Posts Tagged ‘Muppets

05
Dec
13

A Very Nerdy Christmas

Next year, Erin and I will finally celebrate our first Christmas together. I couldn’t be more excited, and I know she’s already making certain plans in terms of traditions and decorations and the like.

However, over the years I’ve assembled a small but — I think — amusing collection of Christmas ornaments of my own. Many of them have been given to me as gifts, the rest have mostly been the result of Hallmark’s after-Christmas clearance sales. It never seemed sensible to spend a ton of money on decorations until I had someone to decorate with. So while I’m sure next year the two of us will bring together all her ornaments and all my ornaments and probably a bunch of new ornaments, today I thought I’d share with you guys my collection as it stands today, such as it is.

Charlie Brown Christmas Tree

Charlie Brown Christmas Tree

First up is my Charlie Brown Christmas Tree. While not technically an ornament, it’s one of my most prized Christmas decorations and also will serve as the model for most of the upcoming pictures. Erin gave me this tree a few years ago and I love it. I actually wound up getting a second tree to place in my classroom at school, knowing that this tree was far too precious to risk in a room full of high school students.

“Oh come on, Blake,” you’re saying. “They’re in eleventh grade. Surely they can be trusted to be in proximity to a decoration with just a single ornament without worrying about them breaking it.”

Heh. It’s cute that you think that.

Doctor Who TARDIS

Doctor Who: The TARDIS

Next up is my TARDIS decoration. You may or may not know (except if you know anything about me at all, in which case you absolutely know) that I’m a bit of a Doctor Who fan. This particular glass ornament was given to me by my buddy and frequent Showcase co-host, Kenny. Thanks, pal! I know that Erin will want to be certain it gets a place of honor next Christmas.

Donald Duck Wakeup Hallmark

Donald’s Wake-Up Cup

I love Disney and I love Christmas, so it’s not surprising that many of my decorations are Disney characters. Of course, as I’ve done most of my shopping in the clearance sales, my selection is particularly eclectic. I’d grab whatever looked like it was worth the money, and the deeper the discount the lower that threshold would become. For example, here’s Donald Duck, having just rolled out of bed, drinking a cup of coffee. Probably because I got it for pennies.

Mickey Mouse Ears

Mickey Mouse Ears

From the “My parents went to Disney World and all I got was this…” line. A few years ago, my parents took a trip to Disney World and brought this personalized set of mini-Mouse Ears to me. (That’s “Mini” as in “small,” not “Minnie” as in “Mickey’s girlfriend.”) They brought an identical pair of ears for Erin. Hers are currently dangling from the rear view mirror in her car.

Scrooge McDuck from "Mickey's Christmas Carol"

Scrooge McDuck from “Mickey’s Christmas Carol”

Another Hallmark Keepsake ornament, this one depicts my favorite Disney Character — Scrooge McDuck — as he appeared in the classic 1983 animated feature Mickey’s Christmas Carol. Hey, speaking of A Christmas Carol, have you guys been following my Reel to Reel movie blog? All this month, leading up to Christmas I’m reviewing and analyzing different versions of Charles Dickens’s classic novel. All of your favorites are there — Alastair Sim, Albert Finney, Mr. Magoo… go on, check it out.

Disney Vinylmation 2012

Disney Vinylmation 2012

My brother and sister are big fans of Disney’s Vinylmation figures — a series of toys all set in the same Mickey Mouse-shaped mold and decorated in an infinite number of ways. I’ve got a lot of them too, but I’ve been a bit more selective in my Vinylmation purchases than them. This one came out last year — it’s a regular Vinylmation figure with an ornament loop on the head. This one depicts Donald Duck trapped in a snow globe, presumably the work of a genie or his nephews or something.

Vinylmation Hot Chocolate

Vinylmation Hot Chocolate

Another Vinylmation figure-slash-ornament, this one depicts a chocolate bar in the shape of Mickey Mouse. As you can tell, whoever got this bar in his stocking eats his Mickey chocolate the same way everybody eats their Easter rabbits — he bites the ears first. This figure also smells like hot chocolate. Well… the box says it’s hot chocolate. There’s a definite cocoa flavor to the aroma, but I don’t know if I’d go that far.

Perry Christmas from Phineas and Ferb

Perry Christmas from Phineas and Ferb

Phineas and Ferb is without question, the best cartoon for kids in decades. I dare you to find anything that’s even remotely as entertaining. You need to go back to the 90s heyday of Animaniacs and Pinky and the Brain. These kids rock.

