Year Released: 1986
Distributor: HIT Entertainment/Lionsgate/The Jim Henson Company
Running Time: 50 minutes
Rating/Recommended Audience: G
Related Films/Series: The Secret Life of Toys
For Fans Of: Toy Story, Babes In Toyland, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Sesame Street, Fraggle Rock, The Muppets, The Snowman
-The version I watched was on Google Play. The DVD version omits the Kermit cameo due to Disney owning the rights to The Muppets. However, the streaming version features said cameo in the intro and outro.
-Warning! Major spoilers will be mentioned in this review. Reader be warned.
-The Christmas Story was directed by British born-Canada based filmmaker Eric Till. He has directed It Shouldn’t Happen to a Vet, Shocktrauma, and was a regular collaborator with Jim Henson with Fraggle Rock and A Muppet Christmas. Till is also a winner of of the Director’s Guild of Canada Lifetime Achievement Award.
-Jim Henson (he is only a producer for this film) started out making coffee commercials and experimental films before making an entire empire with his puppet projects. After Henson died in 1990, he was able to get two stars as himself and with Kermit the Frog on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. He is only one of three people in history so far to get a star for themselves and a character they played. Want to know who the other two are? Mel Blanc (Bugs Bunny) and Mike Myers (Shrek).
-A then 6-year-old Zachary Bennett played the son Jesse in The Christmas Toy. He continued to act in various movies and TV shows as well as being the lead singer/guitarist of the Toronto-based indie rock/alt-country band Tin Star Orphans.
-The composer is Jeff Moss who is another Henson collaborator. He’s a 14-time Emmy Award winner and has done several things for Sesame Street. Cookie Monster? Moss created him! You know the songs “I Love Trash” or “Rubber Duckie”? He wrote those songs and the latter even peaked at #16 on the Billboard Hot 100 Charts back in September of 1970. Want to know what songs it outranked during that time? “Sex Machine” by James Brown, “It’s a Shame” by The Spinners, and “Hi-De-Ho” by Blood Sweat & Tears. Yes, a Sesame Street song got more airplay that time than those popular songs.
-The Christmas Toy was an original TV movie that got played on ABC in America and ITV in the UK.
-Hilarious in Hindsight: The robot toy Bleep talks about “input”. He certainly isn’t the only robot to use that word in the 80s (the other is Jonny-5). During the ending scene where Mew the mouse toy sees a new female mouse toy, he introduces himself to her and she replies “I’m Mew Two!”. The Pokemon jokes write themselves here. Seriously, that’s one of the most unintentionally funniest lines I’ve heard since “Next time, we’ll be better prepared!” from one of the diamond smugglers in an episode of Kimba the White Lion.
-The main character Rugby Tiger is voiced by Jim Henson regular Dave Goelz. He’s best known as the puppeteer and voice actor of Dr. Honeydew and even more so as main Muppet Gonzo to this day.
-Controversy Alert: Did you know that there have been accusations against Pixar when it comes to this 80s movie? It’s not like there would be another film that features toys that come to life when humans aren’t looking, go on rescue missions, presents being major plot points, or these toy characters having moments of existential crises. Oh, wait. That would be a little CGI animated franchise called Toy Story! I would strongly recommend DBMoviesBlog’s post on the matter. I didn’t even know about this plagiarism controversy until I saw her article.
It’s been over three years since I’ve reviewed puppet/marionette movies. The first and at the time only one I covered was the Scandanavian/British film Strings. That also has a record for being the first Western animated work I reviewed ever on this blog. If we’re going to talk about puppetry in movies, then I guess it’s about as good a time as any to actually cover something from the legendary puppeteer Jim Henson. Okay, I would’ve never guessed I would actually review one of his works EVER, but I’ve been known to review obscure works featuring popular directors or at the very least movies with famous actors in them. Jim Henson wasn’t someone I was some super fan of, but I guess I respect him more than like him. I’d be a fool and liar to deny seeing his work during my childhood years. Sesame Street is certainly a given and I’ve seen various iterations of The Muppets growing up. I’ve seen some of the movies of the latter (Muppet Treasure Island and Muppets Take Manhattan as well as the early 10s Muppet movie), some Muppet Show reruns, and when I was little…I had a Muppet Babies VHS with a couple of episodes on it. There was a ubiquity and Henson’s works have been an influence on so many people whether direct or indirect. Since it’s getting closer to the Christmas season, I might as well cover one of his TV specials. Much like The Snowman, I get to review something related to the Winter as well as providing more critiques of family-friendly entertainment (and that OTHER reason I’ll get to later).
