There are holiday movies, and then there are kids holiday movies. This one harkens back to 1986, a TV special from The Jim Henson Company that was rare enough that Annemarie assumed it didn’t exist outside of the original VHS recording, and it was only a random stroke of luck that the local public library had a copy of the DVD that apparently does exist.
Brooke, what were your thoughts on this Kraft-sponsored holiday extravaganza? Why do you think this made the list, and be honest, would you have rather watched the VHS tape from the original TV broadcast?
B: Before I dive into your questions, here is a bit of much-needed context for our dear readers. The Christmas Toy is basically a pre-cursor to Toy Story but with much less budget, or, as AM described it, “it’s much lower budge than I remember.” Here’s the gist: Rugby the Tiger (the current favorite Christmas toy of Jamie, the only human who gets any facetime to speak of), is SUPES excited for Christmas and decides he needs to go get in a box so Jamie can open him as a gift all over again.
Apple — a creeptastic, Chucky-esque, uncanny valley horror of a doll — is last year’s news. She was more or less discarded in favor of Rugby after being a favorite Christmas Toy herself the previous year, but she decides to try to warn Rugby that his plans will only get him frozen. In this world, toys that are seen by humans in places where they shouldn’t be are rendered “frozen forever,” which is to say inanimate and lifeless. So, the stakes are high. And the only toy brave enough to go after Rugby is Mew. Mew, a wee little catnip mouse on wheels who is dismissed by all of the other toys for being a lowly cat toy instead of a human toy, is the real hero of this story, and the favorite of everyone who watched with us, naturally.
Okay, that’s enough background. Now to the questions at hand.
My thoughts on this bit of sponsored content are this: stick to the plushies and burn the dolls and hard-plastic clowns in a fire. IMMEDIATELY. I almost missed the sentiment of the whole thing because I got the wiggins over those walking nightmares. Beyond that, this cobbled together tale did a hell of a lot of emoting for as “low budge” as it was, but I could have done without the songs. Oh, and it was dark as hell. I wasn’t alive when this came out, but on behalf of the kids who were traumatized, I’d like to say a hearty WTF to the folks at The Jim Henson Company and Kraft who decided this was a fun holiday tale.
I can say with a significant degree of confidence that this special was included for a couple of reasons. 1. This was a staple in the Moody household around the holidays and you know I love a good Moody family tradition. 2. You love to show me absolutely bonkers children’s programming that is always way more dark than you remember. 3. And most importantly, you knew how much I would love the vintage Kraft commercials. And based on that last remark (and my horror at hi-def dolls), yes, I would 10,000% have preferred to watch the VHS tape with an oft-viewed recording of the OG broadcast.
Okay, AM. Reveal the method to your madness. And tell us how this special holds up (or doesn’t) from your memories of it.
A: First of all, yes, this TV special was WAY more low “budg” than I remembered, but it had probably been 10ish years at least since I’d last seen it. You can see the hands in the puppets, and even though this special came out after the original Muppets movie and actually debuted the same year as Labyrinth, it’s very simple. That’s not really a bad thing, as they still get quite a bit of emoting out of the basic puppets, as you note. Rugby’s face moves quite a bit, and I’m actually really impressed at movement in the faces of “Barbie” (she’s unsanctioned by Mattel but is obviously the clotheshorse with the amazing dream home, hence BARBIE) Meteora.
Pause. You didn’t mention Meteroa yet, but she’s a key component of the plot as she’s this year’s New Christmas Toy for Jamie. Basically, she’s Buzz Lightyear, only with a sword. She has no idea she’s a toy and doesn’t really want to be in the box that Rugby longs to jump in.
Ok, back to the doll characteristics. Yes, Apple is supposed to be the sweet yet worldly doll that was Jamie’s favorite Christmas Toy until Rugby arrived. But I always found her rather annoying and OMG is her face terrifying. She truly is reminiscent of Chucky, not the least because she shares the same wild red curly hair. I never really cared for dolls in favor of stuffed animals, so I’m with Jamie on this one. Rugby is clearly the cozy, comforting one, but I still feel for her. Mew is far and away the best character and the hero we don’t deserve, and I particularly love how he has a crush on Meteora.
I’d also forgotten, besides the clear connection to Buzz Lightyear, how this film is a predecessor to Toy Story. This goes one step further with the insanely dark and disturbing idea that toys can literally die if they’re caught out of position. Plus, the idea that toys feel the pain of rejection when a child gets new toys has caused me to never ever want to give up a stuffed animal. Ever. (I was also a fan of board games and puzzles, but I somehow doubt there’s the same danger of them feeling neglect. It must be the face.)
However, because this is ostensibly a children’s movie, when the frozen toys are sung a song of love and friendship, the power of it is enough to wake them up! Whew. I am actually a fan of the songs, especially the “Old friends, new friends” ditty that brings Mew back to life. I remembered more of the words (to both the songs and the dialogue) than I knew were embedded in my brain.