Also, this was the last picture I took. I thought I was finished, I put my Charlie Brown tree in its place of honor (which is rather high up and out of reach of cats and three-year-old nieces), and when I realized I missed this one I just said the hell with it and took the picture on the table.

Dooby dooby doo-wah, A! GENT! P!

Dooby dooby doo-wah, A! GENT! P!

Courtesy of Target, here’s Phineas and Ferb’s best pal Perry the Platypus in his other identity: Agent P of the OWCA (Organization Without a Cool Acronym). I like to imagine here that he’s just stumbled into an insidious yuletide trap set by his arch-nemesis, Dr. Doofinshmirtz. Don’t worry, guys, Doof isn’t really that big a threat. And he actually doesn’t hate Christmas anyway, he has a burning indifference.

Prep and Landing Hallmark

Prep and Landing: Wayne and Lanny

A few years ago Disney introduced these guys, Wayne and Lanny, members of Santa Claus’s special Prep and Landing task force. These are the elves that scout ahead of Santa Claus to make sure the house is ready, the children are nestled all snug in their beds, and not a creature is stirring. If you have a Merry Christmas morning, it’s because Wayne and Lanny did their job right so that Santa could come behind them and do his.

Muppets Kermit Target

Kermit the Very Shiny Frog

This one is a Target find rather than Hallmark. Erin picked it up for me last Thanksgiving when we were shopping. This was either a few days before or a few days after I asked her to marry me, I don’t remember which, and it doesn’t matter. It’s special anyway. And yes, that’s a reflection of me and my phone in Kermit’s face. You try hiding your reflection when taking a picture of a shiny glass amphibian. It’s not that easy.

Peanuts-Erins Snoopy

Snoopy and Woodstock go for a drive

Snoopy and Woodstock here were a gift from Erin. She found it for me at work and included it in a stocking full of candy and little gifts last year. The girl knows me all too well, doesn’t she?

Peanuts on Ice

Peanuts on Ice

This is actually four separate ornaments put together. The “Peanuts on Ice” figures from Hallmark each have a magnet in the base, allowing you to connect them. I’m not sure how many there were in the series, but I know how many I got. Four. I got four.

You’ll notice that Sally, Charlie Brown’s sister, has no magnet and therefore is not connected to the rest of the Peanuts gang. I like to imagine that Linus, sick and tired of her years of sexual harassment, disabled the magnet in her base in the hopes that she would slide away and suffer a tragic mishap in the ice. Wow, that took a dark turn.

The Flash

The Flash

Another Hallmark ornament, here we have Barry Allen, the Flash. (How do I know it’s Barry Allen and not Wally West? Because Wally’s belt always came to a point in the front, only Barry wore the straight belt for his entire career in the Pre-Crisis era. Yes, I’m THAT kind of nerd.) Barry here, if I’m not mistaken, is actually the oldest ornament in my collection. I’m pretty sure I’ve had him since high school, and I don’t even remember when I got him.

Green Lantern

Green Lantern

Hal Jordan. Green Lantern of Space Sector 2814. Current leader of the Green Lantern Corps. Another Hallmark keepsake ornament. Are you sensing a pattern here?

Golden Age Superman

Golden Age Superman

I’ve got a few different Superman ornaments. Try not to be surprised.

This Hallmark ornament is actually two in one. In the front we have the Golden Age Superman, the way he first appeared in 1938. In the background is the second ornament, the cover of Action Comics #1, in which he made his first appearance. Actually, now that I look at it, the figure isn’t exactly right for that comic. His “S”-symbol, at that point, was actually just a yellow shield with the letter drawn in it, not the stylized version it would later become, and his boots hadn’t yet evolved to what we see here either. Wow, now I’m furious at the inaccuracy of my ornament. Christmas is RUINED.

Modern Superman

Modern Superman

This more modern Superman is a one-piece ornament, with the Man of Steel bursting out of the cover of a comic book. And this actually is a comic book, you can open that sucker up and read it. There aren’t any credits, but I think the short re-telling of his origin story was drawn by Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez, a classic DC Comics artist who contributed a lot of art for various DC merchandise over the years. I told you, I’m that kind of nerd.

