Joy and Rediscovering the Muppets
This weekend, we took our daughter to see The Muppets, her first time watching a movie in a theater. We chose the movie because we figured it would at least be tolerable for we parents in addition to being a guaranteed hit with our daughter. After all, how bad could a movie with a then-97% (now 98%) rating at Rotten Tomatoes fail to at least be tolerable for the parents, we thought.
Having now watched the movie after suffering through a full half-hour(!) of previews, one thing is clear: three percent (now two percent) of movie critics have no soul. It is a crying shame that movies with puppets are legally barred from consideration for the Best Picture Oscar, as it is difficult to imagine a movie prompting more pure joy than this one.
When this movie was first announced, there was a lot of concern that, written in large part by one of the comedic-actors-of-the-moment Jason Segal, the movie would mostly succeed only in doing to many of our childhood memories of Kermit & Co. what Star Wars: Episodes 1-3 did to our childhood memories of Skywalker & Co.
As it turns out, The Muppets succeeded in doing the opposite: it made The Wife and I feel like kids again in a way for which we were clearly not prepared (who knew that an assortment of felt fabric could inspire so many tears of joy)? Simultaneously, it made our daughter feel some very grownup emotions (genuine empathy for Kermit & Co. whenever it seemed they would fail, and an appreciation for quality comedy), and when the credits started to roll, she led us in a hearty round of applause.
Segal & Co., appropriately armed with a soundtrack of songs written by the Kiwis from Flight of the Conchords, succeed in making a movie that just lets the Muppets be the Muppets in a way unseen on the big screen since the original Muppet Movie some 31 years ago.
As countless others have noted, the basic premise of the movie is incredibly simple and well-worn, virtually indistinguishable from, say, The Blues Brothers: the old Muppet Theater is about to be sold to a greedy oil man, earmarked for destruction, and the only way to save it is to raise a boatload of money by getting the band back together for a new Muppet Show TV special. The love story between the main human characters, Segal’s and that of Amy Adams, is reduced to little more than a foil that helps the movie move along.
This is all as it should be, and Segal should be commended for checking his ego at the door and making sure no one would ever view his role as more than a supporting one. The simple plot works because that’s what the Muppets are and always should be: simple, unpretentious. As with the old Muppet Show and Muppet Movie, many of the best jokes are self-referential, and all are unabashedly silly. The jokes, as always, are on the Muppets, and, as always, we’re supposed to love them even more for it. Fozzie is still a comedian who couldn’t tell a good joke to save his life; Gonzo a stuntman who can’t do a good stunt; Animal a drummer without any sense of rhythm (except now he’s in anger management, sponsored by Jack Black, and prohibited from playing the drums at all). Etc., etc. Importantly – and especially rare for kid-friendly fare -at no time does the movie treat the audience as stupid; things that shouldn’t need explaining are not, in fact, explained.
As it turns out, the path of the movie was almost a perfect allegory for my own (and I suspect many others’) relationship with the fuzzy troupe. The Muppet Show, much beloved in my youth, has disappeared, the theater neglected more than ever, our beloved characters scattered to the four winds, shadows of their former selves, albeit successful shadows in some cases.
In the process, the Muppets have been forgotten by the world and cannot stir up any interest for their show, just as I had forgotten the Muppets and indeed cared little when I first heard that a new Muppet movie was in the works. They are permanently stuck in the 80s in our collective mind, as we are reminded with the significant role given to Kermit’s servant “80s Robot,” the forgettable Muppet Treasure Island be damned. When they rebuild in a montage to the tune of Starship’s classically corny 80’s song We Built This City, it then seems spectacularly appropriate. In spite of, or perhaps because of this, so many of the gags and jokes came across as if I was seeing and hearing them for the first time, until the collection of them all slowly started to jog my memory.
When we reach the point in the movie where it seems like all really is lost, and that this movie will turn out to be the Muppets’ final parting shot, the endless supply of memories almost made me feel at peace with the idea of a Muppet-less world (not so much my daughter, who lacks that wellspring of memories, and who was quite affected by this part). But moments later – literally seconds – you realize that those memories can’t die, and as long as those memories live, so do the Muppets, and indeed, so does one’s childhood.
The movie has its flaws, to be sure – Neil Patrick Harris’ cameo is unacceptably underutilized, and it seems like they didn’t quite know what to do with Miss Piggy. And of course there will be many who are marginally disappointed with the relatively few lines given to characters like Gonzo, particularly as compared to the fairly significant role played by Animal (though as an Animal devotee, I am not one of them).
But none of this matters much, in the end. The movie makes adults feel like kids. In doing so, it creates a shared experience between parents and children that enables kids to feel a little more grown-up. And so the Muppets will be passed on to an entirely new generation.
My daughter and I haven’t been able to stop singing duets of “Mahna-mahnam” for three straight days. That alone would have been worth the price of admission. But there is no price on the power of finding a new common bond between our childhoods.