea cause Jim Henson had only passed away five years prior.

S: Sure, but Julia, the time when the Muppets were lost at sea is literally called Muppet Treasure Island.

J: [laughing] You beat me to it.

Adelaide sings to Baxter about caring for others around the holidays.

J: Stockard Channing is bringing it though. She always does.

S: Is she Swedish? 

J: Yeah, in the previous scene they were talking about how she’s so far from home.

S: This is the kind of stuff we used to do at my house growing up. The Santa Lucia candle headpiece. Singing all the Santa Lucia songs.

One of the mice falls out of the tree, Adelaide picks them up.

J: She just picked up a mouse with her bare hands!

S: I mean, look at how this mouse is dressed.

J: Sure, I’m just saying, this feels like it’s set in a time where maybe mice were bringing plagues around?

S: In the time of the movie? Or in 1995?? What mouse-borne plague happened in 1995???

J: The time of the movie! 

S: The time of the movie is set when? 1990?

J: What? Robert Downey Jr. is wearing his old timey Scrooge outfit, so I would assume this is set – 

S: 1890?

J: It’s gotta be set in the 1800’s.

S: If anything, it was more likely that people would pick up mice in plague times –

J: [laughing] – because they were dumb back then.

Adelaide notices her tree is slightly too tall and trims the top.

J: She cut off… SO MUCH. This tree got bigger. It was like her height when it was first brought up, and now it’s taller than her after she cut it.

The mice and the treetop get thrown out the window, and they are discovered by a bear.

J: Like, this tree is now the size of the tree that was presented to Adelaide. Y’know? And it’s also more bare, it used to be a more full tree.

S: I mean, to be fair, it’s kind of bear now.

J: Nice.

S: Is that Bobo?

J: No, this was before Bobo.

S: Is this where Bobo comes from?

J: No, but maybe they could have inspired Bobo. These bears were mostly likely from Muppets Take Manhattan in the scene where Fozzie goes off to hibernate.

The bears start doing their honey waltz.

S: This is the kind of thing that the Walt Disney company needs to bring back to Critter Country in the parks.

J: OKAY, BUT NOW THE TREE HAS GOTTEN SMALLER. DO YOU SEE IT?

S: You’re focusing too much on the tree size! As though this isn’t a case of the tree having several stunt trees to do its work for it! Look at that crazy stunt, the tree just did a side flip!

J: They also did a tree POV cam for a second.

S: A PO-Tree, if you will.

The treetop gets lopped off once again, this time by the bears.

S: This mouse cannot cut a tree!

The mice, again, get chucked outside with the top of the tree.

S: We’re never going to see Mr. Willowby again, are we?

J: He is in it pretty sparingly, isn’t he? I’m pretty certain he comes back for the end to do a reprise of his “Perfect Tree” song.

An owl swoops down to grab the treetop.

S: Oh, it’s an owl! See, they teased this. The writing on this is sharp. They teased a bear and an owl, and they’re giving us some bears and some owls. Whoever wrote this knows.

Mr. Willowby makes a reappearance, singing about his party later that night.

J: Oh there he is!

S: He’s back! Is he singing about the Fozziwig Christmas party? Do you think he gets to go?

J: Are you now assuming that this is young Scrooge?

S: Yes.

Baxter is listening to Adelaide sing outside her window.

S: This is potentially why the love was still there, you know, before the love was gone.

J: Well in this one he’s setting up his two older house employees together.

S: You’ve never seen the young matchmaking Scrooge movies?

The owls start singing a gorgeous, weird song in their trippy home.

S: This owl set up is BONKERS. This could be its own movie. This weird drug sequence.

The mice are, for a final time, yeeted with their tree. They comment on how gentle the owls were.

J: THEY JUST GOT THROWN FROM A TREE. THEY WERE NOT GENTLE.

S: Mice are typically the prey of owls. The mouse god of death very well could be an owl, and they’ve just gone through a semi-religious experience confronting and embracing death and coming out the other side.

J: Or, y’know, this special is saying that this is the time of year where the predators are all being kinder cause of the holiday season.

As the mice are sneaking back inside with their now perfect sized tree, Baxter picks up Beverly Mouse. Pa Mouse shakes his axe in the air.

J: It is surprising that this mouse isn’t using his axe to whack at Leslie Nielsen’s foot.

S: He could definitely chop off a toe.

Baxter lets the mouse go.

S: It’s like they wanted Fred Gwynne and they settled for Leslie Nielsen.

J: What a deep cut for the younger readers.

Mr. Willowby’s Christmas party begins.

J: [sarcastically] What a rocking party.

S: I have no clue the era that this is supposed to be set.

