It was an idea that defied logic. After all, what puppets had made it on prime time other than ventriloquists and their knee-jerk reactionaries? And yet Jim Henson thought that his Muppets could make the transition for a 1-2-3 counting show for tots to the big time. I may be alone here, but I think that the Muppets variety show filled a silly comedy void that was left when the public finally tired of "Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In" in 1973. Instead of Judy Carne's "sock it to me" girl, we got a feisty Miss Piggy who would sock it to anyone who insulted her or tried to make time with the frog of her dreams, a fragile and enthusiastic little emcee who kept the show moving. Like "Laugh-In," "The Muppet Show" lasted five years. But then years after Henson's surprising early death the Muppeteers tried for a comeback. "Muppets Tonight" was supposed to be sitcom about a variety show, but the public never took to it. Audiences can be fickle.
Since then, The Muppets have fared better on TV specials and movies: "Cinderelmo" (1999), "Muppets from Space" (1999), "The Adventures of Elmo in Grouchland" (1999), "Kermit's Swamp Years" (2002), "It's a Very Merry Muppet Christmas Movie" (2002), "The Muppets' Wizard of Oz" (2005), "Elmo's Christmas Countdown" (2007), and most recently "A Muppets Christmas: Letters to Santa." If there's a pattern or a lesson to be learned, it's that the Muppet folks decided their main audience is still children, not adults . . . which was the goal of Henson's original "Muppet Show." These are all films and TV specials aimed at little ones but with enough winks at the parents who'll watch with them to keep adults from rolling their eyes in excruciating boredom. At least that seemed to be the plan. Often, though, the energy and wild "Laugh-In" style imaginative skits that made the Muppets popular in the first place turn up missing.
The good news is that for the most part we get a return to Muppet normalcy with "A Muppets Christmas: Letters to Santa." Once you get past the illogical premise of needing to hand-deliver letters to Santa that Gonzo forgot to mail, and once you've stopped shaking your head over a big production number at the U.S. Postal Service, the Muppets and their special guests make for a pleasant, 56-minute holiday diversion. Only the bit with New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg falls a little flat, as if the mayor had his own writers craft the scene. But Whoopi Goldberg is a delight as a taxi cab driver, Madison Pettis is appropriately darling as Claire (a neighbor girl whose letter Gonzo forgot to mail), Jane Krakowski seems underused as Claire's mom, Tony Sirico and "Sopranos" co-star Steve Schirippa play mobsters (as always), Nathan Lane hams it up (as always) as airport security guard Officer Meany, Uma Thurman adds a little "Joy" to the airline counter proceedings, Richard Griffiths plays Santa Clause, and long-time Muppet composer Paul Williams plays one of Santa's helpers. "Law & Order" fans will recognize Jesse L. Martin in the post office scene, and model Petra Nemcova turns up as the love object of Beaker.
They join Muppet regulars like Kermit the Frog, Miss Piggie, Fozzie Bear, Scooter, Dr. Bunsen Honeydew, Beaker, and the beak-nosed Gonzo, all of whom inexplicably journey directly to the North Pole to hand-deliver the missing letters. Lesser Muppets also appear, like the shrimp-like Pepe, Sam the Eagle, Rizzo the Rat, the Swedish Chef, Rowlf, Dr. Teeth, Bobo the Bear, Animal the drummer, and those balcony curmudgeons Statler and Waldorf. But the show belongs to the stars as they interact with humans. What elevates this Christmas special above "Elmo's Christmas Countdown" or "It's a Very Merry Muppet Christmas Movie" are the scenes in which the humans completely throw themselves into the sketch comedy or songs. The jokes themselves hit probably 70 percent of the time, and for Muppets that ain't bad.
Songs include "Santa Claus is Coming to Town," "We Wish You a Merry Christmas," "Delivering Christmas," "What's in Your Heart," "Deck the Halls," "I Wish I Could Be Santa Claus," "All My Dreams Came True," and "So Glad You're Mine."
"A Muppets Christmas: Letters to Santa" may seem a little episodic, but it's as close to the original energy and imagination of the original show as we've seen for awhile, and the best Christmas entry since "A Muppets Christmas Carol."
"A Muppets Christmas: Letters to Santa" is the first Muppet TV special to be filmed and broadcast in 1.78:1 widescreen, and it's "enhanced" on this DVD so that the picture stretches to fill out the entire 16x9 screen. Colors are bright and full of holiday cheer, black levels are strong (perhaps too much in some scenes), and the level of detail and edge delineation is really pretty good for a standard definition presentation.
The film is presented in Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround, in English only, and with English (CC) subtitles. It's not a rockin' soundtrack, but rather one which passes unnoticed. Nothing to get excited about, and nothing to get angry about. There's probably not as much rear-speaker action as there might have been, but those are my only complaints.
The only bonus feature listed are deleted scenes and a "Muppets Stocking Stuffer Smorgasbord." I couldn't find any deleted scenes. But the "Smorgasbord" is a screen of a fireplace and Christmas tree that you can click on items in order to access brief clips--10 in all, which run not more than a minute each on average. Kids will like the click-on feature, but why not 12 items, as in "The Twelve Days of Christmas"? A few trailers are also included, and this being Disney, the disc is set up for FastPlay.
The Muppets are back in near-top form this outing, buoyed by the energetic performances of their human special guest stars. It's easily the best Muppet Christmas special in years, and a worthy addition to families' growing holiday film collections. I'm not sure what makes this the "extended edition," though, because it was an hour-long TV special when it first aired in 2008 and it clocks in now at 56 minutes.