Writer: Laura Phillips
Cast: Dave Goelz, Steve Whitmire, Kathryn Mullen, Jerry Nelson, Richard Hunt, Camille Bonora, Brian Henson, Marsha Moreau, Zachary Bennett, Jim Henson
Plot: Rugby the Tiger (Dave Goelz) and the rest of the toys in Jesse and Jamie’s playroom (Zachary Bennett and Marsha Moreau, respectively) have an active existence, coming to life and playing whenever their children leave the room. They have to be careful to be in the same spot where the humans left them, though, for if they’re found out of place, they’re frozen forever. When the toys learn it’s Christmas Eve, Rugby is astonished. He remembers last Christmas, when Jamie found him in his brilliant box beneath the tree and he became the center of her world… he never imagined it would happen again. The old teddy bear Balthazar (Jerry Nelson) tells the toys to be ready to welcome the new toys into their midst, pointing out how the doll named Apple (Kathryn Mullen) was upset when Rugby stole her spotlight the year before. As Bathlazar tries to talk to Rugby about what’s about to happen, the catnip mouse named Mew (Steve Whitmire) tells them Rugby has left the playroom to get back under the Christmas Tree, where he believes he belongs. A clown doll named Ditz (Goelz again) steps out of the room to call Rugby back, but he’s found by the children’s mother, who tosses him back into the playroom. Ditz is now “frozen” – unable to move, unable to speak… essentially dead. The rest of the toys sadly bring him to a sort of graveyard in the closet for other frozen toys. As the rest of the toys grieve, Mew sneaks out alone to try to save Rugby.
Mew finds Rugby trapped in the linen closet, locked in after he got mixed up with some clothes. When he tells Mew how spectacular Christmas is (for Rugby, that is), Mew decides to help him back under the tree, showing him the real cat’s trick for opening the door. Back in the playroom Apple assembles a rescue party to go after Rugby and Mew. Rugby makes it to the Christmas tree, where a lovely box for Jamie is waiting to be opened. Mew gets the ribbon off just as Apple and the others find them. She implores him to leave the box alone, but Rugby ignores her. When he opens the box, instead of it being empty, he finds a new doll, a beautiful warrior woman who proclaims herself to be “Meteora, queen of the asteroids (Camille Bonora)!” Meteora rushes off and Rugby tries to seal himself inside her box, but Apple re-tells him the story of last Christmas from her own perspective, when Rugby took her place as Jamie’s favorite toy. As Rugby finally realizes the truth, he still tries to get in the box, and Apple and Mew remind him that he’ll be frozen if the humans find him. Meteora knocks over a chess set, and the noise summons Jamie and Jesse’s father. Before he sees the toys, Mew lets out a very convincing “meow.” Believing it’s just the cat, father goes back to bed. The other toys convince Meteora to return to her box by singing her praises and telling her how she’ll be recognized as a star come Christmas morning. Once she’s wrapped again, they head back towards the playroom. Just as most of them make it back, though, Mew slips from Rugby’s tail and is caught in the hall as the children’s mother opens the door. Rugby rushes to try to save him, but he gets trapped in the linen closet again when mother finds Mew and takes him downstairs to the cat. Heartbroken, Rugby retrieves his friend’s frozen body and tearfully sings him a song to tell him he loves him. Miraculously, Mew begins twitching, and wakes up. In the playroom, the rest of the toys take up the song as the frozen toys in the closet pick themselves up and stumble back to life. The next morning, Jamie and Jesse bring their new toys to the playroom (while the cat, Luigi, drops off a new mouse), and the rest of the toys welcome them. Rugby feels a moment of sorrow while Jamie tells Meteora she loves her, but spirits are lifted all around as she says the same to Apple, and to Rugby himself.
