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What Makes 'Hugo', 'Arthur Christmas' and 'The Muppets' Truly Magical

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Nov 26, 2011 | 9:43am EST

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I’m sure plenty of you have noticed how these past few days have been unseasonably warm and sunny. Well, there’s a reason for that. No, I don’t mean depletion of the ozone layer. And no, I’m not talking about the approaching effects of Betelgeuse’s supernova (2012 is coming, people). What I’m actually referring to is this past Wednesday’s release of three movies with the power to warm hearts, inspire dreams, and (in one case especially) connect rainbows: Hugo, Arthur Christmas, and The Muppets.

It’s interesting that these three movies all released on the same date, but not surprising that it came at the start of the Christmas season—the annual equivalent of a whimsical love letter. In fact, it seems as though this joint release of these three films was a very carefully crafted statement about the people who might take to seeing any or all of them—and specifically, what they, or rather, we and our world today, have become: cynical.

Hugo, Arthur Christmas and The Muppets all have a good deal in common. They’re all family-friendly: enticing to children due to their imagery and magic, but often even more entertaining to the adults in the audience thanks to the complexity and value of their messages. Further on this thought, they all build from something we’re already familiar (and in love) with. Hugo is a celebration of the art of film itself. Arthur Christmas is, naturally, a proponent of Christmas, and all things related—believing in Santa, the spirit of giving, etc. And, finally, The Muppets. That’s about Muppets.

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But there is a fundamental difference that exists between each of these films, and one that’s none too hard to pinpoint: their media. Hugo’s story is delivered by live people. Arthur Christmas’ is done so by animated characters. And The Muppets’ is, primarily, by puppets (I’m including Jack Black in that genus, by the way).

Now, it’s hard to define the exact effect this span of media has on the delivery of the message the three films embody. But at the very least, one can assume that a message delivered by this variety of film will reach a larger audience. Arthur Christmas will beckon all young children of today—I can’t imagine a dystopian future wherein kids have become disinterested in animated movies. Add Christmas into the mix, and you’ve got a winner. The Muppets is appealing on its own, topped with encouragement by younger parents for their kids to enjoy the same characters that they themselves did in childhood. Plus, there were a healthy sum of us childless twenty-somethings camped out in the theater. And Hugo: a movie that is, despite its ostensible appeal to kids, really written for adults. Kids with broad enough attention spans can find entertainment in the dazzling imagery, but the sophistication of the story is unmistakably mature. So, parents of older children, and non-parents alike, will find themselves in the presence of Hugo this season.

If you think about it, it’s actually a brilliant plan. Connect with as many audiences as possible, while not extending the bounds of a genre that is capable of fostering the message of whimsy and idealism. Of course, each media has its own unique way of approaching this message. Animation’s is the most fluid: the entire world on screen is itself a dream. There are no restrictions in an animated world—whimsy can attack you as early as the opening titles.

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Live-action is an overly less “magical” medium; we’re watching real people interact instead of caricatured Christmas elves. However, Martin Scorsese builds a magical world in Hugo, exciting us with a dazzling cinematography constructed around the inner-walls of the Parisian train station that is Hugo Cabret’s home. Where animated might be more whimsical on the surface, live action has it a bit easier in the department of authentic emotion. Now, I’m not going to say I don’t cry every single time I watch The Lion King, Toy Stories 1 through 3, or that episode of Futurama about Fry’s dog, but there is often an additional complexity to the emotional substance afforded by the contributions of a real life actor—especially when the actors we’re dealing with are as talented as Asa Butterfield and Ben Kingsley.

And finally, puppetry. It is one of the least-traversed media in this day and age—that mere fact emanates a sense of dreamy nostalgia when we’re graced with a cast of smiling felt characters on screen (in a very full theater, no less). The Muppets, as with the film and television manifestations of Jim Henson’s characters in the past, cements its magic with humor. The silliest, purest, most classic humor imaginable. We are adorned with sight gags, wordplay and self-referential humor none too dissimilar from that in the original Muppet Movie from 1979. The movie isn’t just a celebration of the dreamy days of yore, it feels like it’s actually a product of them.

Each of these three films has a simple but potent theme: times have changed, but that doesn’t mean we can’t hold onto the glory of our younger days. In fact, the message is timeless. Hugo compares the early career of George Méliès, turn-of-the-20th-century French filmmaker, to his later days, after he had given up on the fruition of his dreams. Arthur Christmas places the tech-heavy, impersonal present against the Christmases that Grandsanta (Bill Nighy) oversaw a hundred years ago. And The Muppets examines the differences in the cynical, jaded zeitgeist of today to that of its dreamy, fun-loving 1970s/‘80s counterpart, when the Muppets were universally adored.

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Really, it’s not about the passage of time in the world—it’s about the passage of time within each of its audience members. The movies are about growing up, but still wishing to hold onto the magic of which we were comprised as children. The movies are about believing in ourselves, our friends and our dreams—a factor that somehow gets extinguished from our conscious as we age.

Although they couldn’t look any more dissimilar from one another, the movies all celebrate the same theme. They use a mystical imagery, a charming, old-fashioned type of humor and the creation of whole new, magical worlds to do so. They all build on what we know, instilling within something of which we need to be reminded. Each of these films, individually, does a great service to the important ideology of holding onto the magic. And whoever decided to release them all together has done a phenomenal job of making sure this message really hits home, with everyone and anyone, this holiday season.

It doesn’t matter what you cherish and believe in. For a live action George Méliès in Hugo, it’s the majesty that is cinema. For the animated title character in Arthur Christmas, it’s the spirit and magic of the holiday season. And for the bobbly felt stars of The Muppets, it’s the sharing of pure, good-natured, unadulterated joy. But when today’s audiences, young and old, are graced with these films, it is simply that universal message that gets delivered. There is something magical in each of us, and we are meant to hold onto that—for, that’s when really glorious things happen. So, whether it rings most true to you coming from Ben Kingsley, an animated Santa, or Kermit the Frog, it’s a message for all of us: the lovers, the dreamers, and me.

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