The muppets ask their timeless questions and stumble and fumble their way to fresh answers in their new film, simply titled: The Muppets.
The spirit of the muppets has been half asleep for some years now, barely strung along by a handful of paint-by-numbers films and TV specials. The puppets showed up, but the hands that moved them were (pardon me) going through the motions. Perhaps this was partly due to the oversaturation of Jim Henson projects in the 1980s. The ubiquitous Muppets, Muppet Babies, Fraggles, and Seseame Street shows may have spread the muppet magic a bit too thin. And now, a couple of decades later, after the Movie industry’s headlong dive into computer animation and perfectly pixeled displays that leave nothing to hide, low-tech puppets might be just what we need to wake us up to what we’ve been missing on screens big and small.
The film starts with young-at-heart muppet fans, growing up with (and never quite growing out of) the Muppets, and it ends with the muppets opening their arms and inviting old and new fans to join in a celebration of something much richer than mere celebrity or stardom. The show doesn’t serve the stars (except maybe for a certain pig).
The muppets have to have some context in which to play, and this time, they are trying to save the old, rundown muppet studios from an oil baron who wants to tear it down and start drilling. But the loss of the studio is only an occasion for rebuilding and polishing off old friendships that have drifted or suffered over the years. It is a context in which to rediscover the joy and sadness and courage of trying to make something work. Trying to hold chaos at bay by dancing in its presence.
The muppets pause briefly to acknowledge loss, sorrow, longing, and brokenness, but they never let each other wallow in it. Their spirit is one of celebration in the face of loss. It is a much-needed spirit of longing and joy for a generation skimming over the surface of quick video-sound-bites and screen tapping. These puppets have been around the block a few times. And they are more honest and humble and vulnerable and broken and fearful than ever. More human than human. They’ve tried things that haven’t worked. They know the risks of trying to create something in hope that their dreams will come alive and somehow serve their audience at the same time. Yes, I’m talking about a long-running puppet show here.
Even Animal, that wild, drum-beating ball of adrenaline grows as a character (tongue halfway in my cheek, here). Kermit and the gang reunite with Animal in an outdoor anger management class where he has been learning to supress his wilder tendencies. “Iiiiin controooooool!” you can year him growling throughout the film (until somebody hands him a set of drumsticks).
Control for its own sake is part of the Muppets’ problem in this latest movie. The impulse toward control is both a problem and a solution. And yet the wackier and more creative the solution, the more successful the Kermit and the gang are. Being out of control is often where the fun begins. Or maybe rather than struggling between control and abandonment the Muppets are growing even more this time around toward being purposeful with passion.
The Muppets’ flavor of frivolity can get under your skin if you can yeild to a suspension of all your disbelief. And the Muppets are pretty good at helping you with that too. If you let them, these inanimate felt objects can awaken in you what you didn’t even realize has been half-asleep. Can you hear their voices? I hear them calling your name.