Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Muppets, Muppets, Muppets

There's a new Muppet film on the horizon and I knew I had to write something to celebrate the return of one of the biggest media influences of my childhood, that I still hold synonymous with old-fashioned wonderment and innocence and charm. But what to write? What to say? How do I encapsulate my adoration of Jim Henson's creations in blog post form? Do I write up a list of my personal favorite Muppet moments? Favorite characters? Best songs and sketches? Or do I take a walk down memory lane, talking about personal experiences with "Sesame Street" and "The Muppet Show" and the movies? While not the biggest Muppet fan you'll ever meet, I did manage to see the last two in theaters - "Muppet Treasure Island" and "Muppets in Space."

Well, let's start with the anxiety I felt about the new movie. It emerged a few weeks ago that Frank Oz, the original performer of Miss Piggy and Fozzie Bear and many others, had decided not to take part in the new film. He had concerns over the script, written by Jason Segel and Nicholas Stoller, known for raunchier adult fare like "Forgetting Sarah Marshall." Fans were pointing out instances of cheap jokes and possible toilet humor in the trailers, which the Muppets simply don't do. I can understand the worry. Hollywood's track record with rebooting nostalgic properties from the 70s and 80s has been very hit-or-miss, especially when it comes to the ones aimed at kids. I've watched old favorites like "Yogi Bear," "Alvin and the Chipmunks" and "The Smurfs" transmogrified into wise-cracking CGI forms, for lazy movies with lazy humor designed to pander to modern kids. The thought of this happening to the Muppets is heartbreaking. But where in the cynical modern movie landscape would there be room for an earnest puppet frog whose big dream is singing and dancing and making people happy?

But apparently Segel and his friends did it. The reviews are coming in, and they're giving me plenty of reasons to be optimistic. Now the big question is whether audiences over Thanksgiving weekend will embrace the film, or pick alternatives like "Hugo," "Happy Feet 2," or the latest Adam Sandler movie. Making a good film isn't enough - people have to go out and see it. And there's a lot riding on this movie. There have been several attempts to bring back the Muppets, including a short-lived "Muppet Show" revival called "Muppets Tonight" in the 90s, and a couple of TV movies and stage performances. Disney acquired the characters outright in 2004, and the Muppets have been integrated into their theme parks, and still pop up occasionally in music videos and online spoofs. The Muppet cover of "Bohemian Rhapsody," for instance, is a thing of beauty. There haven't been any big projects for Kermit in the gang in some time, though, and "The Muppets" will be their biggest chance to prove that they're still a viable franchise, and not just nostalgic relics of the analog age.

And I want very badly for the Muppets to continue. They still embody much of the spirit and humanism of the gentler entertainment era that birthed them. They're also one of the last links to vaudeville and the age of the great song-and-dance performers. They're among the few characters who can be absurd and satirical without a hint of malice, sly and well-observed without losing any heart or smarts. They've brought out the silly side in everyone from Rudolf Nuryev to Alice Cooper. They can still land a chicken joke. And unlike Mickey Mouse or Bugs Bunny, Kermit can go out into the real world, and interact with people in real time, just like he did in the 70s. And he's the same little green figure of hope and love and optimism that he's always been, even if it's Steve Whitmire playing the part instead of Jim Henson now.

I'm getting all mushy. I don't think there's any possible way that "The Muppets" is going to live up to the buzz I've been hearing, and I am trying to keep my own expectations within reasonable limits. But it's a losing battle because it's the Muppets. I wasn't that cognizant of the 80s while they were going on, so I've been largely immune to the recent nostalgia craze. But the Muppets are one of my touchstones, practically the only characters from my childhood that still exist in their original forms. And though it's probably too much to hope for, wouldn't it be great if a new generation could find them and share that magic too? Just learn to have fun singing and dancing and making people happy again?

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