Thoughts: Once more to the Jim Henson company, friends, and to one of my favorite lesser-known Henson productions. The Christmas Toy, from 1986, was one of these specials that led into a (sadly short-lived) TV series, The Secret Life of Toys, about toys that come to life and play whenever their humans leave the room. Nine years later, of course, Pixar Animation would take the basic plot of this special and turn it into a billion-dollar franchise for Disney. And I’m not just talking about the “toys coming to life” part – let’s be fair here, everyone who has ever been a child has imagined that their toys come to life and have adventures of their own when they aren’t around. Of course, there’s also the notion of the comfortable favorite toy suddenly having his prominence threatened by the introduction of a cool new space toy… who doesn’t realize she IS a toy and thinks she’s really in… outer… space… Okay, look, I love Pixar as much as anybody, but if Jim Henson’s ghost had started haunting the crap out of their studio after the first Toy Story came out, he would have been entirely within his rights.
I remember watching this special as a child (I would have been nine the year it came out, so it’s likely I was part of the audience for the premiere) and loving it immediately, even wearing out a VHS copy taped from ABC. Looking back at it as an adult, it’s impressive to me how dark Henson and company were willing to get with these characters. Rugby, at the beginning of the special, is terribly arrogant and unlikable. When he starts singing that he was “the greatest Christmas toy of all,” you kind of hope he does get frozen.
Then there’s the “frozen” concept itself – for a small child, this could be terrifying. Think about it here… you’re little, you’re just starting to gain a comprehension about what death actually is and what it actually means… and then you watch a Muppet special where the lovable mouse drops dead because somebody looks at it. I don’t actually remember the spin-off TV show very well, but I’m pretty sure they dropped this particular aspect when it went to series, and that’s probably a good thing. It definitely adds a note of suspense and danger to the story, but it may have been too difficult to deal with on a weekly basis. (If you really want to be a stickler for continuity, you can probably argue that whatever Rugby did to bring Mew back at the end of this special broke that spell forever, but if you’re thinking that hard about it you’re probably thinking too much about this. Yes, I am speaking from experience.)
Like any good Christmas special, of course, the unlikable character finds redemption in the end. And like any good Jim Henson production, that redemption comes with the help of his friends. The relationship between Rugby and Mew is wonderfully constructed. They’re not buddy-buddy like Kermit and Fozzie or Bert and Ernie. Instead, at the beginning, Mew hangs out with Rugby mainly because all of the toys reject him (he’s “just a cat toy”), but Rugby gives him slightly more attention than the others. It’s not even good attention – Rugby mocks and degrades him more than anyone, but Mew latches on to him anyway. When Mew saves him, twice, we see Rugby’s attitude shift, becoming more accepting not only of Mew, but of Meteora as well. And all of it is part of his true education – the growing knowledge that he isn’t the center of the universe after all, but merely an important part of it for one child. Once again, Henson is teaching children a lesson: “It ain’t all about you, kid.”
The music is okay here, but the final number is fantastic. “Together at Christmas,” Rugby’s song to Mew, briefly became something of a Henson anthem, and we in fact will hear it once more a few days from now, when we pay our fourth and final visit to the Henson workshop, and look in on his most famous creations.
Speaking of those creations, like Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas, this film sadly isn’t available uncut. Both Emmet and the Toys are still owned by the Jim Henson Company, but a few years back they sold the Muppet Show characters to Disney, which means they had to trim the introduction for both of these films, starring Kermit the Frog, to put on DVD. (Sesame Workshop got special permission from Disney to use Kermit in some of the DVDs of their older shows. I don’t know if Henson even asked…) The special is lovely in its own right, but the beginning is terribly abrupt, you feel like you’ve turned it on after it already began, and that’s why. The DVD itself is horribly barebones, not even taking you to a menu before starting the film. If they ever decide to dress this up and do a better home video release, I hope they come to some sort of agreement to give us Kermit’s welcome back again.
Don’t forget, The Christmas Special is the third Reel to Reel movie study. The first, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and Smashwords.com bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!