I didn’t start to cry until Kermit’s first song twenty minutes in. That’s pretty goddamned restrained, if you ask me. By the time we got to “Rainbow Connection”, I was bawling. And when the idiots at the theater brought the lights up five minutes before the credits began, I started howling with incoherent rage. Sorry. If the main characters are still on screen, it is not the credits yet. I don’t care if they’re sharing the space with text.
I can’t say enough how much the Muppets mean to me. I’ve held off on finding out much about this new movie until the last second, because I didn’t want to hope. They’ve always done a decent job, even since Disney took them over. But with all this hype, if they screwed the movie up, I was liable to be devastated.
I loved it. From the little Toy Story Shorts prequel through the last “mnah-mnah”, I was completely taken in. I don’t suspend disbelief. I don’t think you have to in order to enjoy a story. But I’m sure anybody who listened to me hooting and sobbing at the screen would have thought I felt otherwise.
I first saw the Muppets on my parents black and white kitchen TV when I was a newborn. No, I don’t really remember back that far. But it’s a close thing. I used to sit at the kitchen table and crane my neck because the only place for the kitchen TV was way up on top of a freestanding china cabinet. I remember exactly how I used to squeal every time Kermit came on and said, “It’s the Muppet Show”. I know the theme by heart. And I’m sure you don’t need me to linkup to Youtube, because now I’ve got the song stuck in your head, too.
The Muppets are exactly the same age as me. A few months older, actually. OK really, Kermit and a few of the gang are older than that, because Jim Henson was showing them around on places like Sesame Street before they got their own gig. In fact, I think Kermit was guesting on Ed Sullivan as early as 1966. Which makes him more than a couple of years older than me. Ten of them, really. IF you want to be technical. But by GOD he looks good. They all do. Really, the whole thing was true to Jim Henson’s vision.
But that’s exactly why my heart broke over and over watching it. As much as his creations will outlive him, as much as the magic of Muppetry keeps him alive in our hearts, Jim Henson is dead. He’s been dead for twenty one years now, and I’d really expected to stop mourning him by now. It’s awkward. I never met the man. But my heart hurts for his absence like he was a member of my immediate family. (This isn’t the first time I’ve made a fool of myself over Muppets. See here and here.)
So every time Kermit opened his mouth, I got a little more teary eyed. Steve Whitmore sounds exactly like Henson in the role. I have the first couple of seasons on DVD (and yes, I cry watching those, too). And the voices are indistinguishable. Whitmore’s Kermit is a kind of substitution. A game of pretend that teases me with the man himself. That’s not fair. Because Whitmore gives Kermit life. Really, he does. And there’s no reason Kermit should have to die (Tex “no relationship to the head injury” Richman’s opinion aside) with his creator. But seeing him, hearing him makes me miss the creator more.
It’s funny how everybody’s gone Muppet crazy here lately. If so many of us had really been raised on the show like it is being claimed, then it would never have gone off the air. When they tried to bring it back several years ago, it wouldn’t have failed. There’s a running gag in The Muppets that innocent shows like this have been cast aside for modern violence. Of course, the Muppets prove they are still relevant, good triumphs over evil, and everything comes together in a nice dance number before the credits.
The implication is that the Muppets offer a gateway to a simpler era, where the rainbow connection is a physical thing, probably being held up by Gonzo and Fozzie, who are waiting for Miss Piggy to squash it in a flying karate leap. But there are two problems with the image the movie presents. First of all, as I said, every attempt to bring the Muppets to TV has been ultimately unsuccessful.
Second, the Muppets aren’t simple at all. They’re richly complex, and they dance along the edge of seemly without ever plunging into the sea of inappropriate. Whatever that would be. (Also, they’re merrily violent.) There’s a scene where Jack Black comes out of his dressing room shouting “I told you, I haven’t finished putting my balls on yet”. Risqué until you realize he’s talking about hard foam craft products. Linda (who turned me onto Muppet Radio at the last second today, the day before it goes off the air) says the chickens have been clucking along all week to the C-Lo Green ditty that drops an F-bomb. In the movie, they have a barbershop quartet consisting of the Swedish Chef and Beaker, among others, mangling “Smells Like Teen Spirit”. AC/DC’s “Back in Black” riffs run through at least one “getting the gang back together” scene. And the movie’s intro song is Paul Simon’s Mama Pajama, which is about underage sex if you actually listen to the lyrics.
(Oh – and as far as I can tell, they didn’t screw around with remakes of the songs. They played the real things. Kudos.)
The Muppets stay relevant not by tying us back to something bygone but by touching on modern themes that matter. In all truth, the running gag is accurate. They’ve been superseded by Dora The Explorer and her fake under-mature clones. I suppose in prime time verbage, that means Phineas and Ferb and i-Carly. Producers prefer kids content that is so inoffensive as to be completely lifeless.
In contrast, producers are scared of Muppets. Muppet humor appeals to everybody because it doesn’t set an imaginary bar between children and adults. And no people, I’m sorry, the ‘adult’ stuff does not go over the kids’ heads. They may not get every single reference. But Caroline sat up and pointed over at her brother’s crotch when Jack Black started griping about his balls. If the kid with Asperger’s who was nearing a sensory meltdown clued in, then I’m pretty sure every other child in the room got it, as well.
The Muppets stay in tune by recognizing that kids aren’t stupid. Their adult humor isn’t adult humor. It’s family humor, because “family” doesn’t have to mean inane and childlike doesn’t have to mean naïve. And even if they’ve been outdone on the TV screen, the Muppets’ movies are still popular. I think this one is going to be a blockbuster.
And this is one of the things in life that makes me wish I had the capacity for belief. I’m agnostic because I’ve got serious issues with organized religion.. But watching that movie, I wanted to think Jim Henson could see it, too. That some vestige of self remains after we die. Some part of us that can still experience human joy. I don’t really think so, though. I think Henson is dead and the closest I’ll ever get to him is watching Kermit in new movies and old reruns. I want to bring the man back to life, but it isn’t going to happen.
The king is dead. Long live the king.
Go watch The Muppets.
You probably won’t cry as much as I did, and you absolutely won’t regret it.
If you’re here from Red Writing Hood, you probably noticed that I appear to have stuck my middle finger up at the word count. Sorry. Really. I get horrible anxiety when I fail to follow some crucial instruction like that and then claim to have completed the assignment. But also, the song is still running through my head. So maybe I get extra words for that. Or something.
And if you think I ignored the part about magnum opi, then you don’t read this blog very closely. At the moment, this is the area that gets most of my writing. It’s twisted. But I think it counts.