Thoughts on 'The Muppets'

We had the opportunity to review The Muppets on the /Filmcast recently, and while I stand by that review, I've also been grateful to read a bunch more informed opinions in the past few days. One of the things that I found irritating about the response to our review (both on Twitter, in the comments, and via e-mail) has been the idea that I should've just "enjoyed the movie for what it was."

This reasoning annoys me for two reasons. First of all, it plays into the whole internet mentality that only one opinion about a film can be correct and that other opinions should be discounted or cowed into submission. We've seen this sentiment play out on numerous occasions in the past.

Secondly, it implicitly demands that this film, The Muppets, be less than excellent. Not every film can be an amazing work of art, but is it wrong to expect each one to at least be an exemplar of its category? I think not. Jason Segel (who co-wrote The Muppets screenplay) was handed a remarkable opportunity and substantial resources to work with a beloved property. I found the film to be delightful, a lightly polished piece of light, fluffy entertainment. But as a film, was it emotionally resonant? Did it evince quality, thoughtful storytelling? Did it pay homage to the muppets while bringing their sensibility into a new era? In my opinion, it did not (you can listen to my review for more details on this).

Other people have made this point far better than me. As always, I encourage you to check out the Extra Hot Great podcast's review, which adeptly strips away the nostalgia and evaluates this film with brutal honesty.

I'd strongly recommend Elizabeth Stevens' sprawling essay on the muppets, which is a loving exploration to the work of Henson. In one portion of the essay, Stevens questions why Kermit (once voiced by Jim Henson but now voiced by Steven Whitmire) needed to continue existing at all after Henson's death:

It would’ve made more artistic sense than what happened. Instead of an organic personnel shift, Whitmire became Kermit, which wasn't only a disservice to that character, but also a real disservice to Whitmire. There was no place for him to take the role. If he strays too far from Henson, embodying Kermit with the parts of his personality that weren’t in Henson, nostalgic fans will be disappointed. He can only attempt the same impression over and over. It’s not the kind of art Henson produced. It’s very un-Muppet.

I was reading Matt Gemmell's great essay the other day about why copying occurs so frequently in the tech industry and I couldn't help but think of Stevens remarks. One thing that both writers agree on: a copy can never be better than the original. By consigning Whitmire to imitating Kermit, it's a lose/lose for both Whitemire and for the character.

Stevens' essay was written before the film came out, but if she were to review the film, my guess is it would read a lot like Jason Bellamy's review of the film at Indiewire:

Make no mistake, watching the gang perform “Rainbow Connection” is lump-in-the-throat touching and realistic, too (not that the Muppets have ever been about realism), but it comes off like a concession – that the Muppets’ best days are behind them and the most magic we can hope for is an occasional performance of their greatest hits. Maybe that’s true. Maybe what Segel’s film shows us is that Henson and Frank Oz, the puppeteers extraordinaire who through their voices and hands gave so many of these characters their spirit, are irreplaceable.

Compare The Muppets to a film such as Abrams' Star Trek, which does honor to the original characters while striking out on its own (quite literally, using a brand new timeline). Despite that film's shortcomings, I truly believe it set the standard for how these film remake/adaptations should be done. I'll take Big-Hands-Kirk over endless, empty waves of nostalgia any day. At least the former is trying something new.

3 comments :: Thoughts on 'The Muppets'

  1. Wow! Thanks for the shout-out... When I read Bellamy's review, I did rather agree - the film was was too sad. I don't think that kids will see it and be curious... they'll be like, "My dad's weird. Why's he crying?"

    Maybe that's good for kids, ultimately, but you know, I wanted better storytelling... all the stuff you hit upon in your podcast, Dave. The story was sloppy. Scenes didn't follow from other scenes. The side plots bored me. Walter is dull. Mary and Gary have a mind-numbingly superficial conflict. Pacing was a huge problem. I liked the scenes with the Muppets, and Muppeteer captain Bill Barretta's Bobo Bear is a new Muppet I adore. But the smalltown, oil barron, and telethon all seemed stock, predictable, and snoozy.

    Perhaps my hopes were too high - Sarah Marshall is a beautiful unwinding narrative, and Flight of the Conchords gets irony just right... But "The Muppets" was narrative slop. I think Disney must've audience-tested it to death. "Take out this" "No ventriloquist dummies" and "change this ending." It ended up incoherent as far as plot and character are concerned.

    And I'm not so sure the ending *was* happy - loving throngs in Hollywood. In the old films, the Muppets triumphed over the business. They didn't sink to the level of the money-grubbers. Here, though, they can't beat 'em, so they join em. Success is measured by popularity at the box office, not advancing the art of movie making.

    When you see that scene in Muppet Caper when the villainess model walks across the Dubonnet Club mirror, then stops and turns while another model is walking behind the mirror... you see that Jim Henson cared about filmmaking. He took care to make sure all the details in the dance sequences were "just so." He cared about movie magic. If you watch "Jim Henson's The Storyteller," you will understand what the gift of tale-telling is about.

    This was a good-enough movie to "bring back the franchise." And that's a sad, pyrrhic victory if you care about excellence, creativity, and loving craftwork. It shows that money really does reign supreme.

    Like you said in your podcast, maybe the next one will be that terrific story I'm looking for, but I don't like the way fans seem to be dishonestly reviewing this film. If you want to vote for more Muppet-like stuff, and you want to do so with your pocket-book, then don't pay Disney more money. That's silly. They're never going to get it right. Instead, invest in young artists, start-ups, and your friends' artwork. Promote Moopets, not Muppets. The only way we'll get magic again is if you all go out and make it. Paying a huge corporation is not the way.

    My favorite part of the movie was the Moopets - it was honest and funny and new and creative. I wish the whole movie had been about them. Life changes, and you can't hold onto your childhood and never let it change. It has already changed. Be honest, and have fun with it. Like Dave said, "Try something new." Make stuff. Make it for kids and adults and everyone to enjoy. Try to BE Jim Henson. Don't pay Disney to show you a picture of him.

    ~Elizabeth Stevens
    gordonebenezergourd.com

  2. Dave - have you read this really interesting article about films like the Muppets being highly polished "fan fiction"?

    http://www.hitfix.com/blogs/motion-captured/posts/the-bigger-picture-muppets-avengers-and-life-in-the-age-of-fanfiction

  3. Donald - Great piece. And yeah, that sound about right.

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