A made for television special presented by NBC, It’s a Very Merry Muppet Christmas is precisely the type of Muppet fix that any long-time fan should adore. Harkening back to the classic Muppet spirit, the film is snarky and sweet, and it’s loaded with pop culture spoofing and surprise celebrity cameos reminiscent of the bygone TV show. Heck, it’s even set in the old Muppet Theater, and the inimitable Statler and Waldorf show up to heckle from the balcony once more. Despite the lack of Henson family members in the crew, It’s a Very Merry Muppet Christmas is a hugely satisfying effort; not an instant classic, but an enjoyable modern Yuletide fare which can be enjoyed by kids and adults alike.
It’s a Very Merry Muppet Christmas is a Muppet adaptation of the 1946 Frank Capra classic It’s a Wonderful Life. The film opens on Christmas Eve, and Kermit the Frog (Whitmire) is at the end of his rope. Up in heaven, an accountant named Daniel (Arquette) notices Kermit’s plight and pushes for the angels to help him. “The Boss” (Goldberg) agrees to review Kermit’s case, after which the film flashes back to the lead-up to Kermit’s Christmas Eve depression. The Muppet Theater is being foreclosed on, and the mortgage holder – Rachel Bitterman (Cusack) – plans to knock the establishment down in order to build a contemporary nightclub. The Muppets have until Christmas Eve to pay their rent, or else they’ll lose the theatre. Unfortunately, a series of events lead to the crew failing their goal, which deeply affects Kermit. Soon, Daniel descends from heaven to raise Kermit’s spirits by showing him what the world would have been like if he was never born.
They say that when you steal, you should steal from the best. Scripters Tom Martin and Jim Lewis likely kept this adage in mind while writing It’s a Very Merry Muppet Christmas, choosing to use the plot of It’s a Wonderful Life as the basis for this Christmas special. Capra’s beloved classic provides a superlative narrative framework, giving the Muppets a chance to go on a proverbial pop culture rampage while also reinforcing a few heart-warming messages. And by golly, the pop culture spoofing is just like it used to be; funny, mean and even a tad risqué as the felt characters rip into Christmas traditions both old and new. Beyond the obvious It’s a Wonderful Life parody, targets here include Burt Ives’ snowman, A Christmas Story and The Grinch, not to mention the flick also parodies Fear Factor and A Beautiful Mind. The Muppets even take the piss out of Moulin Rouge by performing Moulin Scrooge, and Cirque Du Soleil here is entitled Cirque Du So Lame.
For a television movie, It’s a Very Merry Muppet Christmas is above-average. It was reportedly produced for an extravagant $20 million, and could almost pass as a theatrical feature with its attractive production values and big-name stars. The film was directed by Kirk Thatcher, a protégé of Jim Henson, and his efforts would no doubt have made his late master proud. The only downfall of the picture is its lack of genuine laugh-out-loud moments, and a few stretches of rocky pacing. It runs close to 100 minutes and feels it, and there are a few hit-and-miss scenes. One particularly egregious scene involves Fozzie being chased by a Steve Irwin wannabe. The shtick is painfully unfunny and downright awful; the scene should not have been done unless it featured the actual Crocodile Hunter. It’s hard to watch the scene nowadays, too, due to Irwin’s death. However, It’s a Very Merry Muppet Christmas has its great scenes too, such as Miss Piggy making a cameo on Scrubs and making a huge fuss on-set. Most of the actual Scrubs cast is seen here, including Zach Braff (J.D.), John C. McGinley (Dr. Cox) and Neil Flynn (The Janitor), which helps the scene to work so well. It’s also hilarious to witness what has become of the Muppets in the world where Kermit was never born.
The Muppets seem like their old selves here once again – their unmistakable original personalities seem intact, and all performances from the Muppet veterans are spot-on. Considering the direction that the Muppets took in the ’90s, this is the best compliment one can give this special. A few of the original Muppet performers are missing – most notably Frank Oz – but their successors are fine, and stay true to the characters. As for the roster of co-stars, Joan Cusack is in good form playing the over-the-top villain, while David Arquette is funny and charming as meek accountant Daniel. You’ll also find the likes of William H. Macy as a heaven worker, and Whoopi Goldberg as God. The guest stars don’t stop there: Mel Brooks voices a talking Snowman, Matthew Lillard shows up as a flamboyant choreographer, and Joe Rogan plays himself in a small cameo.
To be sure, there is nothing overly original or groundbreaking about It’s a Very Merry Muppet Christmas, and it doesn’t advance Muppet lore in any great fashion. However, this seems to be the point; it stays true to the Muppets and restores the gang to their old ways in an old-fashioned movie special carrying an easy-going vibe and a handful of laughs.