The Christmas Toy takes place inside a cozy suburban home during Christmas Eve night leading up to December 25th. There’s a family with children anxiously awaiting for Christmas to happen. When the children are away from the playroom in the house, their toys come to life when no one is looking. Since none of the humans are playing with them, the toys get an excuse to play with each other as they mention in the opening song. One toy that wants all of the attention is Rugby Tiger. He has the distinction of being the celebrated Christmas Toy because he was last year’s present for the kids and got to be the favorite. The toys find out that it’s Christmas Eve which is a cause for major celebration since on the next morning, there will be new toys in their community. At the same time there is concern that some of the toys could be replaced. One of the reasons why the toys become sentient only when the humans don’t see them is because they run the risk of being frozen forever. Rugby wants to retain his title of being the favorite by re-wrapping himself for Christmas morning, so he escapes the playroom. He’s dangerously oblivious to the fact he can freeze like one of the other toys that did. The family cat’s toy Mew (a textile mouse toy that smells like catnip) gets out to accompany Rugby despite being made fun of for being a feline toy as opposed to a “people toy” who are held in higher-esteem. The rest of the toys notice Rugby’s absence as they fear for his safety and go on a big rescue mission in the house to save them. Things become more troublesome as some of the family walk around the house and Rugby finds a new toy that would succeed him for being the Christmas Toy as well as being the potential new favorite.
A movie like this isn’t something I would go out of my way to watch if anyone knows anything about my tastes or at least what I’ve reviewed in the past. Let’s get an obvious fact out of the way. The puppetry is great. Since it’s a Jim Henson work, we know there’s going to be effort with the puppet building, lip-synching, character designs, and movement. While the puppets aren’t as extravagant or as iconic as anything from The Muppets, Sesame Street, or even Fraggle Rock, they can certainly stand on there own. There’s a diverse set of toys which range from the traditional plush works, plastic toys, mechanical ones, and other types of designs. The action figure based ones were interesting since even their mouths moved which I didn’t expect. I do have to give some props with the subtlety of Bathazar’s character design of being a worn-out teddy bear with broken seams and visible elements of stuffing coming out of him. The set design is minimal since all the action happens in the house, but it was well done as it looks like a real house instead of some random set in some studio space. That is a nice contrast to their more fantastic works with the more grounded approach to the backgrounds. It was really fascinating seeing the scenes with Rugby and Mew escaping from some folding doors through some creative movement. The live-action elements with the children, parents, or cat coming in felt very natural and edited well. I was also surprised about the themes shown in this film and how it got dark at points. When the clown Ditz freezes as he is caught by the mom, the other toys act like they just saw a murder and even use a firetruck toy as a hearse of sorts to put him away. It shows a very real fear with the toys. There are aspects of existential crises mainly with Rugby’s ego. He thinks he’s invincible to being frozen due to his speed and bravery, but he has a very deep-seated fear of being replaced as the favorite of the children. Conversely, you have Apple the doll who was the Christmas Toy a year prior to Rugby coming to the house who was heartbroken when she was “replaced” and while she wasn’t completely over it, she warns that what happened to her will happen to the tiger toy. There’s elements of toy classism with Mew being treated like some third-class citizen in the toy community just because a cat plays with him and they were offended by his catnip scent. Rugby constantly makes fun of him even though Mew is able to pull off major feats despite being lower in the toy caste system. That was great writing and I liked the development between those two as they have a greater bond with each other. Doing some more research, I found out that Jim Henson was depressed while making this movie as Fraggle Rock ended. Not only that, but he got a ton of the cast to be in this movie. He even stepped back by only having producer duties as opposed to directing. That gives The Christmas Toy a whole other dynamic that re-contextualizes the tone and the writing. It’s a shame that Henson died in 1990 when he was only fifty-three years old due to a severe viral infection. I may not be the biggest fan, but he deserved better.
This gets even sadder when Jim Henson wouldn’t get credit for his lesser-known TV movie when a famous animated franchise stole several elements.
Strike three, Pixar! YOU’RE OUT!
