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Extended Thoughts on ‘The Muppets’

The Muppets

Directed by James Bobin

Written by Jason Segel and Nicholas Stoller

What is so special about Kermit the Frog? What is about Kermit, Fozzie Bear, Miss Piggy, the Great Gonzo, and others that make us treasure them so dearly, so closely? I don’t ask because I don’t get it–just a couple of days ago, I bought myself a Kermit the Frog plush. Why? Well…you know…I mean…HE’S KERMIT THE FROG. That’s why. These characters, who aren’t exactly one-dimensional, despite not being nearly as complex as we might perceive, are part of many people’s childhoods. They were part of mine, certainly. Even though I grew up years after The Muppet Show stopped airing first-run episodes, I could go back and watch the best moments on VHS, as well as the Muppet movies. The nostalgia I hold for Kermit and friends is immense, even though there was a long stretch where I just let myself forget about them.

Make no mistake: The Muppets, the characters’ triumphant return to the big screen is nostalgia writ large. The plot of the film, appropriately self-aware, is that the majority of people in the world forgot about the Muppets, not because they sold out or made bad movies or TV shows. No, we just forgot about the Muppets because we were distracted. Are the Muppets still relevant? Can they ever become relevant again? Are we too “hard and cynical,” as a snappish TV executive played by Rashida Jones says, to welcome them back into our hearts? Of course, the answer is “Yes, if you let them back in.” Some people have reacted harshly to the movie, and while some of their complaints are valid–this belongs to that category of movies I would dub “Movies I Love, Despite Being Imperfect”–I also read their reviews as being unable to accept what the Muppets have always been.

If, for example, you lash out at the movie, written by Jason Segel and Nicholas Stoller, having a lot of meta humor that comments on the Muppets being in a story, I fear that you have not seen a Muppet movie before. Even in their weaker efforts, such as The Muppet Christmas Carol, there’s meta humor. Gonzo plays Charles Dickens and is literally facing the audience, for goodness’ sake. Sometimes, if you’re criticizing something that is part of a character’s identity, an identity you used to enjoy, the problem isn’t with the character. It’s with you. This is not, by the way, meant to be me saying The Muppets is flawless, because it’s not.

Instead of having Kermit, Miss Piggy, and friends be the lead characters, this is an ensemble piece of sorts. I say “of sorts,” because the first 20 to 25 minutes of this movie is pretty much all about Gary (Segel), his longtime girlfriend Mary (Amy Adams), and Walter, Gary’s brother who inexplicably is a Muppet. Gary and Walter are huge Muppets fans, but when Gary takes Mary and Walter to Los Angeles to visit the Muppets Studios, they’re disappointed to see the facilities in disrepair because no one seems to care much about the characters anymore. Walter happens to overhear that something worse is about to happen: an oil tycoon named Tex Richman (Chris Cooper) is set to take over ownership of the studio and the Muppet name in one week due to a loophole in Kermit’s standard Rich and Famous contract. Unless the Muppets come up with $10 million in a week, they lose everything. It’s up to Gary, Mary, and Walter to find the old Muppet gang for a no-holds-barred telethon where they’ll hopefully be able to maintain control of the Muppet name and studio.

While Segel and Adams are fine–Adams has less to do but is infinitely more charming simply because she’s Amy Adams–but once Walter meets Kermit the Frog and they all head off to get the rest of the Muppet crew, their storyline is pushed to the sidelines, and for good reason. When you have a character as inexplicably charismatic as Kermit the Frog on screen, why would you want to focus on human characters? Cooper gets a pass, not only for being a suitably diabolical villain, but for being an extremely game performer. His musical number is a rap, and while I don’t want to say anything else, it’s an all-or-nothing sequence that the actor gives his most to. Still, the marquee stars here are the titular Muppets; I get why Segel and Stoller wanted to introduce the Muppets in a somewhat different way from previous films in the franchise (though it’s similar to how Kermit meets the other Muppets in The Muppet Movie), but there’s a clear imbalance between how much the good human characters have to do in the first 30 minutes versus the last hour.

These are not the thoughts I was thinking when I walked out of The Muppets. All I was doing was smiling. I felt happy. It’s not that I don’t feel happy in general, but it’s rare that movies make me feel as happy as this one did. Is it perfect? No. Do I care? No. When a movie makes you feel as good as The Muppets does, does anything else matter? The movies have a number of purposes for existing. Some are meant to show us worlds we’ve never even imagined before. Some are meant to educate us. Some are meant to inspire us. And some are meant to make us feel good. How often do we see that adjective? “The feel-good movie of the summer”? How often do movies actually make us feel that good, or as good as the filmmakers want us to feel? So why carp on a movie that’s not perfect if it works so damn well at making me happy to be alive, happy to spend 20 bucks on a movie that could easily have been a massive failure, happy to see Jason Segel and company pull off the impossible?

