After Jim Henson’s death in 1990, but before their buyout from the Walt Disney company, the Muppets kind of went into limbo. They did a few hits with Muppet Treasure Island (1996) and The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992), but not long after, their movies kinda lost their magic. Right about when Muppets From Space came out in 1999, there was a definite shift, with the Muppets relying on snarkier, edgier humor that was decidedly less witty and corny than the traditional comedy we’d come to know them for. It’s also worth noting the prior two Muppet films were produced by Disney, but Muppets From Space was produced by Columbia. The Muppets were soon bought out by a Germany-based company called EM.TV & Merchandising AG in 2000, and the rights reverted back to the Henson family in 2003 before resigning to the Disney Company in 2004. The Muppets wouldn’t get a large-scale release or resurgence until 2011’s The Muppets. And among all this came this made-for-TV special, which aired on NBC, which was directed by Kirk Thatcher, who was one of the main creators of Dinosaurs.
Fetch festive food for our fabulously funny felt friends for this film!
The plot: Angel Daniel (David Arquette) is trying to convince God (Whoopi Goldberg) to save Kermit the Frog from himself. They jump back 24 hours to see how Kermit got so low.
While preparing for their annual holiday show at the Muppet Theater, Kermit and the gang are shocked when they hear the theater’s owner has passed away, and his cruel widow, Mrs. Bitterman (Joan Cusack), is gleefully chomping at the bit to shut it down and evict them by Christmas Eve. She resorts to multiple dirty tricks and despite Kermit’s valiant attempts, they don’t get the money to her on time. Kermit becomes so crestfallen he simply sits on a park bench and allows himself to get frozen…until Daniel lands on Earth. When Kermit claims he wishes he’d never been born, Daniel shows him just what that world would be like.
How’s the writing?: Yeah, in case you couldn’t tell, it’s the plot of Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life. But because it doesn’t homage or parody the original holiday classic, it feels less like a dedication rather than an out-and-out theft of the story. While you could make the argument that it’s like saying Mickey’s Christmas Carol ripped off A Christmas Carol because they, unlike all the other versions, didn’t quote Dickens or acknowledge its origins, but that’s disingenuous. It still kept the weight and gravitas of the story and you never mistook it for anything else. Here, the plot feels like a twenty slipped in a handshake: being given something good under the guise of ulterior motives. But even if it weren’t a ripoff of a much better movie, it still blows.
The characterization is off. The jokes are mean spirited and unfunny. The narrative feels sloppy in several places. But the worst offender here is the pop culture references. When Fozzie has to deliver the money to Bitterman, he runs into a parody of Steve Irwin, and then after he gets mistaken for the Grinch, the citizens of Whoville also give chase. Never in my life have I better understood the necessity of jokes needing context.
Look at this doofus. It’s like Owen Wilson if he lost all self-respect. This Crocodile Hunter parody identifies Fozzie as a bear and tries to tranquilize him and chase him through the city. Of course, never mind this joke has aged like milk, but jokes at Irwin’s expense back then weren’t uncommon. I remember both a FedEx commercial and a Dr. DoLittle 2 cameo where the joke revolves around Irwin’s jovial insanity around hyper-dangerous animals that would (ahem!) get him killed some day. Here, it’s an idiot in khakis chasing a anthropomorphic bear, trying to blow dart him. You want to mock Irwin, fine, but the joke falls flat when the crux of it fails to take into account who Irwin was and what his show entailed.
Then there are these monstrosities. Fozzie getting painted green? Sure. Being given Santa’s coat? Fine. Being mistaken for the Grinch? That’s funny, wakka wakka! BUT…the whos popping out of nowhere, obviously parodying the 2000 movie? Why? I mean, nonsensical humor is the Muppets’ bread and butter, but this is both ridiculous and mean-spirited. The whos could have been nasty in the movie, but what’s with this obviously-not-but-totally-obviously Cindy Lou Who leading this bloodthirsty mob? They riff making up loopy words and one guy not rhyming well (Because that joke worked so well in The Cat in the Hat…), and it misses the mark entirely. It doesn’t get the spirit of the source material so much as “hey, it existed! Remember?”. It’s funny as a shock moment for all of the 0.00045 seconds it first shows up, but the rest is just ugly and unpleasant. All the more shocking considering NBCUniversal produced How the Grinch Stole Christmas less than two years prior. At least Disney waited thirty years and absorbed the pop culture hatred of “It’s a Small World” before throwing it into The Lion King.
Does it give the feels?: I think this movie wants to, but because it fundamentally misunderstands It’s a Wonderful Life, it completely falters. Recall how in the OG story, Clarence was shown the bullet points of George Bailey’s life, so each aspect could be reflected later, emphasizing just how one man can make a difference. And even though Kermit is a great character to explore this facet of humanity, the movie skips the first part. Had we looked back to see even so much as clips from The Muppet Movie, where Kermit first met all his friends, that would have been exponentially better. But instead, in his trip to the non-Kermit dimension, Gonzo and Fozzie are homeless, Dr. Bunson Honeydew and Beaker are club bouncers, Miss Piggy is a lonely cat lady, Scooter is a cage dancer, Sam Eagle is into very questionable kinks, and Rizzo is part of a Fear Factor challenge. Even though you want to feel sad these guys turned out as either destitute or bastardizations of who they once were, you can’t help but ask why you should care. It’s naturally implied that Kermit’s impact has made their lives better, but it’s never explained how. After seeing Rizzo being tormented in Fear Factor, Kermit and Daniel snark on NBC’s hosting of the show and how all the world’s programming is 90% reality shows. Cry “Muppet-grade nonsensical butterfly effect” all you want, but it needs emotional and logical grounding to get you invested. That way, singing “Everyone Matters” doesn’t feel like a shameless shoehorn.