While we didn’t watch the VHS, we did watch the OG Kraft commercials on YouTube. Thanks internet! The recipes and the “Celebrate the season with Kraft” jingle is probably a big reason I remembered and loved this special, as they’re a proto-Food Network cooking show or Tasty Facebook video, only ’80s style. Here’s my personal favorite segment, which contains several recipes that I would actually make and eat today:
There are of course more that involve mayonnaise and Cheez Whiz in places they probably don’t belong, but hey, it was the ’80s!
Brooke, what was your favorite recipe? Since we already went ahead and picked our favorite character (MEW FOR PRESIDENT), and you declared yourself not a fan of the songs, which of the background toy characters was your fave? On a scale of 1 to 10 (10 being the saddest thing you can think of), how tragic does the plot strike you?
B: Can I just note that you dropped a ton of spoilers in that analysis? I mean, this special is hella predictable, but what if our dear readers were actually inspired to watch it? But, I digress, my favorite recipe had to be that cheesy (or fake cheesy) Velveeta dip that lives in the bread bowl. 10/10 would eat with gusto. I would also eat the cheesecake and those potato things with the dollops of deliciousness.
However, it must be noted that I physically recoiled when the dip recipe that called for applesauce, cinnamon and pecans to be combined with Cheez Whiz was revealed. Cheez Whiz alone is just fine, as is seasoned applesauce. But those things DO NOT belong together. I repeat DO NOT belong together. And then the suggested dipper was just quarters of plain bagels? It’s well known that I love bagels dearly, I don’t want anything to do with a bagel that’s kicking it with cheesy applesauce. No, thank you.
As you know based on my commentary, I have a lot of opinions about the background characters. I’m relatively confident we only got a single shot of my absolute fave — the raccoon in the adventurer’s hat — and that is a tragedy. I’d also have liked a lot more screentime for the rolling phone with eyes because that communication device had some delightful puns.
Loss of innocence is absolutely a crying queue for me, so if you had polled me around the mid-point of this whole ordeal, I would probably have given it a 5 on the tragedy scale, but knowing how things shake out, I think most of the stakes we’re shown are rather false, so I’d put it back around a 3 by the time all is said and done. Now, if you take this idea and extend it to a Toy Story scenario or a Bing-Bong arc from Inside Out, I would be in absolute floods, but I guess the folks at Kraft didn’t want children weeping onto their unopened Velveeta singles when they dug into the host gift at the family gathering.
Alright, AM, which background character would you watch a spin-off of, and does seeing the deleted Kermit intro and outro make this piece feel more or less impressive? For me, seeing Kermit there sets up expectations of greatness, so I think it’s rather kinder to this low budg affair to leave him out. Also, how excited are you for me to make a retaliatory holiday special selection?
A: I would 100% watch a spin-off of the rocking horse, Belmont and the cab driver, Cruiser going on adventures around the world (or the living room) and perhaps noshing on various cheese-and-apple dips. In looking up the names of those characters (because while I have Rugby and Apple and Meteora and Mew’s names emblazoned on my memory forever, those side gang characters were lost), I discovered that The Christmas Toy was popular enough to warrant a REAL LIFE EPISODIC TV SHOW SPIN-OFF in 1994 entitled The Secret Life of Toys.
Now, I won’t make you watch it because I for once will stick to the Required Viewing rules, but I do want to note that Apple is replaced in the reincarnation by a much less creepy version of a rag doll named Raisin. You were likely not the only one who found Apple to be disturbingly close in appearance to Chucky. Poor Apple. She can’t catch a break. Rejected by Jamie as well as the programming team at the Disney Channel, which aired The Secret Life of Toys.
Kermit’s presence (with the amazing original voice work by Jim Henson) does ratchet up the quality and expectations factors, at the least because I greatly enjoyed Kermit struggling mightily to crawl up the chimney after he does his intro. And it’s fun to see him jump into the group song finale at the end. I don’t know why the DVD release would have stripped Kermit’s presence, as it provides a bit of narrative context, but perhaps the Kraft people (I’m assuming this is almost fully their creative vision) decided that Kermit made the rest of the puppets look too low budge? I was honestly a bit shocked it was available on DVD at all, never mind that it appears to have had enough popularity for a spin-off.
I await your forcing A Very Brady Christmas upon my eyes and ears, but I will warn you: I’ve seen nothing of any Brady Bunch movie, so will I even know what’s going on? As for my spoiler-y take, I feel like if you haven’t managed to catch The Christmas Toy in the last 31 years, you’ll just have to live with my spoils.
B: Wow, 1994 probably should have tried a little harder with its children’s programming. But, I am pleased that they made some adjustments for the longer run, namely, moving in a direction of more plushy toys and fewer creepy dolls. Of course, this means Meteora also bit the dust. Were the humans still in the new series? We’ll never know! I’m fine with there being some mystery left.
And before we wrap this up, a note about A Very Brady Christmas. That not-at-all-traumatic special is all about mix-ups and misunderstandings and Alicce always getting the short end of the stick. Just like every Brady thing. But it has NOTHING to do with the glorious 90s movies that we will get to someday. This one stems from the 70s tv series and is peopled by the OG cast. It’s entirely earnest and unironic and incredibly bad. Brace thyself.