I was certainly ticked when I discovered Above Then Beyond and Cortex Academy, but this puts the issues with Up and Inside Out respectively to shame. When I saw The Christmas Toy, I instantly saw the parallels between this and Toy Story which came out after Jim Henson died. To be fair, the concept of living toys isn’t a new thing when you have Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reigndeer or Babes In Toyland to name a few, but how this plays out is nearly identical. You have toys pretending not to be sentient when a human walks in the room, a rescue mission to save their fellow toys, a plot point about toys being replaced is a key element here, and even some of the characters are alike. DBMovies did a great job with the character comparisons, so I don’t want to steal her thunder, but I’m going to cover the notable ones. Rugby and Woody have similarities. Sure, the former is a tiger and the latter is a cowboy, but notice how they have the same orange/white/black color scheme, have ego issues, were the favorite toys in the family, and they try to get rid of the brand new toy. There’s a Bo Peep character in both movies as well as toy telephones. Lotso is basically a villainous version of Balthazar since both are aging teddy bears who act as elder figures that are in charge on an area for the children with the Toy Story character being in charge of a Kindergarten rooms while the character from The Christmas Toy is the head bear in charge of the playroom. Notice how both of them sport canes with them. The most insane example involves the existence of Meteora the Queen of the Asteroids (there’s a Linkin Park joke in there somewhere with her name). I’ve been seeing other reviewers noticing this, so I’m not crazy when I say this uncomfortable truth…Buzz Lightyear is the male Meteora ripoff! Let’s talk about the similarities here. Both of them are sci-fi action figures, have flight as one of their powers, have self-important personalities, robotic arch-nemeses, actually believe they aren’t toys at first, want to talk to whoever’s the leader around, space-themed names, and the kicker is that both characters believe they’re on an alien planet! Buzz’s character development is basically like Meteora’s but only in slow-motion. Seriously, Google Meteora Queen of the Asteroids, and I DARE you not to find a post that doesn’t mention Buzz. That is ridiculous! The only other ripoff character I can think of where I pointed out this many similarities is Scar from The Lion King (Look! Both of them are 90s Disney properties!). That’s definitely not a good thing especially when I’ve called out so many obvious parallels with the biggest clone of an anime villain (nay, character!) as I’ve mentioned with his predecessor Claw in my Kimba the White Lion review, Jungle Emperor Leo: Hon-O-Ji review and my Top 7 Underrated Anime Villains list.
Now, I will be just and mention that there are noticeable differences which I won’t ignore. The Christmas Toy only takes place in the house while the Toy Story movies take place across multiple locations in and out of town in the different movies. All the characters in this puppet film are fully original while Pixar mixed original characters with real-life trademarked toys such as Mr. Potato Head, the Barbies, Slinky Dog, etc. The Bo Beep character in Henson and Till’s work is far more narcissistic with a running gag about her caring a ton about her clothes and vast wardrobe as opposed to the more humble Toy Story counterpart (although it makes me wonder if Ken got his ego from the first Bo Beep). Christmas does play a tiny role in Toy Story (more on that later) while it’s the huge basis for this movie, obviously. One can certainly argue about some similarities between Mew/Slinky Dog (loyalty to the main protagonist) or Belmont/Rex (constant catastrophizing worrywarts), but I think those examples could at least stand on their own besides each character being a different animal of course. There’s also no issues in The Christmas Toy involving greedy toy collectors or troublemaking boys who make experiments with random toys as well as being too young to deal with firecrackers, so I’ll give Pixar credit here.
Since this is a review that involves a film plagiarism controversy, you can probably guess what the next part of this post is going to look like ever since I reviewed Kimba the White Lion back in 2017. There is no way the Toy Story franchise would’ve ever existed without The Christmas Toy because there are too many similarities which are quite specific. You mean to tell me NO ONE at Pixar watched this movie? Come on, this was on a free TV channel with ABC and Jim Henson was involved, so this wasn’t some obscure creator with little known attention or someone who was famous in their home country like Osamu Tezuka. Speaking of Tezuka, both him and Henson have died five years prior to their works being ripped off when Disney and Pixar made The Lion King and Toy Story respectively which I find to be eerie. There’s a rescue mission to save the toys as a major plot point. You have the startling similarities to the space-based toys Meteora and Buzz Lightyear respectively. The plot element and character development aspects of being replaced as the favorite toy. When it got to Apple’s backstory of her being replaced by Rugby, there’s a song playing during that scene. If anyone at Pixar claimed not to watch The Christmas Toy when they came up with Jessie’s backstory/musical moment in Toy Story 2, then they’re filthy liars. Both movies have a key song that involve friendship in the lyrical content with “Old Friends, New Friends” compared to “You’ve Got a Friend In Me”. Remember that “Christmas” element at the end of the first Toy Story movie? What happened during that scene? Mr. Potato Head gets a girlfriend/wife Mrs. Potato Head of course! It’s not like there’s a part of the ending during Christmas morning where one of the male toys gets himself a significant other. OH, WAIT! Mew gets a girlfriend mouse Mew Two! Pixar, you didn’t even try with the ending of that first movie. This is so shameless and I’m furious that Pixar never owned up to taking characters, plot points, and themes from this movie. If you call Shark Tale a Finding Nemo ripoff, then what does that make the Toy Story series? You know if Dreamworks, Blue Sky, or Illumination were in Pixar’s shoes, then you would consistently rip them apart for being unoriginal. But because it’s a Disney subsidiary, they can do no wrong in these zealots’ eyes! Look, I know I’ve been really hard on the Disney corporation in several posts and have been open about being a spurned ex-fan. The thing is that no one else is taking Mickey Mouse to task with all the bad things they’ve done. Sure, I have no power to change this or other situations, but I’m sickened with all the things they get away with that no other studio would ever get away with either. All I can think about are those past moments when people bullied me for liking “ripoff” stuff like La Dispute (they’re NOT a mewithoutYou clone and I like mwY!) for example or just crapping over my tastes in music, movies, or anime. If I knew then what I know now, then I would’ve shamed a ton of Disney fans by bringing up the flaws of all their franchises as well as the plagiarism and other problematic things associated with that company. I had to own up to the shortcomings I’ve done, and so should they! Why do Disney fans excuse everything they’ve done? Does separating the “art” from the artists mean that much? I wonder if these stans would excuse any heinous crimes if one of the creators did some wicked sh—
Okay, I need to stop this rant before my head flies to the exosphere. Plagiarism controversies always grind my gears. Can’t people be original for once? There’s only so much ranting I can do when it comes to a family-friendly movies even though I’ve covered several films with far more morbid subject matter.
