Long before Toy Story, the Muppets were telling a similar story – here’s the tale of the Muppet Christmas tale that preceded Christmas Carol.

When nobody’s around, toys come to life. Everybody knows this. Now build on that starting point to imagine a more specific scene: one walking, talking toy – our hero, who is very much the child’s favourite but suffering from replacement anxiety – is talking to another, rather grandiose space-themed toy. The space toy can’t really get their little action-figure head around the big news that, in reality, they have not just landed on a strange alien planet but are actually a kid’s plaything.

Oh, and then these toys sing a song.

I’m describing a scene from 1986’s The Christmas Toy, a delightful TV special from The Jim Henson company. Until we got to the musical number, however, it very much could have been Toy Story.

Here’s the scene in question.

Unlike The Forgotten Toys, which Mark was discussing here just the other day, and which must have been in development and production at the same time as Pixar’s groundbreaking debut feature, director Eric Till and producer Jim Henson’s Christmas movie had the best part of decade to seep into the public consciousness before Toy Story rolled out.

I’m not accusing anybody of ripping anybody off. The notion that toys come to life when they’re left alone is very easy to come by, which is not entirely coincidental to why it’s so resonant. Even the notion of a well-loved, old-fashioned toy going nose-to-nose with a more modern-feeling space toy is the kind of imaginative leap that seems probable within the broader parameters of the concept.

And whether or not many of the ideas in Toy Story were totally brand-new or not is missing the point. Storytelling is about execution, the ‘telling’ as much as the ‘story’, and there’s no doubt that Pixar played an absolute blinder with its flagship series. Toy Story 2 in particular is a machine-tooled piece of story craft that entwines plot, character and theme through its genius cascade of cutting-edge images and sounds. But there’s something transcendentally magical that Pixar did not have, and has indeed never had in any of its productions.

And that’s Muppets.

Nothing feels more like a toy come to life than a Muppet because, to a great extent, that’s what a Muppet actually is. To see Rugby the Tiger, protagonist of The Christmas Toy, is to badly want to scoop him up and cuddle him. I’ve cuddled Kermit the frog and kissed both Kermit and Piggy and, well, I’m not saying I wouldn’t kiss Woody Pride or Rex, but until VR tech gets ratcheted up a notch, I might find it rather difficult.

The story of The Christmas Toy is simple, direct but authentically heart-tugging. Rugby the Tiger was given to young Jamie last Christmas, and was her favourite gift of the year. As Christmas approaches again, Rugby fears that the new Christmas toy will supplant him in Jamie’s affections, so he opens the box and switches places with Meteora, Queen of the Asteroids.

Unfortunately, this means young Jamie will find Rugby out of place, revealing the secret life of toys and dooming Rugby to the existentially dreadful fate of being frozen forever. The toys mount a rescue switcheroo, led by Apple, who was Jamie’s favourite before Rugby and who can understand exactly what he’s feeling.

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If I were to rattle off similarities to the Toy Story series we’d be here all day but here’s a few of the bigger ones: Rugby has a slightly ‘When She Loved Me’-style flashback, older bear Balthazar has a whiff of Lotso about him, there’s (almost inevitably) a Barbie-style fashion doll who is rather invested in her look.

There’s a terribly emotional scene in which Mew, a fantastic, slightly marginalised Muppet mouse cat-toy, is discovered out of place and… well, reader, I’m almost blind with tears right now just thinking about it. Mew’s special assistant on set was Steve Whitmire, later a very close personal friend of Kermit the Frog, and together, Whitmire and Mew make some real magic in this show.

And talking of Kermit, we’re blessed by a cameo in the opening and closing scenes. At the top, a figure in a Santa suit appears on the rooftops, clambers up onto a chimney stack and addresses the audience. “Oh, no, it is not whom you think it is,” he says, “it is I, Kermit the Frog.”

No offence to the mince pie-munching man in red, but this really is a significant trade up. Who actually appears in our lives every Christmas, spreading joy and warmth? The star of The Muppet Christmas Carol, of course.

Like Kermit’s cameo in Emmet Otter’s Jug Band Christmas, another superb and seasonal Muppet-powered TV special, this froggy intro has been deleted from the DVD release. Of all the things that Disney do to earn a place on my personal naughty list, denying us nice, integral releases of these Henson specials is pretty near the top of the pile.

Can you chill on the avalanche of Star Wars fan service for a second, Mickey, and please sort out your Muppet policies?

In the early 90s, years after The Christmas Toy aired but still before Toy Story was released, there was a spin-off series, The Secret Life of Toys. I recorded all of these onto VHS, but without the eight years of lead time, and thanks to there being 14 episodes, I’m not quite as familiar with them as I am Rugby’s debut adventure.

Lightly pre-empting Toy Story 4, the series saw Rugby and chums in a new playroom, belonging to two new kids. This time around, Mew’s best buddy was Nigel Plaskitt, brilliant British Muppeteer, close personal friend of Pipkins’ Hartley Hare and, lately, one of the powers behind indie puppet show, Monty and Co.

There’s no doubting the quality of either Pixar or The Jim Henson Company, and it’s wonderful that both of these collectives, when dealing with similar material, managed to make endlessly rewatchable classics, full of characters to cherish.

Chances are you might not have seen The Christmas Toy, however, so consider this my whole-hearted recommendation. Though good luck finding a fairly-priced DVD (it’s streaming on Prime Video as this piece is being published though).

So that’s The Forgotten Toys and now The Christmas Toy. Who is going to complete the hat trick with Disney and Theodore Thomas’ delightful stop-motion special from 1983, Where The Toys Come From? It’s another winner, and arguably the most eccentric and imaginative of the lot. I’ll lend you my DVD if you want…

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