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December 19, 2016

From Page to Screen: Mr. Willowby’s Christmas Tree

Filed under: Commentary,Feature — Tags: , , — ToughPigs Staff @ 12:35 pm

Joe Hennes: It’s Christmas week, so it’s time we talk about that evergreen (lol) holiday special that, much like a NASCAR collision, is impossible to unsee: Mr. Willowby’s Christmas Tree.

(Not commercially available, so we feel okay with letting you know it’s on YouTube.)

Anthony Strand: When we were bouncing around ideas for articles a couple of weeks ago, I was mostly kidding when I suggested comparing Robert Barry’s original 1963 book to the TV special. Because if Muppet fans think about Mr. Willowby’s Christmas Tree at all, it’s as a punchline – a famously terrible thing from the dark days after Jim Henson died.

But man, the story deserves a better fate than that, because it turns out the book is incredibly charming.

Joe: First of all, I was shocked that this piece of garbage was actually based on a book.  That’s like when you find out that Christmas classic Die Hard was a novel first.  And I’d never pass up an opportunity to write about one of these famously terrible Muppet projects. As we all know, reviews about bad productions are always more fun to write (and, I hope, read) than the good ones.

And man, Mr. Willowby is one of the worst.  Robert Downey Jr. is deep into his drug addiction, Leslie Neilsen phones in his performance, and Stockard Channing goes through at least twelve different accents.

Anthony: Honestly, I’d say it’s the only bad performance I’ve ever ever seen Stockard Channing give.

Joe: Plus, there are unmemorable songs, a pointless Kermit the Frog cameo, and some super saccharine puppet characters that cause more eye-rolling than Christmas cheer.  Basically, it’s all the worst stuff the Henson Company could slap together, and the resulting mess is inescapably mesmerizing.  Honestly, I’m not even mad.  I’m impressed.

Anthony: Yep, it’s the worst, all right. But not everyone is impressed by the badness. My wife loves the Muppets (including a lot of their weaker efforts), and she refuses to rewatch this one.

Joe: Rightfully so.  She’s way better off without Willowby (or his damn tree) in her life.

Anthony: So let’s start with the fact that the book has the same basic plot as the special. In the book, rich person Mr. Willowby gets a giant Christmas that’s too big for his living room, so he chops off the top and gives it to his maid, Miss Adelaide. She chops off the top and gives it to the gardener, and so on, with pieces going to bears, foxes, bunnies, and finally a mouse family. The set-up is the same, but the execution couldn’t possibly be more different.

Joe: I can definitely see what the Hensons saw in the book.  It’s pretty much a string of cutesy animals passing along a Christmas tree, allowing for some cool-looking puppets, a catchy repeating song, and some big-name celebrity to play the eccentric one-percenter.

Anthony: Right, and the bones for a good short are here. One of the most memorable/awful things about the special is Mr. Willowby’s use of big, often made-up words (“Where on earth on this most Christmassy of Christmases can my arboretum arbor vitae be?”). I was surprised to see that none of that comes from the book. The closest we get is “A magnificent tree! Splendid!,’ he cried.” And those are all regular English words. That was my first sign that the book was going to be more fun than I expected.

Joe: When I first found out this thing was based on a book, I really thought that would explain Robert Downey Jr.’s butchering of the English language.  But no, I guess that was all writer Mitchell Kriegman’s fault.

Anthony: Oh yeah, the creator of Bear in the Big Blue House (and Clarissa Explains It All)! I forgot he wrote this special. His other shows about people talking to the camera were much, much better.

Joe: I especially like it when Clarissa told her audience what they smell like.  In any case, this story, as you say, would’ve fared better as a shorter piece, but I think that of all the changes, they could’ve gone nuts and made it longer.  Keep that tree going from animal to animal, show off some puppets, go full Emmet Otter.

But instead, we got a manufactured (and abbreviated) love story between the butler and the maid, some creepy bears fluctuating in their cave (when they should be hibernating), and more time wasting while we wait for the inevitable tree stub to make it into the mouse house.

Anthony: Honestly, I think the biggest problem is that they decided to make the mouse family’s quest into a throughline. In the book, the mice don’t show up until the end, so they’re just a cute capper to the story of the tree getting smaller and smaller – mice, the natural endpoint for all things tiny.

Joe: How great would it be if they kept going after the mice?  A pine needle falls off and goes to the ant home.  A particle floats away and into the home of the protozoa household.  An atom scrapes off, only to be found by a family of electrons.

Anthony: That would be adorable! But the special cuts back to the mice every three minutes so they can say some inane junk about how every boring scene was “so Christmassy!” It isn’t funny or clever, and it just makes the entire special seem repetitive (and twice as long as it actually is).