Superman Luxor

Lenox China Superman

I think I’ve shown this one off before but I don’t mind doing it again. This Lenox China Superman figure has the trademarks of that elegant line of decorations — the white glass is used in his cape, and the Lenox gold lines the figure in several places. This, too, is a gift from Erin, which should be obvious because those Lenox ornaments are pretty expensive for a guy that, until now, got most of his Christmas decorations from Hallmark’s 20% off table.

Dwight Schrute: Talking Bobblehead

Dwight Schrute: Talking Bobblehead

From The Office, ladies and gentlemen, I give you Assistant to the Regional Manager Dwight Schrute. This ornament is actually based on the Valentine’s Day episode in which his girlfriend gave him a bobblehead doll of himself. The ornament is a working bobblehead, plus, it talks when you push that little button in the front. I briefly considered shooting a short video demonstrating these features, but then I realized that would require way more of a commitment than I was ready to put into this little article.

Elise's Ornament

Elise’s Ornament

Now we’re getting into the ornaments that have an actual emotional connection for me. This one, for example, was a gift from Erin’s niece Elise last Christmas. Hey — I guess that means she’s going to be my niece too. Cool.

For Erin's teacher

For Erin’s teacher

Another Erin find. This “For My Teacher” apple came to her at work and she brought it home to me. Go ahead: “Aaaaaaaaaaaaaw…”

Engagement Encounter: Be Joyful

Engagement Encounter: Be Joyful

And finally, probably the most meaningful ornament on the list is this little Cross. Last summer, Erin and I attended an engagement encounter at a monastery in Pittsburgh. We wanted a keepsake of the weekend, and decided on this Christmas ornament. The message, I think, was just right.

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03
Feb
13

2 in 1 Showcase Episode 282: Abrams, Star Wars, and Movie Chatter

showcase logo small

This week Blake and Erin sit down to talk about the big news from Lucasfilm — J.J. Abrams to direct Star Wars Episode VII. We explain why we’re cautiously optimistic about this development before we get into other comic-to-screen news, including the end of the Chew TV show, the cancellations of Young Justice and Green Lantern, developments for Man of Steel and X-Men: Days of Future Past and we ask the question: can Marvel Studios keep their track record going with a character who hasn’t had an ongoing series in 17 years? Plus, we talk about DC’s Black History Month sales through Comixology, and Blake tosses a pick at Avengers #4 Contact us with comments, suggestions, or anything else at Showcase@CXPulp.com!

Music provided by Music Alley from Mevio.

2 in 1 Showcase Episode 282: Abrams, Star Wars, and Movie Chatter

19
Dec
12

The Christmas Special Day 19: A Muppet Family Christmas (1987)

Muppet Family ChristmasDirectors: Peter Harris & Eric Till

Writer: Jerry Juhl

Cast: Jim Henson, Frank Oz, Dave Goelz, Richard Hunt, Kathryn Mullen, Jerry Nelson, Karen Prell, Steve Whitmire, David Rudman, Caroll Spinney, Gerry Parkes

Plot: Kermit the Frog (Jim Henson) and many of the Muppets are off to spend Christmas at Fozzie Bear’s mother’s house (Fozzie and Ma Bear performed by Frank Oz and Jerry Nelson, respectively). They arrive to find that Ma is about to leave, having planned on taking a vacation to Florida for the holidays. Doc (Gerry Parkes) and his dog Sprocket (Steve Whitmire) are renting the house for a quiet holiday. When the Muppets arrive Ma decides to call off her vacation, and Doc finds himself surrounded by strange creatures. (Perplexed, he asks Sprocket if the Muppets are like the “Fraggles” his dog often reports encountering back home.) As everyone settles in, Kermit gets a call from Miss Piggy (Oz again), who is finishing up a photo shoot and plans to join them later. A Turkey (Whitmire again) arrives at the door, having been invited by the Swedish Chef (Henson), and the poultry-loving Gonzo (Dave Goelz) tries to convince him that a turkey at Christmas is more likely to be the main course than a guest. As more Muppets arrive, the farmhouse begins to descend into chaos: the Turkey tells Chef that Sprocket is the turkey, Fozzie Bear attempts to start up a new comedy routine with a Snowman (Richard Hunt), and the Turkey starts to hit on Gonzo’s girlfriend, Camilla. Scooter (Hunt) cheers everyone up with some home movies of the gang as babies, and just before Gonzo and the turkey come to blows, a group of carolers arrive: the Muppets’ friends from Sesame Street. They come in, Bert and Ernie (Oz and Henson) engage Doc in small talk about the letter B, and Christmas Eve.

