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
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
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
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