The Nexus of Pop-Culture Fandom

The Playroom from Hell: Dissecting The Christmas Toy

Written by: Sal Crivelli, Special to CC2K

Image It’s Christmas time again, and you know what that means! It’s time to take out your tapes from childhood, blow the dust off, take out your old top-loader VCR and celebrate in the residual magic of yesteryear. My favorite Christmas special of all time, you ask? Well, since you asked so politely, I’ll let you in on a secret: it involves Muppets.

No, not the Muppets we’re all familiar with. No Fozzie or Rolf or even the original childhood diva Ms Piggy. I mean that lost, classic indictment of toy trends, the most macabre children’s TV special of all time (until Toy Story came and made it “innovative”): The Christmas Toy.

You don’t remember the exciting Christmas adventures of Rugby Tiger, Mew, Apple, and Balthazar? Of course not. Up until a few years ago, I only recalled shadows of this lost Hensonian classic. But there’s something special about this piece that gives it relevance in our Holiday Pop Lexicon. Let’s tell the story:

Imagine a world where all your toys came to life while you were out of the room. Try. I know it’ll be hard, because you’ve never been introduced to the idea before. I know, I referenced it earlier, but The Christmas Toy predates the Pixar pioneer by nearly a decade, clocking in at that magical time in our minds: 1986.

We meet “the gang” in the toy room quickly: Mew, a cat play toy, paralyzed by fear, Balthazar, an aged voice from the past in the form of a teddy bear, Apple, the heart of the group, embodied by a curly haired, far-less-demonic Raggedy Anne, and finally, the prized possession in this child’s arsenal of toys: Rugby the Tiger. Rugby was the new toy last year, and he lets everyone know it.

Right off the bat, we are taught the rules of this twisted world when a horrific clown toy named Ding-a-Ling is seen by one of the members of the house in the hallway. Having been seen by human eyes, Dingy becomes frozen for all time. Pretty heavy, huh Doc? In spite of this warning, Rugby and Mew (who is filled with catnip, by the way; looks like Rugby’s addicted to the ‘nip) go on a suicide mission to the living room on Christmas Eve to see what new object of affection they are going to be ultimately replaced by. This is spurred by Rugby’s wounded pride when the toys rally against his hubris, informing him that the child to whom they all belong is fickle, and one day he shall be replaced. Half crazy, the tiger doll and his heroin friend go into the Dead Zone to prove them wrong.

Eventually, they arrive at the tree (after a heart-pounding close-call) and make a horrific discovery: there is a big, beautiful box, wrapped in paper and bows, addressed to their master. Rugby tears the box open, and inside lies the dormant toy Metoria, frozen in what I assume is manufacturer hibernation sleep. She is a hard plastic, fully poseable (and completely mint!) action figure. Rugby shares his disgust with a worrisome Mew, who believes they’ve pushed their luck as far as it can go. Rugby defiantly opens the box, and Metoria springs to life! She flies about the room, spouting this long diatribe about her powers and infallible leadership; standard plastic dictatorship stuff. Now, with mere hours before Christmas, Rugby must figure out how to silence Metoria, get her back in the box, and learn a thing or two about humility.

I won’t spoil the entire story for you, but I’m sure you can figure it out from here. The Toy Story references here abound, but the one thing that I find particularly striking is Henson’s apparent admonishment of the phenomenon that was just beginning to gain obsession-status among our kind: action figures. When once there was a thing like imagination, encouraged by non-denominational stuffed animals, you now had ThunderCats, Transformers, and He-Man. These colorful plastic giants fought, slashed, and blasted a place for themselves in our hearts and minds, and our parents’ wallets.

The writer, Laura Phillips, seems to suggest that there can be peace between the toys we now call “plushies,” and the coveted action figures we vehemently distinguish from “dolls.” Understanding is the message of her story, and acceptance. But what does she know? The best thing she ever wrote was relegated to the dankest corners of the Internet, and her most famous claim-to-fame was her two-episode stint on Fraggle Rock.

There is something wonderful about The Christmas Toy, which is why it still exists as vividly in my own mind now, as ever before. Perhaps because there’s something inherently dark about this lost Henson tale that is a staple of Jim Henson’s best works. There is a lesson at the end, and we’re privy to a wondrous assortment of vibrant, rich characters. But we’re also introduced to consequence, a concept today’s ilk seems to lack in abundance. For that reason, perhaps it is a good idea to break out your Christmas Specials tape your mom made for you to shut you up.

It could be worse. The movie my mom put on to keep me busy? The Last Unicorn. But that’s a story for another time.