Chef gets the Turkey into the kitchen and begins sizing him up for the pan, but the Turkey deflects his attention by pointing out the most delectable dish of all: Big Bird (Caroll Spinney). The news reports a terrible storm approaching, and Kermit begins to worry about Miss Piggy, who still hasn’t arrived. The different groups begin bonding, with Janice (Hunt) and Cookie Monster (Oz) “sharing” a plate of treats, drawing Animal (Oz)’s admiration, Oscar the Grouch (Spinney) offering to share his trash can with Rizzo the Rat (Whitmire), and Bert and Ernie leading the Sesame Street gang in a performance of “Twas the Night Before Christmas.” Kermit gets a call from Piggy and tries to convince her to stay off the road during the storm. The pigheaded (rimshot) Muppet doesn’t listen, though, and tries to hail a taxi. The Chef summons Big Bird into the kitchen, planning to prepare him for dinner, but is touched when Big Bird – feeling sorry for him spending Christmas so far away from his home in Sweden – gives him a present of chocolate covered birdseed. When Doc sees Kermit staring out into the snow again, he offers to head out and look for Piggy. As Kermit waits, his nephew Robin (Nelson) summons him to the cellar, where he’s found what he believes to be a Fraggle hole. The two frogs wind up in the subterranean world of Fraggle Rock, where the Fraggles are in the midst of their own midwinter celebration, in which Mokey (Kathryn Mullen) is giving Boober (Goelz) a yellow pebble – which has been a present from Fraggle to Fraggle 37 times. Boober gives the pebble to Robin. As the Frogs return to the farmhouse, Doc arrives on a dogsled wearing a Mountie uniform – all things Miss Piggy just happened to have for him when he found her in the snow. After all, Miss Piggy knows how to make an entrance.

With everyone finally safe and warm in the farmhouse (which is now so tight on space Gonzo and Animal have to sleep on hangers on the wall), Ma Bear officially welcomes everyone to her home and Rowlf the Dog leads the extended Muppet family in their annual Carol Sing. The music summons the Fraggles into the farmhouse, and they join in. Gifts are exchanged – Kermit gives Piggy a mink, and Robin passes the Fraggle Pebble on to Grover – and in the kitchen, Jim Henson himself watches on and smiles… then recruits Sprocket to help him wash the dishes.

Thoughts: We finally get to Jim Henson’s most famous family of characters, the Muppet Show Muppets, making the Henson company’s final entry in our countdown. This special hits on several levels. First of all, it’s full of fantastic Christmas music – in and of itself, that’s enough to make it worth watching. We get a lot of traditionals in the Carol Sing at the end, as well as plenty of other songs throughout. There’s also a song plucked from Fraggle Rock – the joyful “Pass it on” – and the show caps off with a slightly modified version of “Together at Christmas” from The Christmas Toy.

It’s also impressive just how many different stories the special manages to juggle. Kermit and Piggy’s story is ostensibly the A-plot, but it doesn’t really have much more screen time than the Chef’s attempts at dinner, Gonzo’s rivalry with the turkey, Fozzie’s new act, Ma’s effort to find room for everybody, or the introduction of the Fraggles to the rest of the family. All of these things could command a larger chunk if they eliminated the other stories, but it would be a real loss to do so.

It’s also worth noting that most of the stories are pretty original – no retreads of Dickens or Capra or O’Henry, even though Henson has turned to that well before. It’s interesting to note, though, that of the four specials we’ve watched from the Henson company, all four have dealt with gift-giving and self-sacrifice on a fairly significant level. Food for thought.

But the thing that makes this legendary for fans of the Henson company is because this is the only time the casts of all three major Henson families came together on-screen. We saw the Muppet Show and Sesame Street characters interact on several occasions in the past, but throwing in the Fraggles (at the height of their popularity when this special was made) makes it… well, extra-special. There’s even a small bit with the Muppet Babies, when Scooter shows the home movies, allowing us to see them as puppets for only the second time. (Their debut was in the feature film The Muppets Take Manhattan – for their own show, they were animated.) Unfortunately, due to rights issues with the music used in that scene, most of it was cut from the special’s DVD release. There are actually several scenes removed or abbreviated for this reason, so a complete version has never made it to DVD. Even worse, because of the fracturing of the Jim Henson company, in which the Muppet Show characters were sold to Disney and the Sesame Street characters given to the Children’s Television Workshop (now Sesame Workshop), the three families are now all owned by three different companies. Because of this, the DVD has been out of print for years, and can only be obtained used. Good luck – I managed to snag it when it was new and I’ve been watching the same disc for ten years, and it’s now extremely hard to come by. (Although you can find the whole thing on YouTube, and it’s worth it.)