So what is it about The Muppets that made me so happy? First of all, as I mentioned above, this movie could’ve sucked, and sucked hard. Reviving items of childhood nostalgia is fraught with peril, and we’ve seen the cinematic corpses littered around the pop-culture landscape. Sure, it made money, but how many of us who grew up with the Indiana Jones of the 1980s wants to acknowledge the very existence of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull? Yes, they’re massively successful with children, but again, are you a legitimate fan of the Star Wars prequels? If anything, the Muppets have an even wider appeal than Darth Vader or Indiana Jones do, so this was an undertaking that could’ve failed very quickly and very obviously. There’s no question that Jason Segel is a massively obsessed Muppets fan, but who’s to say that being a fan of something can equal making a good version of that thing? I don’t doubt, for example, that David Koepp is a fan of the Indiana Jones trilogy from the 1980s, but his script for the new movie wasn’t anything the majority of fans would call faithful or fitting. Being a fan means nothing once you’re working to create something new.

But even though The Muppets is an essentially nostalgic piece of fan fiction–as most newer versions of older properties are these days, mind you–it’s a successful film. At no point does it feel like Segel and Stoller are doing a disservice to the Muppets. At no point does it feel like what’s happening on screen is something out of place with the ethos and spirit exemplified by the late Jim Henson or the other Muppeteers who’ve either passed away or retired. (Or, in the case of Frank Oz, are too grouchy to accept a new guard of Muppet filmmaking.) The Muppets is funny, heartwarming, sweet, and subversive as The Muppet Show or the related movies ever were. It’s enormously relieving, frankly, to see that one property from our collective youth hasn’t been tampered with to an inexorable degree.

The anarchic yet welcoming spirit is on display not only with the new characters or the message of the story–that talent knows no bound and should be accepted no matter what form it arrives in–but in the music. You can’t talk about the Muppets without talking about the music they perform. As the always-astute critic and scholar Jason Mittell (@jmittell) pointed out to me today on Twitter, “The Muppet Movie has one of the greatest songbooks of any film musical.” Now, I haven’t discussed The Muppet Movie for Mousterpiece Cinema yet. I will at some point in the future, of course, but Mr. Mittell is absolutely right. The music in that film not only does a great job of explaining in perfectly witty and syncopated lyrics what the characters want, but it also introduces or expands upon those characters in subtle yet profound ways.

The score and songs for The Muppets is maybe not that successful–few movies are, to be fair–but they’re catchy, sometimes moving, and fitting within the greater Muppets songbook. Most of the songs were written by Bret McKenzie of the comedy duo Flight of the Conchords. From the upbeat opener “Life’s A Happy Song” to the disco-infused “Me Party,” all the way to the film’s high point, written not by McKenzie but by a group of songwriters who are apparently responsible for the majority of Hannah Montana songs, “Pictures in My Head,” the soundtrack for the film is bouncy, toe-tapping and moving in unexpected ways. One of the more potentialy dangerous moments in the film comes at the end of the telethon the Muppets are holding at the last minute (hosted by a kidnapped Jack Black, in an inspired gag). Kermit and Miss Piggy begin their big duet: “The Rainbow Connection.” Talk about a moment that could’ve caused groans among the audience, but instead conjures up tears. By ending the song with every Muppet singing the chorus, Segel, Stoller and director James Bobin are only able to reaffirm the idea that the Muppets’ sensibility hasn’t gone away, it was just taking some time off.

I mentioned up top the idea that some people maybe aren’t willing to accept the 21st century update of the Muppet characters. I don’t mean to put thoughts in people’s minds, but I wonder how much of that can be chalked up to the fact that these are not the original Muppets. Sure, it’s still Kermit and Piggy, but it’s not Jim Henson and Frank Oz. Having grown up with the option of two different Kermits (The Muppet Christmas Carol opened when I was 8), I’m inured to the notion that Kermit’s voice can be as fluid and changing as that of Mickey Mouse. Were children and adults as frustrated by the change in the latter’s voice when Walt Disney chose to stop performing as Mickey in the 1940s? I can appreciate the pushback some people have when it comes to Kermit’s voice being different, but I’ve let it go. I can either ignore the idea that a character’s iconography goes beyond the original performer or I can embrace it. I’ve chosen the latter.

Having said that, I don’t want to pretend that every new voice of an old character works well. Eric Jacobson, who performs as Miss Piggy and Fozzie Bear, does a pretty solid job as the former but is far too inconsistent as the latter. If Jacobson is new at the character, it would make sense, but I fear that he’s practiced enough at it and just can’t keep it as solid as he’d like (or as solid as I’d like).

But I didn’t care. I really didn’t. We go to the movies all the time, and while I wish they would always succeed at their aims, it doesn’t happen. Some movies succeed because they’re ambitious, some succeed because they’re crowd-pleasing, and some succeed because they’re life-affirming. It’s all-too-rare that a movie can be all three of those. But, that’s The Muppets: a movie that will make you happy if you’re a kid, a young adult, or a senior citizen; a movie that confirms the idea that Jim Henson’s spirit is very much alive; and a movie that swings for the fences. As I said on the show, if you like being happy, The Muppets is for you. If you don’t like being happy, I’m concerned for you.

– Josh Spiegel