Who makes it worth it?: I hold the characterization of the Muppets in high regard, much like I do for Winnie the Pooh, so when these guys act out of character, I tend to bristle with ire. Kermit is the worst offender, often prone to screaming tantrums. They have him do it twice to Daniel, which is supposed to be funny, contrasting the angel’s flusteredness, but it’s still out of character for Kermit. The worst one is when Fozzie recounts his run-ins with Irwin and the whos, and Kermit screams about making up stories. Yes, Kermit is under a lot of stress (Fozzie lost the money and missed the deadline), but Kermit doesn’t even apologize for it. Fozzie is too busy feeling sorry for himself even before Kermit’s reaction. It’s ugly and totally out of character. And worse, it’s not funny.
Joan Cusack is a hilarious actress and can work well with the Muppets, but here her haminess works to a severe disadvantage. Her rubber-faced expressions and cartoony dialogue feels more like a caricature than a true villain. Compare her performance to Tim Curry from Muppet Treasure Island, a similarly over-the-top performance, but Curry knew he had to reign it in in several key scenes to be a character with depth, but also contrast/better blend in with such a raucous cast.
Then there’s Pépé, a problematic Muppet since day one. Pépé’s gimmick has been that he’s an egotistical, materialistic, womanizing king prawn, a personality that contrasts with the well-meaning, playful goofballs we’ve come to know and love. Here, he spends all his time trying to seduce Bitterman and constantly double dealing each side. It’s clear his alliances are just wherever it best suits him at the moment, and you can’t root for such a skeezy character.
If there’s any character I sorta like, it would have to be Daniel (Or “Danny-L” as Whoopi calls him, for some weird reason). He’s the only character who comes across as kind of likeable and relatable, considering his heart is in the right place. He still tells jokes that are off and has unfunny character moments, but at least he feels like he’s trying.
Best quality provided: There are a few glimmers of good comedy here that I appreciate. The special loves to advertise a cameo from the cast of Scrubs, and it’s a funny scene, but aside from Donald Faison’s exclusion, it feels too synergized. At the time the special aired, Scrubs had just kicked off its second and highest rated season (the one with canmeos from Brendan Fraser, Ryan Reynolds, and Dick van Dyke), so as funny as it is, it’s clear it was there just to cross-promote.
Mel Brooks as a Sam The Snowman parody? Sure! But never mind they don’t take advantage of the comedian’s infamous trait of his Jewishness in a Christmas special, the joke doesn’t go anywhere. Worse still, he has two non sequitor appearances that go nowhere, and make sense when you realize his third appearance was cut out of the movie, nullifying the joke.
They even parody Moulin Rouge in their performance. I kinda wanted to see more of it, even though it felt forced in.
And like I said before, a lot of these jokes can work had they been thinking them through just a bit longer. Fozzie as the Grinch is a great example. But then you get Whoopi’s curt responses to Daniel, which might have been funny, but it doesn’t jive with being God. A few rewrites might have salvaged this movie.
What could have been improved: Well, I just went through the film’s biggest flaws, but there’s one I hadn’t touched upon yet: the fact it’s a very dated movie.
Kids today don’t know what Fear Factor is without going on Wikipedia. Same thing with Crocodile Hunter. Or David Arquette. Or Scrubs. Heck, I even saw a neon sign in the background advertising Nokia at one point. It’s a movie firmly implanted in the zeitgeist of the early aughts without taking into account the movie could live on past 2002, 2003 at the furthest. At least a movie like Ralph Breaks the Internet revels in 2018 internet phenomena, but this movie doesn’t have that kind of foresight. It just grabbed from random aspects of popular culture squarely from that moment in time, completely solidifying itself in an era where most of these jokes won’t click with younger viewers.
It’s here where that Crocodile Hunter joke becomes even more critical that it is executed properly. Memes today reflect the legacy he left in being excited, passionate, if a tad reckless in promoting conservation. My personal favorite is this one:
But nope! “Hurp-ee-derp! Crikey, mate! Let’s chase this Beaah!”
Verdict: I enjoyed this special two years ago when I bought it, but now after a few repeated views, I find I’m hating it. The jokes that are either not funny or too nasty, the characters that aren’t likeable, and a story that falters due to woefully misrepresenting a much better holiday special lead to a less-than-spectacular Muppet outing. Definitely refer to The Muppet Christmas Carol if you need a Muppet holiday fix. One misplaced bags of money out of ten.
Sheesh, where’s John Denver when you need him?