Jim Henson was one of those creators that comes along once in a generation. While he wasn’t the sole force behind the creation of the Muppets, and probably gets too much credit for Sesame Street in some circles, the fact that he was the epicenter of so many different creative movements in his too-short time on this planet is nothing short of astonishing. The fact that so many people continue to use his creations to tell new and wonderful stories 20 years after his death is astonishing. He made something magical and lasting, and this special is one of the few places you can see the scope of his talent all at once, all together, as it should be. That, in and of itself, is a Christmas miracle of a kind.

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!

16
Dec
12

The Christmas Special Day 16: The Christmas Toy (1986)

ChristmasToyDirector: Eric Till

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!

13
Dec
12

The Christmas Special Day 13: Christmas Eve on Sesame Street (1978)

Christmas Eve on Sesame Street DVDDirector: Jon Stone

Writer: Jon Stone, Joseph A. Bailey

Cast: Caroll Spinney,Jim Henson, Frank Oz, Jerry Nelson, Richard Hunt, Linda Bove, Northern Calloway, Debbie Chen, Will Lee, Loretta Long, Sonia Manzano, Bob McGrath, Roscoe Orman, Alaina Reed

Plot: On Christmas Eve the gang on Sesame Street takes a trip to the local ice skating rink. While everyone else is having a good time, Oscar the Grouch (Carroll Spinney) decides to poke fun at the naive Big Bird (Spinney again), asking him how Santa Claus can possibly fit through the tiny chimneys the buildings on Sesame Street have. Dismayed at the thought that Santa may not be able to get in, Big Bird and his friend Patty (Debbie Chen) set out to solve the mystery. They turn to Kermit the Frog (Jim Henson, and if you didn’t know that stop reading my article right now, you heathen), who suggests turning to the Santa Claus experts – the children – to find the answer.

Meanwhile, Bert (Frank Oz) is stuck for a Christmas present for his best friend Ernie (Henson again, I mean it, stop reading if you didn’t know that already because I don’t want you here). When he comes across Ernie’s Rubber Duckie, he gets an idea. Ernie, facing a similar dilemma, stumbles across one of Bert’s prize paperclips and decides to get him a cigar box to keep his paperclip collection safe. Going to Mr. Hooper’s store, Ernie finds he doesn’t have enough money for the box, and offers Mr. Hooper (Will Lee) his Rubbier Duckie as a trade. As Ernie leaves, Bert enters with a similar offer: he wants to trade his paperclip collection for a soap dish where Ernie can keep Rubber Duckie. Mr. Hooper takes both deals, even though Bert and Ernie are both clearly distraught over surrendering their prized possessions.

When Kermit’s investigation proves fruitless, Big Bird and Patty recruit Mr. Snuffleupagus (Jerry Nelson) to try to test out a method for squeezing into a chimney. Snuffy, unfortunately, gets stuck. Outside, as Bob (Bob McGrath) and Mr. Hooper exchange holiday pleasantries, Oscar groans and launches into his own seasonal anthem: “I Hate Christmas.”

Bert and Ernie exchange gifts, and both are stunned to realize they’ve been given a gift intended specifically to compliment the very item they have sacrificed. Neither wants to confess to the other that his gift is now useless, and before either of them have to, there’s a knock at the door. Mr. Hooper is there with gifts for the boys – Ernie’s Rubber Duckie and Bert’s paperclips. Bert and Ernie are overjoyed at having their treasures back, but sadly say they haven’t a gift to give Mr. Hooper. The kind old man smiles and tells them they’ve already given him the best gift ever: the chance to see everyone get what they want for Christmas.

