Before the Muppets received a glorious theatrical resurrection in 2011, the beloved felt characters were left to languish in the doldrums for a long time, featuring in below-par television movies and specials that tested the true patience of Muppet fans. A Muppets Christmas: Letters to Santa, an hour-long holiday special which aired on ABC in late 2008, is frankly tragic to watch. Watered down, flat and far too corny, the movie is a trembling step down from both The Muppet Christmas Carol and the unexpectedly enjoyable It’s a Very Merry Muppet Christmas. It has its moments, but the enterprise is aimed squarely at young kids, and fails to do much to keep anyone else interested. Gone is the wit and genuine heart of the early Muppet pictures, and in its place is syrupy, vanilla formula.

It’s Christmas Eve, and the Muppet troupe – including Kermit (Whitmire), Miss Piggy (Jacobson), Fozzie Bear (also Jacobson), Rizzo (Whitmire again) and Gonzo (Goelz) – are at the post office to finish their errands before jetting off to their respective holiday destinations. Gonzo gets a little too curious inside the post office, though, sparking outright mayhem, and he ends up forgetting to mail a handful of Santa letters. Determined to get them to the jolly fat man before it’s too late, Gonzo persuades the Muppet crew to travel to the North Pole and personally deliver the letters to Santa. Unsurprisingly, the journey is fraught with mishaps, the troupe get mixed up in an array of hijinks, they encounter a variety of B-list celebrities, and everyone learns the true meaning of Christmas. How trite and obvious can you get?

Kirk Thatcher was a smart choice to take charge of the production, as his first Muppet outing was the surprisingly strong It’s A Very Merry Muppet Christmas. Alas, the magic and charm of that special is unaccounted for here; this picture’s look reeks of its TV origins, with lifeless production design and drab photography. The location shots in New York City are impressive, but the interior sets and all the North Pole stuff makes the film look like a sitcom. The “kiddie” vibe pervading Letters to Santa is its worst sin. Yes, the Muppets is for kids, but they should not pander to kids. Muppet movies are often played with a degree of straightness to give the adults something to latch onto, but this special is full of winking gags and self-consciously funny moments, closer to Sesame Street than The Muppet Movie. Most of the performers (notoriously Nathan Lane) seem in on the joke and look to be enjoying themselves too much, which is exactly why the film doesn’t work. The Muppet performers are good enough here, but they seem positively lost with this disappointing script, left to deliver flat jokes for the sake of collecting a paycheque.

Catchy original songs are a staple of Muppet movies, but Letters to Santa hopelessly fails on this front. Despite the input of Muppet musical veteran Paul Williams, the songs here are mediocre at best, unbearably mushy at worst. Not to mention, the Muppets’ satiric legacy is lost here, and the movie lacks any type of moral conflict. Admittedly, Letters to Santa does pick up for its finale. The sentimentality is initially too much to bear, but things ultimately get better, reinforcing the Christmas spirit and providing a handful of nice moments. Although it still feels like a sitcom, it’s enjoyable enough, and may leave you with a nice fuzzy feeling inside. However, the special closes with an unnecessarily prolonged 10-minute end credit reel, beginning with outtakes before proceeding onto a music video, followed by more outtakes. Evidently the makers wanted to close the door with a smile, but to this extent is overkill. Save this stuff for the DVD extras, please.

All in all, it’s hard to walk away satisfied with A Muppets Christmas: Letters to Santa. Young kids may enjoy the film, but long-time Muppet fans will be bored and disillusioned. Even the roster of guest stars is disappointing; New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg is useless since kids won’t even know who he is (and international folks will be left in the dark), Uma Thurman gratingly overacts, Nathan Lane seems to have forgotten how to sell a joke, and the film fails to take advantage of Jane Krakowski’s comedic potential. The obnoxiously kid-friendly vibe of Letters to Santa cements it as an ardently worthless entry in the Muppet canon, and it’s impossible to recommend this one to Muppet fans, who will likely wind up heartbroken.

4.8/10