Anyone fortunate enough to see “The Muppets” over Thanksgiving break probably laughed and smiled a bit. Depending on personal levels of coolness and composure, they might have cried, too. The emotional roller coaster, though, might not be what Muppet adorers have been searching for.
Because this particular roller coaster resides in the theme park of ill fit substitutes. As someone with a prominent Muppet heritage, out of principle I would have liked a new adventure to embark upon — not the same adventures, collectively, I had already taken with the esteemed cast of characters. Seeing the film made me want to look back at this film’s historical context; how it fits into the timeline of Jim Henson’s work with the Muppets.
Jim Henson died before I was born, but thankfully that did not stop me from watching and enjoying nearly all films and shows his Muppets appeared in. “Muppets from Space,” one of many posthumous Muppet films, was my favorite movie for a long period of time — before being knocked out by “Gone With the Wind,” if that gives any indication of the caliber of films among which I consider it.
And everyone knows the “Star Wars” movies with “puppet Yoda” are far better than those with his CGI counterpart, for that sole reason. Looking back at his achievements, who knew that a puppeteer could garner such a monumental level of fame? Not only was his profession off-camera, but those he directed were not truly on-camera either. The thought is fairly surreal.
A common anecdote in my household growing up was how Jim Henson had gotten strep throat and actually died from the infection because he never got it treated. I’m guessing this true story was only told as a parental ploy to go to the doctor, but I remember admiring him for it in a way: He was so dedicated to his work that illness seemed inconsequential.
“The Muppet Christmas Carol,” “Muppet Treasure Island,” “The Muppets’ Wizard of Oz” and of course “Muppets from Space” were made by Disney after his death, but all were major successes. They stayed true to Henson’s classics as well as found a way to entertain modern audiences — and not just children.
In my older years, I’ve explored some of Henson’s lesser-known creations, like “The Dark Crystal” or “Labyrinth.” Many of these films, from which the typical Kermit and Fozzie Bear brand of Muppets are absent, contain darker content and more mature messages, or so I would like to think. His oeuvre was a great deal more eclectic and diverse than “Sesame Street,” “The Muppet Show” and “Fraggle Rock” episodes may have revealed, though those shows explored themes relatively deep, too, far beyond what their target audience would suggest.
It was probably the lack of this factor in “The Muppets” that was most off-putting. Its superficiality gained some momentum when Jack Black, Whoopie Goldberg and others showed up, but the blandness and meaninglessness of musical numbers had me raising more than a few eyebrows from the start. All but two members of the main characters’ community, “Small Town,” were white, giving off the idea that innocence and quaintness can only be associated with one type of person. Plus, the biggest social challenge faced was “Oh darn, my boyfriend’s kid brother is always hanging around,” which barely scratches the surface of self-identity issues Disney approached in the past with the Muppets, and I imagine Henson would have explored had he made this film.
Also, it astounded me how much the film’s creators loved to break the fourth wall. From Chris Cooper’s ironic muttering of “maniacal laugh” whenever his character, the villain Tex Richman, anticipated something particularly dastardly, to the verbal suggestion of rounding up the geographically scattered gang “in a montage,” I felt jolted: Is this a Muppet movie, or a movie about being in a Muppet movie?
Overall, I could not shake the powerful feeling that I wanted — needed — to re-watch the other films; that I should be anywhere but that theater, as long as it was where I could be watching “The Muppets Take Manhatten” or “The Great Muppet Caper.”
Films of this nature — ones that revisit something old and beloved, like remakes, prequels, adaptations of books, etc. — are generally best judged by how often audience members get a warm, squirmy feeling inside, or just lose it. Funnily enough, Kermit’s rendition of “The Rainbow Connection” didn’t do it for me in “The Muppets” like it has in the past. It was actually an altogether new character, Walter, who brought on the tears. Akin to Dumbledore’s death, circa “Half Blood Prince” midnight showing, I was crying all through his big number: an oddball puppet whistling below a star-strewn ceiling of the Muppet Theater.
This film was more of a farce of a Muppet movie than an actual Muppet movie. It was clearly meant to be a tribute, but it really only touched on many aspects of the Muppets’ past; it did not become engrossed in Muppet lore; it did not enhance Muppet culture.
The Muppets are not just puppets, they are an entire population made up of completely unique individuals. One of them continues to tell jokes no matter how many tomatoes are thrown his way. Yet another is an alien, but didn’t know it for more than 30 years of life. And several have had to cope with being green all this time; and goodness knows that’s not easy. Perhaps the best way to honor Jim Henson and his Muppets is not to see this movie, but rather revisit the films he actually made in the comfort of one’s home. It’s just a tribute, after all, and, like many tribute bands, it’s not quite on par with the real thing.