When the snow begins to fall that evening, Big Bird sends Patty home. As she leaves she tells him not to worry, she’s certain Santa will come, even if they don’t know how he’ll do it. Left alone, Big Bird decides to go to the roof and wait for him. Patty later turns up at Gordon and Susan’s apartment (Roscoe Orman and Loretta Long, respectively) to tell them she went back to Big Bird’s nest and he’s gone. Everyone on Sesame Street begins searching for him, while on the roof Big Bird watches them, wondering what all the fuss is about. With the temperature dropping and everyone worrying Maria (Sonia Manzano) confronts Oscar over upsetting Big Bird in the first place. Guilty, Oscar sets out to find him. On the roof, away from his safe, warm nest, Big Bird falls asleep, unaware of the figure that has joined him there. When he wakes up he sees nothing, not even footprints, and decides to go downstairs and warm up. He meets Gordon and Patty on the stairs, and Gordon refuses to let him go back outside. In Gordon and Susan’s apartment, he finds a beautiful Christmas tree and stockings loaded with presents for everyone – Santa must have passed while he slept. Gordon explains to Big Bird that it isn’t important to explain a miracle; the important thing is that they’re all together again. Oscar turns up and tells Big Bird he’s glad he’s back… but the Grouch can’t resist one last dig. “How do you think the Easter Bunny can hide all those eggs in one night?”

Thoughts: Jim Henson and company return, although this time he’s joined by some of the other great “J”s of his era – Jon Stone, the writer responsible for so many of the greatest Sesame Street moments of your youth; Jerry Nelson, who gave us the Count and Mr. Snuffleupagus (a word which, somehow, is not in my spellcheck); producer Joan Ganz Cooney, the woman who conceived of using entertaining television to educate children in what would become the Sesame Street style. Henson and his Muppets were integral to the success of this show, but he sure didn’t do it alone. Regardless, as fantastic as each of those creators are, the true magic of Christmas Eve on Sesame Street isn’t brought to you by the letter J, but rather by C and S: Carroll Spinney, the Muppeteer responsible for both Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch.

Unlike the regular daily episodes of the show, this prime time special didn’t have any of the cutaway educational segments, didn’t include lessons on counting or spelling… instead, the Children’s Television Workshop used the opportunity to teach a moral lesson or three. And like they did in all their finest moments, they did so without preaching, presenting the lesson in a way that would be easy for children to accept, understand, and internalize.

The A-plot of this special belongs to Oscar and Big Bird in a way that shows off their relationship for what it is: an older sibling (Oscar) who enjoys picking on the younger (Big Bird), but still feels guilty and tries to set things right when confronted with the consequences of his actions. Anyone who has a brother or sister can probably relate – it’s crafted in a very realistic, natural and believable way. Spinney plays their relationship with Oscar’s edge and Big Bird’s unrelenting sweetness clashing at every turn, allowing the kids to worry along with Big Bird until the obvious conclusion is reached at the end. Spinney is a master performer, and I only wish I could have been there to watch him rushing back and forth between the two characters as the camera cut away. Dude must have been exhausted.

The story reveals a depth of character I don’t think is obvious when you’re a child watching these specials. It’s telling to me that only Maria, out of all the adults on Sesame Street, is able to convince Oscar to go out and look for Big Bird and fix what he did wrong. That’s not an accident – Maria and Oscar have a surprisingly complex relationship, in which Maria plays both mother and big sister to the Muppets. It’s one of the few moments in Sesame Street history where I remember seeing one of the human characters get genuinely, justifiably angry, and Sonia Manzano pulls it off wonderfully. Oscar comes across as the problem child who reacts to a stern but loving hand when gentleness fails. (I also maintain that Oscar – at least in my formative years of watching Sesame Street – was written to harbor a forever-unspoken crush on Maria, but that’s neither here nor there.)

The B-plot, featuring Bert, Ernie, and Mr. Hooper, is surprisingly only the second story in our countdown to play with the “Gift of the Magi,” although this is a much more straightforward retelling than Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas. Bert and Ernie fill the roles nicely, with writer Jon Stone playing on their legendary friendship and slightly childlike outlook to create a story where you can naturally accept them sacrificing for one another. Seeing Mr. Hooper step in to save the day is a lovely moment, and one that still touches the heart all these years after actor Will Lee’s death. (A rare non-Christmas tangent: if you’ve never seen the Sesame Street episode where Big Bird learns that Mr. Hooper has died, watch it on YouTube. And if it doesn’t make you cry, stop reading my blog forever and go back to your day job strangling baby owls and selling their feathers to stuff pillows for Neo-Nazis.) Although this story was once copied almost as often as A Christmas Carol, it’s fallen a bit by the wayside in recent years. That may be a good thing. A child seeing this special now wouldn’t necessarily see the ending coming, and the message of the piece will more likely remain intact.

