It’s Time to Play the Music, by Tyler Smith
I’ve always had a surprisingly hard time discussing Jim Henson’s Muppets. When I go back and watch the television show or the original Muppet Movie, I find myself thinking that, though we’re dealing with adorable puppets, this isn’t for kids. But that’s a little too easy. As we’ve seen from “Sesame Street” and the later Muppet films, there is a definite appeal to children. And yet there is still plenty of meta humor that would most definitely go over the heads of children. So, we come back to the question, exactly why are the Muppets so popular?
I think the reason why is because the Muppet creators have always been so uncompromising in exactly what they were trying to do. They were trying to make something that was funny in an adult way, while also remaining wholesome and easy to understand.
Sadly, many of those creators have denounced James Bobin’s new The Muppets, starring and co-written by Jason Segel. I say “sadly,” because I feel like this film is pretty true to the spirit of what the Muppets have always been. It is wholesome, optimistic, and unassuming, while also containing plenty of genuine laughs for the adults in the room. It would have been nice if it had the stamp of approval from the original performers and writers.
It would have been nice, but it is not, I think, totally necessary. As lofty as this may sound, the Muppets no longer belong their creators. They belong to all of us. The characters are so well-established in our minds that it doesn’t really take much to make a funny, effective film. Really, all one has to do is get out of the way. This is something that Segel and co-writer Nicholas Stoller understand. They clearly have a great deal of affection for Jim Henson’s creations, and they are content to take a backseat while our old friends Kermit, Piggy, Fozzie, and Gonzo take over. The writers get that the audience already has a history with these characters, so they shouldn’t force it.
The broad story is simple enough. A young puppet and his human friends discover that an evil oil tycoon (is there any other kind in a film like this?) is out to destroy the Muppet theater in Hollywood. Because, you see, there is oil underneath. In the middle of Los Angeles. Makes sense to me. In order to buy the theater, the Muppets must get back together and put on a show to raise funds. This isn’t so easy, unfortunately, as it appears that the world has forgotten about Kermit and his pals. The world has moved on from the simple pleasures of the Muppets to cynical reality shows (such as “Punch Teacher”).
This film was a pleasure to watch. Admittedly, not all of the jokes totally worked for me, but the majority of them made me laugh out loud. The film contains all of the humor that one expects from the Muppets. There is sweet humor, meta humor, and, of course, celebrity cameos (including noted Democratic strategist James Carville… wait, what?!). There is just such a sense of fun. We feel like everybody involved in the film is so excited to be a part of it, like it truly is the return of some beloved Hollywood icon. In a way, even more so than Harry Potter or Captain America, The Muppets is an event. And it’s hard not to get swept up in the enthusiasm.
And because the filmmakers put so much effort into getting the tone right, the nostalgia feels earned. It would have been easy for the filmmakers to simply use our history with the Muppets to tell us how we should feel. They don’t. Instead, they truly do approach the whole affair as though we were seeing old friends for the first time in years; the tone must be reestablished in order for the deeper feelings to emerge in a genuine way. So, by the time Kermit breaks out the banjo to sing “Rainbow Connection,” we have already been on a fresh journey with these characters. Now it’s time to remember where it all started. It truly is an emotional moment, made all the more effective because it comes about organically.
The Muppets was a lot of fun, in many ways. There is the genuine thrill of seeing these characters back in action once again, as themselves, not characters in The Wizard of Oz or Treasure Island. There are the fresh faces, such as Jason Segel, Amy Adams, and a surprisingly game Chris Cooper (who, despite his comedic turn in Adaptation., is not an actor I think of as having a sense of humor). There is the goofy, affable comedy. And, perhaps most importantly, there is the heart.
That last part is what the Muppets have always been about. Underneath the humor and satire, Jim Henson’s characters have always been about friendship, loyalty, and optimism. In the hands of lesser filmmakers, this would have been the first thing dropped in a modern day Muppets movie. Thankfully, Segel, Stoller, and Bobin have a much deeper respect for these characters than would allow them to do that. Their message seems to be that, if you want bitter sarcasm and angry cynicism, you can go somewhere else. When you’re with the Muppets, you’re going to leave feeling refreshed and optimistic. And they have delivered that message loud and clear.