The whole family went and saw The Muppets last night, and I got to say, it was a hoot. The previous sentence makes me sound like Dobie Gillis (Geewillikers, Pops, that sure is a rootin’, tootin’ slambang of a whatchamacallit! What say?) but there’s a handcrafted gee-whiz that seems to radiate off the felt of the Muppets that I forgot about. I think the most impressive thing the film does is nail the tone of the show: one cup sentiment, ¼ cup wiseassery, 2 tbsp arch, deadpan stares, 1 tsp metafictional winks, 1/8 tbsp…ok this is getting to be a long, unhelpful, and unwieldy recipe, but it serves to show how delicate the tone is, and how hard it is to maintain over two hours. The film is breezy and weightless, and those aren’t complaints.
Here are some things I forgot about The Muppets: for one thing, I forgot how grungy the Muppets world was. It’s a world that carried over from Sesame Street–not quite urban, but more behind the Stop-n’-Go suburban. It’s safe enough for kids to run around in, but if you live there, you probably work in a motel of the seedier variety. I always kind of treasured that vibe, one I associated with my parents and the late seventies when I became sentient. It is also the main strength and weakness of the movie.
There was always something throwaway about The Muppets. I remember watching the show, like I watched the movie: at a completely charmed remove. I think this is built in. A friend told me last night that she experienced and experiences the same thing: complete enjoyment without love. A very strong “like.” Just friends, maybe with benes but whatev.
Is it because they’re puppets? I know the whole joke is that in the Muppet-verse humans are both aware and unaware that they’re speaking to plush-based beings with another human’s hand up their ass, but I truly think a goal is to make you forget it’s a puppet. That’s why Henson strove so long and so hard for the kind of verisimilitude in terms of recognizable human emotions he achieved in the puppets themselves. Kermit is capable of more emotive range than Kevin Costner, Ben Affleck, and Bruce Willis put together. You could argue that the only working actors more in tune with his emotive instrument and talented enough to manipulate the soft folds of their faces are Jock Nicholson and Sean Penn, but I digress.
But they’re still puppets, which bring us back to the whole tone thing: The Muppets are never uproarious. Instead, they seem to be a comment on “uproariousness”. They demonstrate an anarchic spirit without being anarchic. They seem to be a comment on their times rather than embodiment of it. For that, they are very much still part of the seventies and early eighties, which is a nostalgic time for many, myself included, albeit a somewhat confusing one. In retrospect, it seems like the prevailing cultural emotion was a befuddled what-the-hell? combined with a need for consumption. The Muppets, with their whiff of patchouli and bong water, gentle, bemused nature, and easily commoditized likenesses, fit the times to a “T.” It’s why they work so well as nostalgia: they embody that time perfectly. They are when urban yielded to suburban, when the smell of the city’s hot garbage and wet pavement became the evaporating dew and hot plastic of a kid’s backyard. They are the strip mall, the convenience store, the we-want-your-business-but-are-too-cool-to-beg-for-it.
The film nails that, and that’s why the whole movie functions not as a relaunch of the Muppets but as a sad, knowing nod towards their current cultural inconsequence. The film feels like nothing so much as Rocky Balboa from a few years back. It’s a eulogy, not a celebration.
Perhaps the perfect way to describe the film is to go back to Kermit, who I’ve always felt is a cipher. He’s interested in putting on a show, but never panicked. If he demonstrates panic, it seems a put-on. He cares for Ms. Piggy, but not overly so; she’s convenient and probably intimidating, but I never thought he loved her. Mostly, he seems aloof, disinterested, even harried. He’s got things on his mind, but it’s never what he’s dealing with currently. He’s like Bill Belichick or Harrison Ford when they’re interviewed. He always seems to want to be somewhere else. The only time he seemed truly happy was in The Muppets Take Manhattan when he had amnesia and said his name was Gill and got to work in an office and hang around with Bill, Jill, and Phil. He had something from the grill. He seemed like he was home.
Kermit is the Muppets: he wants to be an artist, but he’s only happy when he’s pulled towards the bourgeois middle class. He needs an excuse to release the revolutionary spirit of the early seventies and embrace Me Decade.
The Muppets understands that, and that’s why it’s perfect for what it is—a Gen-X/Y celebration. I don’t really think it could ever be more.