The greatest ordeal of this past Christmas holiday was the fruitless attempt to have my niece sit contentedly in front of The Muppets Christmas Carol and make do with the distinct lack of Woody, Buzz et al. After a mere ten minutes she had scarpered off elsewhere, leaving just my nephew alone to be indoctrinated with an appreciation for the Muppets. I tried in earnest to have him stay still by turning the brief song “Marley and Marley” into somewhat of a leitmotif, repeating it every few minutes when I noticed he was fidgeting. If he professed to be being bored, I would hum the melody, he would laugh, and business would resume once more.
We often find ourselves asking why it is that kids these days find it a chore to sit down and enjoy shows we once used to treasure when we were their age, such as, precisely, The Muppets. When confronting this conundrum one has a tendency to point toward the increasingly erratic editing commonplace in such ‘wacky’ cartoons as Spongebob Squarepants, said to alter attention spans and concentration levels. One can just as easily look to the loudest answer in the onslaught of CGI and 3D digital surfaces; great, shiny dense objects that reach out of the screen and pull us inside their imaginative worlds. When faced with these technologies children find little reward in looking back, and when they do, it isn’t always fondly.
A more pressing, pertinent question would be to ask ourselves why we secretly want our children to reject these new technologies so badly, for them to indulge in and share our own nostalgia for shows, characters and narratives of the past. I freely admit to anyone that I will never let my children view the Star Wars prequels, and I will gladly tell them a boldfaced lie that The Simpsons ended after Season 8. Similarly, I like to share the joy the Muppets gave me as I grew up. I did not journey with The Muppets from their very inception – I was too young for that – but I did spend many Friday nights as a child marvelling at the antics on show in Muppets Tonight. Pierce Brosnan asking Miss Piggy if she’s trying to seduce him is one particular moment that – bizarrely, I’ll admit – sticks in my mind to this day, and my impersonation isn’t too shabby either.
The Muppets (2011, dir. James Bobin, USA), for its part, is very much aiming itself squarely at my generation and the older folks that preceded me; it spends a great deal of time and energy trying to convince the children of the 21st century, with their tastes for Punch Teacher and other such mindless distractions, to fully embrace The Muppets and thereby gift them a new lease of life. But it is with references to Molly Ringwald and a prominent role for Jack Black that reveals the filmmakers (director James Bobin, with a script by Nicholas Stoller and star Jason Segel) are gearing most of the inside nods to the older crowd. Indeed, much of the film coasts on nostalgia, as returning to these faces and their individual roles within the Muppets posse does require some semblance of familiarity with the characters first. Along with this, there are strong self-reflexive gags that create an awareness and therefore dialogue between the film and the older crowd, in-jokes that unfortunately may have a chance of going over the younger viewers’ heads.
So, what is left for the younger crowd once all this nostalgia and self-reflexive playfulness is stripped away? At its core, the film’s narrative strand is a passable, if slight trajectory of absurdity that takes the Muppets away from their newfound obscurity, all the way to a comeback show that holds promise of reigniting their fame. It’s up to muppet manchild Walter, his brother Gary (Segel) and Gary’s girlfriend Mary (Amy Adams) to help The Muppets rediscover their flair for theatricality and raise enough money from their return show to save the Muppets Museum from total annihilation. The villain in this case is the aptly named Tex Richman (Chris Cooper), his characterisation a source of ire from the right-wing media due to his obsession with drilling for oil under the Muppets Museum – apparently a clear indication of the ‘liberal manipulation’ inherent in the Muppets franchise. It’s perhaps more suitable to accredit Cooper’s oil baron as an over-the-top caricature along with everyone else in the film, belonging to the same reflexive nonsense that drives the film’s humour and plays on the overtly liberal tendencies of Hollywood itself.
Kermit, Miss Piggy and countless other welcome, recognizable felt faces are still the stars that everyone came here to see, and the chemistry between the couple is as sparkling as ever; however, there is also an obligatory human relationship drama concurrently at play, in order to anchor proceedings in the real world, and just in case the audience find that they can’t relate to felt. Gary and Mary are on the cusp of getting married, with the visit to the Muppets Studio a romantic holiday for the two, but Mary is growing increasingly frustrated with Gary’s failure to commit. Ultimately, their predicament is centred on expectations placed on the other; this concerns the symbiotic nature of a relationship, whereby one must give to the other who thusly takes and gives something back in return. Only then can the relationship be allowed to thrive and live forever. So then, it does comfortably mirror the Muppets’ circumstances as a fitting analogy of their quest for acceptance and immortality; it is their comeback show which must generate enough money on the giant ticking clock above the theatre stage to save the museum and justify the longevity of their careers.
In the end, it all comes down to a simple case of supply and demand. The Muppets have to create a consistent demand for their tomfoolery in order to survive; they have to generate an audience that wants to see them, and essentially turn a profit. That is the sad truth of it all, the inescapable objectivity that underpins the otherwise joyful surface sheen.