Release Date: January 12, 2012
There’s no arguing, Muppet productions have been a mixed bag of felt. For every Jim Henson inspired production that fans applauded, there was another that made audiences wince. So you can understand why I entered the preview for Kermit’s latest cinematic release with extreme caution.
Kermit the frog, Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear and Gonzo the Great are names firmly fixed in the popular consciousness.
Since 1976 they’ve been doing the rounds on a wide variety of children’s television programs including Sesame Street and the classic The Muppet Show. The Muppet Movie was an incredible success with two Academy Award nominations. However it was followed by The Great Muppet Caper, and things got worse with The Muppets Take Manhattan. The Muppet Christmas Carol and Muppet Treasure Island offered some relief. But then someone decided to pen Muppets from Space and the following two films dragged Kermit, Miss Piggy and Fozzy’s fortunes lower than ever before.
So after a six year silence, is The Muppets a step in the right direction?
Absolutely! The plot begins with an acknowledgement of the very different world the Muppets find themselves in today. The Muppet’s greatest and apparently last fan in all of America resides in Smalltown, a country town where everything is just lovely all day long. Two brothers, Gary and Walter, share everything growing up and look forward to an idyllic life participating in Smalltown’s spontaneous, street wide dance numbers. However Walter feels strangely out of place, which makes sense considering he is a puppet and his brother is played by funny guy Jason Segel. A trip to Hollywood gives them the chance to visit the original Muppet Theatre and connect with a longing for happier days. However Walter discovers an evil business baron plans to tear down the landmark and drill for oil. The only way to save the building is to get the Muppets back together for one last big show. But has the world changed too much? Kermit is a disillusioned frog, Fozzie works a dive in Reno, Gonzo has gone into plumbing sales and Miss Piggy is now the plus-size fashion editor at Vogue Paris. What do they possibly have in common any more?
The Muppets is a very clever film, drawing on not only the childhood memories of a vast swathe of the cinema-going population, but their nostalgic desire for a simpler past. There’s the very hammy humour you’ve come to expect, and the celebrity appearances – Jack Black, Mickey Rooney, Whoopi Goldberg etc. etc. Then there are the compulsory musical numbers – look out for the Boyz To Men knock-off, Am I a man or a Muppet? But there’s also a humility that prevents the film sliding into sentimentality. In attempting to get their show back on the air, the Muppets realize a very different sort of programming has captured the attention of children today. The top rating show is Punch The Teacher and a programming executive callously informs them, “I’m afraid that in this market you’re no longer relevant.”
Relevance is not only a Muppet concern. It’s not only frogs that feel their age. The church continues to struggle with what it has to say to a fast-paced world that it hasn’t already said for millennia. How can we be more down-to-earth, more appropriate, more attractive? And like Christianity, the Muppets are threatened by knock-offs that are new, but not quite what they stand for. Their arch enemy, Tex Richman tells them:
“The Moopets are a hard cynical act for a hard cynical world. No one cares about your goody-goody show. The world’s moved on.”
That may be, but it’s the looking back that reminds us what we’ve lost along the way. Remembering is The Muppets strongest theme – the experiences we shared, the lessons we learned. The film doesn’t preach revisionism, but it does argue that life is more than satisfying our present desires. Sure, it packages that message with some unhelpful things – odes to individualism and subliminal advertising for iPads and Cars 2. However there’s a clear call not to forget the people who’ve transformed us. Relationships are far more important than any success. In fact the Muppets end the film happy to fail so long as they’re together. That’s similar to our situation too. The Bible’s says all things can be safely lost if we can gain a relationship with Jesus. And ‘winning even when you lose’ is a message that’s as relevant today as it was in the 70s.