J: It’s a twenty minute special, Stephen. I don’t think they knew when this was supposed to be set.

There’s a reprise to the opening number, showing all the different animals and humans with their trees.

J: Now we get to see everyone’s perfect tree. [notices Adelaide’s tree has candles on it] There should NOT be lit candles on that unattended tree.

S: That is a deep fire hazard.

J: That’s how I know it’s set in the forgone past.

The credits start to roll.

J: It says Bill Barretta was in the supporting cast, and Bill would go on to create Bobo not long after this. It’s highly possible that if he was puppeteering one of the bears, which he probably was based off his work with Dinosaurs, maybe he was given the idea for Bobo from this.

Special comes to an end.

J: So what did you think of Mr. Willowby’s Christmas Tree? Do you have any takeaways?

S: I mean, I feel like I saw a lot of things that were suggested that a longer, deeper, closer reading would produce some pretty terrifying insights into the mid-90’s psyche. As I mentioned, the quasi-religious drug sequence is one that I think a lot of adults – with favorable drug experiences living in a world that obviously is pretty logistically anti-drug from a legal standpoint – and the way that they can subvert it into media is one of those questions… and the time frame? When is this taking place? HOW related to Scrooge is this story? I don’t know the Robert Barry original story to base this on as far as an adaptation. Do I like this tale on a Christmas level more than, say, the Gift of the Magi? Yes. Cause this one, everyone kind of gets what they need or want, except for the Christmas tree itself. ALTHOUGH, possibly, in fulfilling not just one person’s Christmas needs, but like four or five Christmas needs, the tree in its death throes actually has one of its own giving tree experiences and comes to a fuller sense of being.

A full five second pause happens.

J: You do realize that the owl sequence went on for literally less than two minutes, right?

S: Yeah, probably in the original they had like five minutes – like a full song – and they had to get rid of it.

J: I don’t know about that, considering they knew going in that it was going to be a twenty-one minute holiday special.

S: Sure! But you write way more and you shoot way more, just so you have scraps to cut out. If we got to see the director’s cut prestige forty-five minute television special as intended? I guarantee you an entire five minute sequence is the song “Now We Face The God Of Death And He Looks Upon Us And We Say ‘Not Today’” as sung by the meeces and a chorus. Probably a longer waltz! It would be the dream ballet! I’m surprised, if anything, that the Muppet workshops don’t go back now while they’re resting their heels on projects and make a two hour movie.

J: I am surprised they haven’t gone back and made a follow up Mr. Willowby’s Christmas Tree with Robert Downey Jr. at the height of his fame.

S: Considering that Disney is remaking every single property that it has…

J: Who would you cast to play Mr. Willowby? If they were going to recast Robert Downey Jr.

S: Tom Holland.

J: … Oh that would actually be delightful. He would bring it. He’d do some backflips, and he’d put his whole heart into it.

S: The modern cast is Tom Holland in the role of Mr. Willowby, Anya Taylor-Joy as Adelaide, and Baxter –

J: [gasps] Wait, would it be –

Both: Robert Downey Jr.!

S: He’d be in Leslie Nielsen’s role! Robert Downey Jr. and Tom Holland already have the fertile ground upon which to build their character’s relationship through acting.

J: Yeah, we officially need a remake of Mr. Willowby’s Christmas Tree. My take aways are less poignant than yours. I haven’t seen this for probably about twenty years, and I remember really liking it as a kid and now I’m here to say: it’s fine. I don’t think it’s as bad as other Muppet fans led me to believe it would be, but I don’t know if this needs to be worked into my rotation of the Christmas movies and specials I watch every year. My mind is still blown that Mr. Willowby is dressed exactly like Scrooge, super wild. Still don’t know what was going on with all the scaling of the various trees. Oh! And Julianne Buescher was in this as the mouse daughter! That means she’s been working with the Muppets for, what, 26 years and she is still not a core Muppet performer. She should be at this point. It’s almost three decades worth of work! Make her a core member, Disney! What are you [expletive] doing??

S: Word.

J: Alright, well, this has been fun. Tune in next year when I’ll make Stephen watch… I don’t know… The Great Santa Claus Switch? We’re running low on specials you haven’t seen before.

S: Muppets Letters 2 Santa, the sequel!

J: I do feel like The Great Santa Claus Switch is the only one you haven’t watched before.

S: I’ve seen that one.

J: Have you really?

S: That’s the one where Tim Allen kills Santa in the first two minutes and he switches places with him.

J: And on that note! See you next year, folks!

Click here to talk time traveling Scrooge spin offs on the ToughPigs forum!

by Julia Gaskill and Stephen Meads

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