Dec. 4 – The Christmas Toy

THE CHRISTMAS TOY
Original Airdate:
December 6, 1986

SYNOPSIS:
An extremely unique tale from Jim Henson starring a playroom full of Muppety toys come to life! A young girl’s favorite toy from last Christmas, Rugby Tiger, doesn’t understand that the holiday means that his status as alpha plaything can change on an annual basis. He leaves the playroom, and it’s up to the rest of the toys to stop him before he’s spotted out-of-place by unsuspecting humans. Because – unlike in other toy stories – for the toys of The Christmas Toy, that spells DEATH!

BACKSTORY:
Not only my favorite Muppet Christmas Special (and there are many), but one of my favorite Christmas Specials of all time!

The Christmas Toy never got the repeated airplay that Emmet Otter Jug-Band Christmas or A Muppet Family Christmas received, but I recall that it was shown pretty consistently on The Disney Channel back when that was still a premium channel, although it originally aired on ABC.  No surprise, though, given that I now learned that Disney spun it off into a short-lived series called The Secret Life of Toys eight years later.

The 1994 Disney Channel show that lasted a single season

Of course, The Henson Company’s various dealings with Disney are one of the things that has came back to bite The Christmas Toy in the ass. Historically, Jim Henson regularly brought Kermit the Frog out to introduce new characters during specials, but under their new ownership, Kermit’s narration has been cut from both Emmet Otter’s and A Christmas Story’s DVDs due to rights issues.

The fact that there are two title screens almost leads me to believe they knew Kermit would get cut out eventually

…Much to fans chagrin, I might add, according to the last time I check the Amazon ratings. Luckily, Kermit’s omission didn’t altogether ruin my enjoyment of the DVD, but his original inclusion during the finale reprise of the song “We’ll Be Together at Christmas (Old Friends)” is sorely missed.

A Scandinavian YouTube vid is all we have to know that Kermit ever appeared in The Christmas Toy

BREAKDOWN:

God, I wish I could buy one of these guys

Not only do I feel like The Christmas Toy doesn’t get the respect it’s due – namely, by never being included in the pantheon of alleged “classics” we see trotted out on TV each year – but I also never hear anyone call out its glaringly obvious similarities to Pixar’s Toy Story. Now, I love the Toy Storys and I’m not saying they ripped off Jim Henson, since the plot isn’t all that similar. But once you compare the premise and scenario, you’ll find a shitload of overlap:

Rugby vs. Woody – The star toy uncomfortable sharing the spotlight

Meteora vs. Buzz Lightyear – The new space-themed toy soon to become the new favorite

Mew vs. Slinky Dog – The favorite toy’s loyal companion willing to risk life and limb

Apple vs. Jesse – The once loved, now forgotten toy

“Barbie” vs. Barbie© – C’mon, look at ‘em!

But there’s one thing The Christmas Toy takes a step further. Whereas Woody and Co. simply hide from people, The Christmas Toy explains why toys need to hide, and what the consequences are.

See Ditz in the middle? Don’t get too attached to him

Rugby Tiger, almost an antihero in the beginning, is oblivious to the fact that Christmas brings new toys anually, since he’d just been unwrapped last December 25th. So once the lovable egomaniac learns that it’s Christmas Eve, he sneaks out of the playroom to take what he believes to be his rightful place every year: inside a wrapped box, under the tree.


Mew, the adorable cat toy widely despised by the rest of the group for smelling like catnip, warns everyone about Rugby’s plans during the Holiday preparations, and the entire playroom begins to run around like one of Gonzo’s girlfriends with her head cut off.

There are a lot of moving Muppet legs in this

Amid the chaos, Ditz, the moronic clown toy, idiotically figures that the simplest thing to do is run outside and get Rugby back. Unfortunately, the humans are still awake and…things don’t go well:

And that’s why you never leave the playroom.

Toys found in motion by people are “frozen forever,” or, to remove the sugarcoating: DEAD! This is part of the reason I’m not entirely upset about Kermit being cut out of the DVD.

A Very Merry Funeral Procession

The story stands pretty firmly on its own, plus it always seemed to me that whenever Henson was freed up from the legacy of Kermit and Big Bird, we got a more unique, touching, and compelling story. And yes, often times a little darker one than we were anticipating. (Look at The Dark Crystal, The Storyteller, Labyrinth, and Fraggle Rock, and I think you’ll agree with me.)

