I was excited, but also trepidatious, when I heard they were making a new Muppet movie. I love the first two movies, The Muppet Movie and The Great Muppet Caper — the former has been my answer to “What’s your favorite movie?” for a couple decades now, and the latter has the distinction of being perhaps the most worn-out VHS tape in my parents’ basement. Additionally, the Muppet Christmas Carol is still my favorite (and, if you ask me, the most true to the novel) version of A Christmas Carol, and I own all the (released) DVDs of The Muppet Show.
So, I have a reputation as “the guy who likes the Muppets” among family, friends and co-workers. Naturally, I was asked by essentially everyone who knows me whether I was excited about the new movie. I was, because I heard Jason Segel was writing it, and if you’ve seen the finale of his Forgetting Sarah Marshall, you know he gets the sense of humor that makes the Muppets so inherently funny and enduring.
I also heard that Bret McKenzie from Flight of the Conchords was writing the songs, which was another point in the movie’s favor. The Flight of the Conchords (and their excellent TV series) have a cartoonish “anything can and will happen” sensibility that has a lot in common with that of the Muppets.
I was excited, but with reservations. My skepticism was not due to the major names attached to the project, but rather a result of letdowns by the more recent post-Jim Henson era Muppets outings. Muppet Treasure Island wasn’t awful, but was forgettable, and had way too much of that effeminate kid singing. Muppets From Space was funnier, but got Gonzo’s personality completely wrong.
It seemed like each successive outing focused more and more on new characters introduced on Muppets Tonight, while the personalities of the foundational characters were allowed to drift farther and farther from what made them universal, identifiable and, most of all, funny.
Why was Gonzo suddenly a whiny sad-sack who looked like he raided Mr. Rogers’ wardrobe? Why was Fozzie no longer a comedian? They all live in a big house now? What happened to The Muppet Show? Or even Muppets Tonight? They are, at their core, supposed to be a troupe of performers, right?
The biggest thing The Muppets gets right is that the characters have all been restored to their Henson-era personalities and proclivities. Gonzo is once again a chicken loving, thrill-seeking performance artist who doesn’t give a damn what he “is”– he’s a Muppet, damn it. Fozzie is a needy cornball comedian. Miss Piggy is a drama queen and a singer. Kermit is the commitment-phobic ringleader with the singular ability to rally this collection of misfits together to put on a show.
The odd thing with the movie is, as this article states, it is essentially a work of fan fiction. The fan (Jason Segel) has inserted himself in a major “Mary Sue” role (with a Mary Sue Muppet brother to boot), making himself the catalyst for getting the old gang back together. The Muppets apparently could never have done it themselves, for reasons which are never explained.
Kermit and friends, at several points throughout the movie, reminisce about the old days and how long it’s been since they’ve all seen each other, seemingly ignoring everything that came “post-Henson,” like the 2005 Muppets Wizard of Oz, and 2002′s It’s a Very Merry Muppet Christmas Movie. Not that either of those are particularly great, but it’s still odd that this new film essentially positions itself as canon while sweeping those under the rug. It’s similar to the odd way that Brian Singer’s Superman Returns took place after the Christopher Reeves-starring Superman II, thus supplanting the story lines of the Reeves-era Superman III and IV with its own events. Why?
If you’re going to do that, why not just go for a full-on reboot? Why have characters reminisce about how great it was in the old days while simultaneously pretending the more recent days never happened? Rather than inserting yourself into and trying to “fix” the old version you loved as a kid, why not just make a new one? It’s like George Lucas’ neverending “upgrades” to the original Star Wars trilogy. When is enough enough? Can’t new generations be trusted to find the things we love about our pop-cultural touchstones without someone pointing them out and commenting on it the whole time?
I don’t know the answer, and don’t get me wrong: The Muppets is very good. It does its best to earn a place among the rightfully-vaunted Jim Henson era Muppets films. There are great songs and a lot of laugh out loud moments. It’s the out-and-out funniest Muppet show since The Great Muppet Caper.
I’d recommend it to anyone with any interest in seeing it. It’s very funny and well-done, especially if you’re a longtime Muppet fan. But it’s definitely been made with longtime Muppet fans in mind. It’s a celebration of the Muppets and a pat on the back to everyone who’s kept up with them over the years rather than just being its own, original Muppet story.
My hope is that now that they’ve done the throat-clearing “let’s bring the old gang back” film, they’ll get the same crew to continue to make more movies this funny and well done while the iron’s still warmed up, and that they will be able to forge ahead with new, original stories rather than continue to look back with longing at days gone by.