Here’s the part of the review where I have to talk about the negatives of The Christmas Toy. Not everything is merry and bright if one forgives the lame pun. The music was fine most of the time, but parts feel dated like the obviously 80s electric piano effects and I was not a fan of the song the puppets sing to Meteora. They were trying to go for more of a jazzy showtunes kind of vibe, but I wasn’t feeling the voices or musicality of the piece. Since this is a Jim Henson work with music, the singing certainly won’t be impressing the ghost of Aretha Franklin anytime soon, but sometimes the vocals felt too pitchy for me. I wasn’t a fan of Apple’s voice. I get she was trying to sound like a little girl, but was shrill like some ultra moe anime characters or a poor man’s Sesame Street character. Going further into some voice acting issues, I had umbrage with the Cruise character. He’s a taxi cab driver with his own car that helps out with the rescue mission and he happens to have a very melanated look. Unfortunately, he had a phony “Black-cent” which got cringeworthy to me especially since I could easily tell this was a white guy voicing him. Come on, Jim Henson Company. You’re a more racially progressive company than Disney, and I know you know better. I thought the worldbuilding was inconsistent. The concept of a toy being frozen (dead) if a human sees them out of place or moving around when they shouldn’t. I liked the darker aspect of toys having some kind of mortality, but wouldn’t the humans still be able to use the toys if they don’t move anyway? Going further into the flaws of that worldbuilding, the movie literally pulls off TWO revival scenes of characters being frozen. Yes, it involves a “power of friendship” moment to make it happen. It’s a shame because the song tied into that event is actually good (props to Dave Goelz nailing that sadness as Rugby during the first verse and chorus), but it does reverse some of the low-key depressing aspects of The Christmas Toy. I’m not a fan of revivals since they are rarely done right. While it’s not as egregious as let’s say the Z-Fighters only using the dragon balls to bring people back to life in DBZ, but this was still cheesy that it happened. When the one character comes back to life, they way they describe it was like waking up out of some comatose state. So is being frozen like being in a coma instead of death? That’s not what it seemed like earlier in the movie. I’m sorry, but that plot inconsistency bothered me.
The Christmas Toy is a sound movie for families even though it’s not something I would’ve actively sought out. The puppetry is great which is to be expected from the Jim Henson Company. The story was certainly serviceable here. Sadly enough, this movie could get a reputation of being “the movie Toy Story stole from” and nothing more if people discover it (the Meteora/Buzz Lightyear comparisons and some plot elements REALLY don’t help). However, not all of the musical elements worked and it doesn’t go all the way with some of the darker elements. The Christmas Toy may be overlooked from one of the most famous puppeteer’s catalog, but it’s still worth mentioning controversy or not.
Adjustable Point System:
Add 1-2 points if you’re a huge Jim Henson fan.
Add 1 point if you like innocuous Christmas movies.
Subtract 1-2 points if you like your animated movies to be edgier.
Subtract 2-4 points if you’re a die-hard Toy Story/Pixar fan.
-Excellent puppetry and art design
-Original elements with the toys
-Dark themes are handled tastefully
-Some of the songs and singing didn’t work
-Dated music score at times
-The haphazard handling of the toys freezing plot point
Final Score: 6/10 points
Content Warning: If TV ratings existed in the 80s, I think The Christmas Toy would get a TV-G or even a TV-Y. This is safe for all ages. The toys freezing aspect does get dark, but the characters who get frozen “come back to life” later on. Any violence there would barely count as slapstick although Meteora has mentioned that others have died defying her. One, that is offscreen and two, she doesn’t think she’s a toy, but an intergalactic being (Once again, Meteora is the original female Buzz!). The toys mention that they can’t feel pain whenever they get into situations where a human would be hurt. Take that what you will.
All photos property of their respective owners and used under US “Fair Use” laws. The Christmas Toy is property of HIT, Lionsgate, and the Jim Henson Company. The DVD cover is from Amazon and is property of HIT, Lionsgate, and the Jim Henson Company.