Where have all the Muppets gone?
There’s something so sincere about Muppets. Though made of felt in Crayola colors, they seem to radiate something more human than the human. A stringy ear shake from Sesame Street’s Barkley, a gentle spindly-frog-armed gesture from Kermit, a huffy contraction of the snout from Piggy –these non-verbal cues were so expressive and meaningful and alive. The Muppets Jim Henson reared are a delightfully strange, cheerily irreverent, intensely empathic, wild, caring, and fun bunch. Jason Segel and Nick Stoller did a pretty great job of reviving these essential Muppet traits in the recently released film, The Muppets, even as the movie itchily reminds us that we can never really bring back time (or Muppets) past.
Ultimately, art imitates life as both the film’s story and its actual production focus on the basic goal of “getting the band back together.” Segel, an avid Muppet fan (see Forgetting Sarah Marshall for a nod at his obsession) was saddened by the presence, or lack thereof, of Muppetry in the 2000s. He saw his childhood friends, once hobnobbing with the likes of Steve Martin and Lily Tomlin, now reduced to cheesy hawkers of pan pizza and the like on stupid television commercials. His project The Muppets (2011) would thus rescue our pop culture icons from obscurity and restore them to their proper place in the entertainment world.
Likewise, within the film we find Henson’s crew lost and scattered across the globe. Kermit’s Hollywood mansion is a decrepit and cobweb-covered mausoleum — a shrine to a dead past (think a less creepy Sunset Boulevard). The movie shows us the world as it is now: chock-full of reality shows that capitalize on our least admirable human qualities and aim for the lowest level of thought, comedy and viewer engagement. In this world, the Muppets are a memory, something we recall from a time before, but a group that has fallen too far behind to be viable. Is there room for the intricate gesticulating of handmade felt Muppets in our digitized, multitasking, screen-based land of plenty? This is what the film (and Segel) ask, and I bet you can guess their answer.
The tone toward the Muppets is right. The respect for Henson’s clan is palpable, cleverly rendered and tender. The musical numbers are pleasurable (if not all knock-outs) and quirkily styled by Bret McKenzie of Flight of the Conchords fame. “Muppet or a Man” is the movie’s catchy and clear stand-out of a song, but it’s the old standards (“Rainbow Connection,” “The Muppet Show theme”) that shake an audience member, like me, to the core.
What I’m trying to say is this: the movie is pretty good, yet it’s not what I remember. It’s not a Jim Henson Muppet movie. In trying to bring the Muppets back, it mostly reminds me that the Muppets and the time of the Muppets — my childhood spent awestruck by a rainbow busting through a movie studio ceiling, moments when Kermie’s felty fingers touched my heart because even without being green, I understood what he meant when he said it wasn’t easy — are lost to the tricks of time. Though I can try to reconfigure these fragments to some extent, like the movie re-pieces together the scattered Muppets, the initial loss continues to leave a gaping hole in my squishy red innards.
I cried at least three times during this movie. It killed me to see Kermit’s movie lot office in tatters — a framed picture of Jim Henson displayed under a skin of dust, hung there for no one. Then there was the pang in the gut, the sour ball of throat tears that came when Kermit apologized to Fozzie for losing touch — a shame all of us grown-ups comprehend. And of course, hearing “Rainbow Connection” again, the way it prickles my skin and digs into me with its instant nostalgia. The song is housed once more in a Muppet movie, but not one I know from before; it’s transplanted, grafted onto the new.
I suffer a postmodern crisis.
Plush childhood things have been shifted into an adult schema. I never wanted to know that Piggy and Kermie got divorced! I never wanted to see Fozzie a washed up comedy bear in Reno! However, the movie also does something pretty remarkable in that it allows me to feel, re-feel and reflect on lost time, on missing a childhood that was so intricately tied to a bunch of fancy puppets. The Muppets is part adult, part child. . . part muppet — a mish-mash that at once feels disjointed and unsatisfying and the pitch perfect conglomeration for exploring such subject matter. Am I making myself clear? Perhaps it is best said in song:
I reflect on my reflection
And I ask myself the question:
What’s the right direction to go?
I don’t know.
Am I a man, or am I a Muppet?
If I’m a Muppet then I’m a very manly Muppet.
Am I a Muppet or am I a man?
If I’m a man, that makes me a Muppet of a man.
Am I a Muppet or a (wo)man? Indeed. A pretty heady question.
Jim Henson’s unique magic was a creative power that made anyone, of any age, feel the wonder of childhood. This latest movie further solidifies the fact that we can never replace him or his art. What Segel brings with his film is no Henson substitute, but something new with its own charm. From the fan’s perspective, he extends a thank you to Jim and Kermit and friends — one that valiantly tries to articulate paradoxical distances. One that says, “it’s been really hard growing up without you, even though I know you’ve been with me all along.”
Ana Holguin writes PopHeart for The Idler.