One thing I didn’t mention much in my synopsis of the episode are the musical numbers peppered throughout. In truth, most of these do little (or nothing) to advance the plot, so they didn’t really belong there, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t memorable in and of themselves. Bob McGrath and Linda Bove (playing Bob and Linda, respectively) lead the children of the cast in the haunting “Keep Christmas With You (All Through the Year),” and the whole cast joins in for “True Blue Miracle,” another one of those songs that has transcended the special that birthed it and become something you may well hear on the radio or in a shopping mall. It’s nice to have some traditional music in there as well – Bert and Ernie’s duet of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” is lovely. Hardcore Muppet fans can probably hear just a bit of Frank and Jim’s friendship in the performance as well. And Oscar’s “I Hate Christmas” is just a joy whether you’re a true believer or an eternal humbug.

There are other moments that don’t actually contribute to either of the two main plots. Grover has a few scenes where he interviews children about Santa’s efforts to enter the chimney, similar to scenes in the regular episodes of the TV show. There’s a running gag about Cookie Monster trying to write a letter to Santa and eating his assorted writing implements as well. It’s a good bit, but there may be no moment of sheer comedy in the special as great as when he realizes the traditional Santa Claus exchange: when he leaves you a present, Gordon tells him, you should leave him a plate of cookies.

But as far as those moments that don’t go with the plot are concerned, the champion is the very first scene in the ice skating rink. As wonderful as the rest of the episode is, this opening scene is still bizarre, with ice skaters wearing full-size costumes of the Muppets skating on the ice. Seeing a six-foot Bert and Ernie or an adult-sized Count is just bizarre. And yes, I know they’ve been doing essentially the same thing with the Sesame Street Live shows for decades. I think it’s weird there, too.

This special won two Emmy awards, ironically beating out A Special Sesame Street Christmas, which aired in prime time on CBS. Both of these shows are now available on DVD, and a quick comparison makes it clear why Christmas Eve walked home with the awards. Out of the two, this special is far more special than Special.

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!

09
Dec
12

The Christmas Special Day 9: Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas (1977)

Emmett OtterDirector: Jim Henson

Writer: Jerry Juhl, based on the book by Russell & Lillian Hoban

Cast: Jerry Nelson, Frank Oz, Marilyn Sokol, Dave Goelz, Richard Hunt, Eren Ozker, Jim Henson

Plot: With three days to Christmas,Alice Otter (Marilyn Sokol) is having trouble getting together the money to give her son Emmet (Jerry Nelson) a happy holiday. Emmet sets his heart on a $40 guitar in a music store window, but their shopping afternoon is disrupted by the appearance of a group of rough animals calling themselves the Riverbottom Boys. As the Otters return home, Alice tries to discourage Emmet from getting too hopeful about Christmas, but the boy continues to dream about the days when his father was alive and money went farther. Alice is practically down to using her washtub as their only means of support, while Emmet uses his father’s tools to do odd jobs. Both Alice and Emmet learn the town’s upcoming Talent Competition has a grand prize of $50. Emmet’s friends form a jug band and ask him to borrow his mother’s washtub to make a bass, but Emmet refuses, knowing you can’t make a washtub base without putting a hole in the washtub. Alice is reluctant to enter either, knowing her only way of having a dress for the competition would be to hock her late husband’s tools. Later, as Emmet and Alice play on the frozen lake, they share memories of Pa Otter, and each becomes convinced that he would have made the sacrifice for the other’s sake. Alice wants to buy her son the guitar he admired, while Emmet wants to use his share of the prize money to put a down payment on a piano to replace the one she sold some time ago. Emmet makes his washtub bass, while Alice sells the tools and buys fabric for a dress.

As Emmet’s band practices, the Riverbottom Boys mock their efforts to win the talent contest. Their nerves are shaken even worse when they arrive at the contest to find the opening act is performing the same song they’ve rehearsed. They rush off to learn a new song, but the stage manager forces them back into the theater, afraid they’ll miss their cue. Alice performs “Our World” to a thunderous round of applause, and Emmet’s Jug Band follows up with “Brothers.” The competition is supposed to be over, but the Riverbottom Boys come on and perform a harsh, angry rock number, “Riverbottom Nightmare Band.” The Nightmare Band wins the competition, and the Otters are despondent. Outside they’re told the judges liked both of their acts, but felt like they were missing a little something extra. Alice realizes what their songs were missing was each other. She begins singing and the jug band joins in, resulting in a beautiful combination of the two pieces, “Brothers in Our World.” As they sing, the townspeople come out to listen. Doc Bullfrog, one of the judges, offers them a job performing at his restaurant – free meals included. As they walk home, Alice and the boys sing Pa Otter’s favorite song in his memory.

