A quibble about the (very good) new Muppets movie

November 28, 2011

Years ago I cringed when I saw that the Onion sells a t-shirt with the slogan, "I appreciate the Muppets on a much deeper level than you." My friend John and I had just been discussing the Muppets' sly use of metafictional elements--and it wasn't the first time we'd had this conversation. (We also used to sing "What's the Buzz?" from Jesus Christ Superstar, he as Kermit-as-Jesus and I as Piggy-as-Mary Magdalene. Guess which pastime entertained our friends more.)

Maybe America's Finest News Source is right: maybe it's silly to analyze the Muppets. But it's interesting that the Onion headline behind the t-shirt appears above a commentary disdainful of everything that came out after The Muppet Movie, the first feature film. The new movie The Muppets, which Nadia and I saw yesterday, begins from this same premise.

The Muppets that screenwriters Jason Segel and Nicholas Stoller want to revive are the crew that produced a variety show for several years and then starred as themselves in a classic road movie about going to Hollywood and making it big. The implicit message: things went downhill fast in the films that followed, and it's time to right the ship.

I won't defend the franchise's output after Jim Henson's death in 1990. In these movies, the Muppets simply appear as supporting characters in pre-existing stories. Kermit as Bob Cratchit! Miss Piggy as Benjamina Gunn! It's all nominally amusing, as are the endless schlocky production numbers consisting largely of anonymous monsters, animals and food items singing brief solos as the camera drifts about as aimlessly as the script.

But right after The Muppet Movie came another Henson-directed film that deserves more love than it usually gets. Joke for joke, The Great Muppet Caper is at least as funny as The Muppet Movie, and it's far more ambitious. Kermit and Fozzie are identical twins working as journalists. Gonzo's their photographer, and Miss Piggy is an aspiring model. All are also aware that they're Muppets making a movie about characters who happen to share their names. This silly fourth-wall stuff is my favorite element of the Muppets universe, and it's most prominent in The Great Muppet Caper.

The new movie gives some nods to this audience-winking past, but it focuses on the Muppets as themselves--specifically, as washed-up entertainers years after the TV show and the first film. To be fair, this is a pretty funny premise, especially the plot point of Fozzie fronting a fake Muppets band that performs house-ad jingles at a Reno hotel.

Segel and Stoller get a lot of things right. They've reverently preserved the Muppets' essential guilelessness. Chris Cooper is a classic Muppet villain, but he and the other human characters are wisely put back in their supporting-cast place. Meanwhile, Fozzie is restored to his rightful position as Kermit's number two, while Kermit re-emerges as the voice of humane sanity who holds a community of insecure misfits together (see also, among others, Michael Bluth).

As for the songs (by Bret McKenzie of Flight of the Conchords), they blow away any Muppet music put out since Paul Williams and Kenneth Ascher's unassailable score for the first movie.

Still, I miss The Great Muppet Caper's weirdly sweet trope: that the magic of make-believe exists in multiple layers of character that can't really be separated. Everyone's in on the joke; everyone's part of the fun--Kermit the journalist, Kermit the actor/director/impresario, Henson the performer, Henson the director and Muppets creator, the viewer. Here's my favorite Muppets scene ever, an argument between Kermit and Piggy:

The best part is the end of the scene: they break character, argue about the scene, make up with each other, and resume work on the film--only to find that their characters aren't mad at each other anymore, either. No scripted dramatic conflict can outlast the deep love between frog and pig. When I was a kid, this scene blew my mind. It still does a little, even if this makes me Onion-worthy ridiculous.


I agree about the strengths

I agree about the strengths of Segel's movie (and the weaknesses of the other post-Henson movies generally), but I didn't really sense any disdain toward Caper or The Muppets Take Manhattan in the way The Muppets was put together. I mean, this movie explicitly references the legally ambiguous Kermit-Piggy wedding that ends Manhattan. I think Segel, et al., were following the example of Superman Returns: in the way that that film is a sequel to Superman and Superman II and just skates past Richard Pryor/Nuclear Man, this movie follows up on the "Henson trilogy" and allows us to forget about Jacob Marley's brother Bob. 

Good Muppet stories tend to be about theatricality in some way. The first movie fits that criterion; Caper, with its focus on news-as-entertainment and its meta-humor, does also, and Manhattan is a sort of group bildungsroman about a troupe of entertainers making it big in NYC. And this film is about getting that old band back together.

Also, I created a login just so I could say all that. Which obviously means that I appreciate the Muppets on a much deeper level than you.

Uh, off to reevaluate my priorities now.

Fair enough. Disdain was

Fair enough. Disdain was probably too strong a word to use; certainly Segel et al's goal was at some level to look back to the whole Henson trilogy. But I'm frustrated by the focus exclusively on the Muppets as entertainers, because I think what's most hilarious about them is when they're presented as preposterous characters, but not really. "I'm Kermit the Frog, and I'm a journalist!" is certainly funnier than "I'm Bob Cratchit, and for some reason that we're not really going to talk about at all, I'm a frog." But I also think it's funnier than "I'm Kermit the Frog, and I like to entertain people!"

In short, I don't just look back to the Henson trilogy; I look back specifically to Caper, to which I award the prize "best Muppet movie" (though with an asterisk for the relatively weak songs).

The whole pre-Henson/post-Henson dividing line is also complicated in my view because I'm not so much a fan of Take Manhattan. Yes, it avoids a lot of the problems that emerged with Christmas Carol, but I'm not sure I could argue that overall it's funnier. And the wedding scene is almost unwatchable.

I do like your point that good Muppet stories are about theatricality. Which is why the best post-Henson project, for whatever that small honor is worth, is Muppet Classic Theater.

Daffodils, Miss Piggy...

We should do an album of duets as Kermit & Piggy.
As a peripheral member of the Onion community, I think that shirt is as directed at themselves as it is anyone else. The Onion/AV Club bunch is one that takes its Muppets very seriously.
Agreed about Caper's humor and ambition, but my soft spot for (earned) sentiment gives the edge to Movie. I read that Segel said he tried to combine elements of all three, including Movie's getting-the-gang-together plot, Caper's jokes (Gary & Walter as an homage to Kermit & Fozzie as twins), and the putting-on-a-show element of Manhattan.
The new movie ultimately won me over, but I went back and forth for about the first half, mostly due to what you reference here. I understand the importance of having them reunite for the story, but the focus on how great the Muppets once were, rather than just letting them be Muppets, was somewhat of a hindrance for me.
Still, I subscribe to the notion that Muppet Movie is a rough retelling of how the Muppets got to Hollywood, and that all the films that followed are the movies they made together. The Muppets breaks from that, but retains enough of the first film's meta-winks that it makes me think this is a kind of Muppet Movie 2.0, and that hopefully what will follow are more Caper-style movies, with the reunited gang putting together new stories.
All that said, my main hope for the movie was just to see the Muppets revived and treated well, which they certainly were, and it was actually funnier than I anticipated. It was a pretty great feeling to be laughing with a theater full of people to the Muppets. Wanna go see it again?

I also like the idea that the

I also like the idea that the earlier movies are true sequels, what-came-next after the first movie. And yes, Segel explicitly drew from all three films--though I'd say the brothers-that-don't-look-alike gag is pretty thin homage.

That aside, I really liked it, too. We should absolutely see it again, after which you can be Kermit and I'll be the Charles Grodin villain (best Muppets villain ever) and we can sing the duet from Caper. I forgot about that song--not as good as every single song in the first movie, but pretty good stuff.