Joe: In the book, the tree is the real star.  Which sounds ridiculous, but man, it’s totally true.  It’s the titular tree!  And that’s another problem with the special: They assumed that Mr. Willowby is the star because his name is before “tree”, so they pumped up his role (and those of his faithful servants), while actually writing the mice as the stars, and then forgetting that the voyage of the tree is way more important than any of those chumps.

Anthony: So they take the mice on the voyage with the tree, which just isn’t necessary at all.

Another huge advantage the book has over the special is that all of the animals can talk. One of the most excruciating scenes in the special is the long silent instrumental number where an owl plays the harp. In the book, we have instead a great scene where a bunny makes a tree stand out of a carrot.

Joe: It still bothers me that the owl didn’t eat those mice.

Anthony: Ha! Another bad scene in the special is when the bears (who can talk) do their “traditional honeypot dance,” which is similarly endless. In the book, the bears just talk about decorating their cave for Christmas, and it’s cute.

The Muppets are great at making memorable characters, so it’s baffling that they nixed these fun bits in favor of boring scenes where nothing happens. It’s right there in the source material! All they had to do was keep it!

Joe: That’s true!  Let me tell you, it took me all of four minutes to read the Mr. Willowby book, so there’s no reason anything had to be cut.  Instead, they just swapped some cute and clever moments for the Muppet equivalent to Ambien.

Anthony: They should have just had faith in the structure of the book and crafted each scene into a fun vignette. That could even include Willowby and his staff. Keep the humans if you want to. But write it like a sketch show. Every few minutes could have been a chance to introduce a new idea or joke or song. You know, Muppet stuff.

Joe: I kinda like Muppet stuff!  Kinda!

Okay, so we know all about the many, many missed opportunities they had with the animals in the special.  So let’s take a closer look at the most memorable, yet horribly disastrous part: The humans.  In the book, Mr. Willowby is more of a Thurston Howell type.  Older, with a killer mustache, and likely has an Uncle Scrooge-type money vault in case he ever gets the urge to take a quick dip in his gold coin pool.

Anthony: He looks kind of like Rich Uncle Pennybags from Monopoly, so yeah, I can get on board with that.

Joe: So obviously, Robert Downey Jr. was miscast.  Who do you think would’ve made for a better Willowby?

Anthony: Do you know Eddie Bracken? He was Roy Wally in Vacation and the toy store owner in Home Alone 2. I think he would have been perfect as a warm-hearted but eccentric old man.

Joe: If he wasn’t so horrible in this special, I would’ve said Leslie Neilsen might’ve been great.  So, maybe Dick Van Dyke?  He probably does great mustache.

Anthony: Good call. He’s more famous than mine too.

The other thing about the humans is that in the book, Baxter and Miss Adelaide are just generic help. We know nothing about them other than than that they’re a butler and a maid. I understand the impulse to flesh them out, but I don’t understand why we get this weird subplot about Swedish Christmas traditions.

Joe: Did they need the special to be more educational?  If so, why couldn’t it have been about fractions? Or the food chain? (Humans hunt bears, which kill wolves, who eat rabbits, who overstay their welcome when houseguests of owls, which never respond to the texts of mice…)  Either of those would be more natural lessons than about how Swedes come close to setting their homes on fire by lighting a thousand candles in their bedrooms.

Anthony: You’re right. But really, anything would have been better than what we get.

Joe: Is there anything you think the special did better than the book?

Anthony: Well, it has Kermit the Frog in it. It’s always nice to see that guy.

But other than that, I think the book is better in every way. I read it to my two-year-old daughter a few times in the past couple of weeks, and she loved it. She got excited at every new animal, and she loved watching the tree get smaller and smaller. I can imagine reading the book to her every year. On the other hand, I can’t imagine submitting her to the special ever for any reason.

Joe: Well, you’re a good dad.

I admit, I get a lot of pleasure out of the train wreck of the special.  The book is really charming, but it’s far from a classic.  The special shot the moon and is like a junkyard fire that I can’t look away from.  Especially the Robert Downey Jr. stuff.  I can’t believe that guy became Iron Man.

Anthony: You’re right that I’m definitely overrating the book. It isn’t history’s #1 best Christmas tale. It’s not even the best children’s book of 1963 (Where the Wild Things Are, obviously!) But the special is *so* bad that I was astounded when I enjoyed the book. It’s like if The Room or Plan 9 From Outer Space had been based on a solid, engaging novel.

Joe: I guess I’ll take “pretty decent children’s book” over “most embarrassing moment of Stockard Channing’s career” any day.

Anthony: So would Stockard Channing, I bet!

Click here to take a hatchet to the Perfect Tree on the ToughPigs forum!

by Joe Hennes and Anthony Strand

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