Thoughts: The great Jim Henson makes his first (but most assuredly not last) appearance in our countdown with this 1977 TV special, adapting a folksy little tale with a hint of O. Henry and a lot of Henson-style sweetness. Although Henson was a veteran puppeteer at this point, and Sesame Street had been on the air for eight years, this special still shows some of the marks of early work and low budgets. The establishing shot is very obviously a model, control rods and seams are often all too visible, and the car the Riverbottom Boys ride through town looks like a wind-up toy. Amazingly all of these things actually contribute to the charm of the special. It gives it a homey, old-fashioned feeling that suits the characters and the world Henson and company created.

The plot has an interesting dash of “Gift of the Magi” in it, but with a clever twist. Rather than trading their own possessions for gifts (which turn out to be useless, thanks to their partner doing the same thing), in this special both Otters trade something important to the other in the hopes of getting the money for a decent present. I’m not quite sure what the message here is… “If you take away your family’s only means of support, make sure you can use it to get them a musical instrument” seems like kind of a bizarre theme for the Christmas season. What makes it work, however, is how the movie uses the focus of the absent Pa Otter – Henson convinces us that both Otters are doing what they believe their late husband/father would do, which is what makes it not only acceptable, but admirable. It helps, I think, that they don’t actually accomplish their goal. Losing the contest makes for a slightly less sugary climax, and the way they get their happy ending anyway feels more natural, more emotionally honest.

Emmet and Alice themselves are sweet, old-fashioned characters. There’s a bit of saccharine to them, but just a bit – enough for the obnoxiously cynical among us to cling to in an attempt to deride this special, unfortunately. For the rest of us, the Otters are simply a hard-luck family in need of a break at Christmas.

The star of this special, I’d argue, isn’t any of the Otters or even Henson, but songwriter Paul Williams. Williams would go on to have a great history with Henson and the Muppets, and the songs he composed for this special (“There Ain’t No Hole in the Washtub,” and “Bar-B-Que,” for instance) have transcended Christmas and become folksy classics. There’s an interesting phenomenon when you rewatch the special, though… having heard the “Our World”/”Brothers” mashup at the end, when you listen to each song performed on its own it feels oddly incomplete. “Brothers” especially sounds like a backing track, with odd pauses and harmonic notes that don’t seem like a proper melody. It’s been far too long since I first saw the special to remember if I would have noticed such a thing upon first viewing, but it stands out to me now. Also amusing, to a Muppet fan like me at least, is “Riverbottom Nightmare Band,” which has some riffs and beats that seem to echo Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem in musical energy, if not in actual tone or message.

A few years ago, Williams wrote a few extra songs to expand the special into a full-length stage play, which ran for two Christmas seasons in Connecticut. Would that I could have seen that one – I’ll bet it was magnificent.

For those of you wondering if the inclusion of this special means you won’t be seeing any other Muppets in the countdown thanks to the “one-per-franchise” rule, the answer is heck no. Using the same logic that allows me to include multiple Rankin and Bass specials, I consider each “family” of Muppets a different franchise. Since this one doesn’t include any of the Muppet Show or Sesame Street Muppets, except Kermit in an intro that is no longer included on the DVD, I hereby declare this a standalone film. You’ll definitely see the Henson company 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!

30
Jul
12

2 in 1 Showcase at the Movies Episode 30: Silent House and a Cinematic Rundown

At the Movies Episode 30: Silent House and a Cinematic Rundown
by Blake M. Petit
This week, Blake takes a look at the new-to-DVD horror film Silent House, then takes the time to do quick reviews of several other recent films he’s watched in the last few months, from the sublime to the surreal to the surprised anyone would make such a thing. In the picks, he urges you all to rush out and get the hardcover collection of The Monolith. Contact us with comments, suggestions, or anything else at Showcase@CXPulp.com!

Music provided by Music Alley from Mevio.

At the Movies Episode 30: Silent House and a Cinematic Rundown

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