Tuesday, January 6, 2015

An appeal to Disney and The Henson Company

We spent this Christmas season blogging about Muppets holiday programming. Tonight is Twelth Night, so we bid farewell to Christmas with an appeal to the owners of the Muppets to release some other specials that are not currently available on dvd.  In fact, they've never been officially released domestically on home video in any format.

The ownership of the Muppets and the various Muppet specials, movies and series is complicated.  For example, Kermit and the other characters from The Muppet Show are owned by Disney, but the Jim Henson Company owns other characters, such as the fraggles.  Song rights are also preventing some specials from being released in their original form, without major edits.  There are unauthorized copies of these specials floating around and clips on the internet.  But it would be nice to see them officially released.  

The Great Santa Claus Switch features a great assortment of Muppet monsters and elves, with Art Carney playing both Santa and the villain Cosmo Scam.  It was hosted by Ed Sullivan and is considered an episode of Sullivan's classic variety show.

Art Carney as Santa Claus.
The Ed Sullivan Show is owned by SOFA Entertainment, which adds yet another wrinkle to why we haven't seen it released on home video.  But it's a very good Christmas special, you can see Henson trying out ideas that would be used in later Muppet productions.

Cosmo Scam (Art Carney again) plots with his monster minions.
John Denver And The Muppets:A Christmas Together is also unavailable due to music rights. This is covered in detail in an excellent post at Christmas TV History.

John Denver leads the Muppets in a performance of "Silent Night."
Mr. Willowby's Christmas Tree aired in 1995 and is an adaptation of a book by Robert Barry.  In addition to Muppets, it features a great cast of humans, with Robert Downey Jr., Stockard Channing and Leslie Nielsen in starring roles.

Mr. Willowby and friends.
Kermit the Frog (Steve Whitmire) hosts and narrates the special, which features both Mr. Willowby (Downey) and a family of mice seeking the perfect Christmas tree.  It's a short but nice story, with new Christmas songs.  Downey gets to sing here, something you don't see him do in recent films like Iron Man 3.  There are also some beautiful and intricate puppets created by the Henson Workshop, the owls are especially stunning.

We know it's unlikely that these specials will get a legitimate release.  But that's what they used to say about the 1960s Batman series. That show was produced by Fox, with characters owned by Warner Bros..  But Batman was finally released in 2014, so why not these rarely seen Muppet specials?  These shows are part of TV history as well as the legacy of one of our greatest performing artists, Jim Henson.  They deserve to be available to a wider audience.

J.A. & RigbyMel

Monday, January 5, 2015

Fraggle Rock: "The Bells of Fraggle Rock"

Premiered December 24, 1984

The fraggles are preparing for their annual holiday that takes place around the Winter Solstice.  They call it the "Festival of the Bells" and believe that by ringing bells and doing the dance of the Weebabeast, they can keep the Rock from slowing down & stopping thus allowing time to continue as usual.

Red (Karen Prell), Boober (Dave Goelz) and Mokey (Kathryn Mullen) with a portion of the Weebabeast costume.
In the land of the Silly Creatures, Doc (Gerry Parkes) and his dog Sprocket (Steve Whitmire) are excitedly getting ready for Christmas.  Doc decides that they will learn about other Winter Solstice traditions as a part of their celebration and brings home a pinata and other items.

Sprocket is ready for the holidays!
Everyone except Gobo (Jerry Nelson) is excited about the coming holiday.  Gobo isn't really feeling the holiday spirit, in fact, he's feeling like it's all a big waste of time.

Gobo is an unenthusiastic Weebabeast head.
He has found an old map that shows many ancient tunnels and doesn't see the Great Bell that is said to be located "at the heart of the Rock."  His friend Wembley (Steve Whitmire again) notices a bell shaped cavern near the center of the map and wonders if that might be the great bell.  

Wembley and Gobo check out the map.
A wise and mystical fraggle named Cantus (Jim Henson) arrives to kick off the festivities.

Cantus arrives.
Much to the dismay of Red and the other fraggles,  Gobo announces that he is going to go find and bring back the Great Bell.

He asks that the fraggles wait to ring their bells and celebrate until he returns and Wembley rashly promises that they will all wait for him.

Gobo makes a cold and lonely journey in search of the Great Bell.
. Cantus tries to dissuade Gobo from searching for the Great Bell, saying that there is no need and that the tunnels will soon be too cold for anyone to travel safely.   Gobo doesn't want to listen and sets off on his quest.  Cantus offers to go look for Gobo and bring him back.

Cantus talks to Gobo
Will Gobo be successful in his quest to find the Great Bell?   Will Sprocket ever break open the pinata? Will the Rock stop turning?    You'll have to watch to see!

RigbyMel says:

I am not sure that I saw "The Bells of Fraggle Rock" when it first aired, but I certainly remember watching and enjoying the Fraggle Rock program when it aired on HBO.    I probably did see this episode, but it would have been out of season and hence, it didn't make as big an impression on me the first time around.

Red, Mokey, Boober and Wembley trying to keep warm as the Rock slows down

 Gobo's quest to find the Great Bell reminds me of children who are beginning to have questions about Santa Claus.  Cantus acts as a parental figure (albeit a mystically comedic one)  and tries to explain that the idea behind the Great Bell is just as important -- perhaps MORE important  -- as any physical manifestation.   But Cantus is also wise enough to allow Gobo to discover the truth about the Great Bell and the real "heart of the rock" in his own way.

The seasonal themes continue with  a Christmas Carol-esque hint of spooky when Gobo returns to find that his friends seem to have been frozen in time.   Fortunately,  the freezing proves reversible when Gobo -- like Scrooge --  manages to find his holiday spirit.

Gobo discovers a frozen Wembley.
The Fraggles' story dovetails nicely with the interaction between Doc and Sprocket as they talk and learn (and teach viewers) about other Winter Solstice customs.

Doc explains how axial tilt creates the Winter Solstice.
As is typical in most episodes of Fraggle Rock, we also get a postcard from Gobo's Uncle Traveling Matt where he shares his perspectives on "Outer Space" and the "Silly Creatures"  (aka the viewers' everyday world) and more thoughts on different Solstice traditions.

Uncle Traveling Matt wonders why the "Silly Creatures" don't know about the Weebabeast.
Although there is obviously a message being shared through these interlocking stories,  the warmth and tolerance of the storytelling give the message real resonance.  It also serves as a good introduction to various winter holiday traditions for younger audiences.

RigbyMel's rating:

3 candy canes

J.A. Morris says:
I can't add much to what RigbyMel said, but I have to mention that I enjoyed the original songs, written by Phil Balsam and Steve Whitmire.  "There's A Promise" is very catchy and festive.  Another song, "Weeba Weeba" performed by the young fraggles as they practice the Weebabeast dance, is amusing.  It consists of nothing but the words "Weeba Weeba" shouted over an 80s synthesizer accompaniment.  Not very complicated, but it sounds like a song kids would sing and it's also a been stuck in my head since I watched "The Bells Of Fraggle Rock."

Wembley rings a bell at the festival.
Gobo's seasonal depression is something that adults and kids alike can relate to around the holidays.  His disillusionment with the festival also recalls Charlie Brown's attitude in A Charlie Brown Christmas.

This episode is available on DVD, in the season 3 set and on a standalone disc called A Merry Fraggle Holiday. It also streams on Amazon and iTunes.

"The Bells Of Fraggle Rock" is a good holiday episode that teaches a nice lesson about faith and also shows how different cultures celebrate Christmas and other Winter holidays.

Sprocket and Doc wish each other a Merry Christmas.

J.A. Morris' rating:

3 candy canes.