Bright Lights Film Journal

A Muppet Christmas: Letters from Another Era

The by now hideously distended Muppet franchise received another subpar entry on network television last night in the form of “A Muppet Christmas: Letters to Santa”. Is anyone else willing to admit that they actually sat through this thing in its entirety? Furthermore, did anyone else actually like it for the most part, taking it for what it was? Both Nathan Lane and Uma Thurman turned in decent if half-assed cameos — the holiday season’s tv candy.

I’m of the mind that any Muppet special is worth sitting through at least once (provided that it contains real Muppets and not animated ones, ie “Muppet Babies,” etc). The “Letters to Santa” special also marked the first time Jim Henson’s lovely creations were filmed and then subsequently broadcast in High Definition — a curious landmark for a gaggle of scrappy creatures built from discarded felt and halved ping-pong balls. I was raised on a steady diet of “Emmet Otter” and “Fraggle Rock” VHS tapes and always wondered how such artifacts would survive the leap to digital. The added depth and definition offered by DVDs, for example, is not particularly kind to “Emmet Otter’s Jug Band Christmas,” which is constantly transitioning between miniature marionette sets and half-scale puppet ones.

Still, there’s an intimacy to puppetry — or even muppetry — that digital animation, or animation of any kind, can’t precisely duplicate (though its goals are, granted, quite disparate). The fact that there’s a human hand occupying the tiny heads of Kermit, Fozzie, Gonzo, et al makes all the difference, particularly when that hand pulls off a moment of jerry-rigged emotional authenticity (Muppet faces — eyes and eyebrows — are not all that expressive, and Kermit, for example, must crinkle his lips to express confusion or disgust, a behavior that Henson himself was the undisputed master of).

I was rather saddened to learn, via the end credits of “Letters to Santa,” that the voices of the Muppets were not also their physical manipulators. Aside from a few exceptions (ie Mama Otter), Henson continually insisted that this be the case, and much Muppet dialog was recorded while the puppeteering was taking place in the early days. There is plenty of Muppet magic missing from “Letters to Santa”: Jerry Nelson* and Jim himself have gone on to that great Muppet Workshop in the sky, along with writer Jerry Juhl (no one could write a lame joke like Jerry Juhl), Frank Oz is directing comedies we need not speak of and Paul Williams looks half-dead, also contributing a smattering of phoned-in compositions. But people die; careers crumble; artists age. Traditions, on the other hand, in some respects should not. If there’s any confusion regarding who’s to blame for most of this, it’s easily cleared up by the Disney logo that tags the special. I am not particularly looking forward to the upcoming Muppet movie, but it all poses a rather complex existential koan: Are these Muppets better than no Muppets at all?

Watch the special on HULU and simply close your eyes during the commercial breaks.

*Correction: Jerry Nelson is still alive and kicking, just retired from the Muppets (thanks to “Seeing I” for the correction). According to Wikipedia, which I hesitate to reference, he may reprise his role as Gobo for an upcoming Fraggle movie — indeed, the film would truly suffer without his natural innocence. Robin the Frog in “Letters from Santa” was, simply, not Robin due to Nelson’s absence.