A pile of dead toys

I’d agree that it’s a little scary, but I think that taking that kind of risk is what makes the stories feel more personal. Putting something as dire as death on the line is admirable, plus I also love that the closest thing The Christmas Toy has to a villain is People! An absurdly normal family of five going about their Christmas Eve are portrayed like fearsome giants, ghoulish guards capable of ending the life of any toy they spot.


Anyway, Mew finally earns a little respect for himself by aiding Rugby in avoiding the parents and their Medusa-like gaze, and they make their way down to the Christmas Tree.

Love the scale here

But once Rugby opens the box to take his ill-perceived throne, an all-new terror is unleashed:

Meteora!

Again, like a certain other space ranger, Meteora takes herself very seriously. Completely unaware that she too is in fact a toy, she shouts battle cries at Rugby, Mew and the other toys who have come along for the rescue mission…which would be amusing if it didn’t WAKE THE HUMANS!

Ever the badass, Mew belts out an impromptu kitty cat impression

Thank Christ a quick-thinking Mew keeps the crew unseen. Getting close to the brink of death teaches Rugby a lesson of humility, and he and the lovable Mew coax Meteora back into her Christmas packaging with a song that’s too fucking adorable for words.

The outlook is good as the gang makes one last mad dash for the sancterrific confines of the playroom with the aid of some motorized toys, but poor, poor Mew loses hold and is left in the hallway. Please… don’t… open… the door!

SHIT!

Seriously?! Mew – my candidate for greatest character of all time – DEAD?! Once again, here’s the heartbreaking loss and sadness that the Henson group sneaks upon families so well.

Gets me every time

And not to harp on the Toy Story connection, but remember that Sarah McLachlan montage about Jesse and her obsolescence in the second film? Rugby is grounded by a tear-jerking tune sung by the admittedly creepy Apple, who provides an alternate perspective to the egocentric version the precious had Tiger belted out.

Flashback Version 2.0

She’s the toy that’s been outgrown, she’s the toy that’s been replaced…by Rugby in fact. And if I haven’t praised the music enough, let me say that it rules, skipping from the relative tragedies found in the climax to the comparatively un-Henson opening rock-out that explains why toys come to life in the first place: They’re built to play, and the need to do so doesn’t go away just because humans aren’t around.


So yeah, songs… Rugby visits Mew for a final time in his open-casket kitty resting place to sing Mew a touching little tune about how much his friendship of this little mouse-that-nobody-liked meant to him. And yeah, Mew comes back to life:


I know, I complain about miraculous endings that appear to serve no purpose other than to end happily…but to me what separates and redeems the situation in The Christmas Toy is that Mew actually talks about the experience of dying and being dead in way that still gives me goosebumps.

Rise of the fallen

And I’m cool with the rest of the toys getting sung back to life, too, because the last thing in the world I want to think about is characters who sound just like Gonzo and Wembley Fraggle dying forever. I can’t be walking around crying over departed Muppets – I’m a man approaching my thirties, dammit!

The Christmas Toy closes out with everybody back together and loved, and if that ain’t Christmas-y enough for you then maybe you’d be happier celebrating Chaunakkah, mister!

Sadly, the DVD released by HIT Entertainment cuts out Kermit’s reprisal of “We’ll Be Together at Christmas, (Old Friends, New Friends)” but the song would later find its way into other Muppet projects, including the epically ensemble A Muppet Family Christmas released a year later. Oh, you’d better believe I’ll be writing that one up…

Given that it was created by Jim Henson and his company full of filthy, long-haired liberals: None. Although The Christmas Story does contain more resurrections than The Old Testament.

Once again, a certain frog was acting as Claus for this one, so in terms of the DVD, Disney owns the right to this Santa and isn’t letting go.

Five out of five Balls! Can’t help it, this might be my favorite Christmas Special of all time, so I’ll be damned if I’m going to let Fat Albert or Fred Flinstone walk away with more Flaming Balls of  Spirit!

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2 Comments »

  1. 1
    punkduck2064 Says:

    This movie is part of some of my oldest Christmas memories.

    Thanks again Chris, makes these long nights of studying for finals easier 🙂

  2. 2
    Ryan Says:

    Loved your post. This is one of my favorite Christmas specials. I finally bought it on DVD a few years ago and now watch it every year.


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