The Perpetual Three-Dot Column
The Perpetual Three-Dot Column
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

by Jesse Walker

Friday, November 25, 2011

1. I'm not sure I even realized a new Muppet picture was about to come out when I bought that DVD of the original Muppet Movie for my older daughter. I just wanted to surprise her with a video that I was pretty sure she'd like, and that I knew I'd enjoy watching with her. And she did like it: We had a great time cuddled up on the couch with the TV on, her laughing at moldy old jokes she'd never heard before, me grokking all the celebrity cameos that sailed over my head when the film was in theaters. (The only celebs I recognized back in 1979 were Steve Martin and Big Bird. Maya recognized Big Bird and Richard Pryor, though she didn't know Pryor's name -- she just knew he was the guy who played the title role in The Wiz.)

I enjoyed the movie out of nostalgia, and I enjoyed it because I liked watching Maya enjoy it; but most of all, I enjoyed it because it's awfully good. The Muppet Movie is one of the best musicals of the '70s, a road film that tours an America that exists only in the movies. Except nothing exists only in the movies -- we watch it and it lodges itself in our minds somewhere, and if it stays with us it becomes a part of the way we view the world, an extra layer on the landscape. America was already haunted by the spirits of Easy Rider and The Wizard of Oz and a dozen other road films, and then The Muppet Movie came along and winked slyly at Easy Rider and The Wizard of Oz and a dozen other road films, and it did it in a way that guaranteed it would become one of those highway-haunting spirits too.

2. Naturally, Maya wanted to see more Muppets; and YouTube, bless it, is filled with old episodes of The Muppet Show. So we started watching them before bed, and again there was that dual reaction: Maya laughing at a fresh discovery, me laughing with layers of nostalgia. Not just my own nostalgia for a show I loved when I was 9, but an adult appreciation for all the music-hall and vaudeville nostalgia embedded in the show itself, and for the ways the more contemporary rock and pop and disco numbers had acquired that same glow of the old.

3. And by now I did know that a new Muppet movie was on the way, which came as sort of a relief. When I introduce Maya to things I dug as a kid, like Oz books or Charlie Brown specials, I'm aware that there's a fair chance her friends won't have any idea what she's talking about if she brings them up at school. For once I was steering her toward something that might also be popular.

But the thing about a new Muppet movie is: It might suck. Jim Henson has been dead for two decades. You look at the stuff the Muppets have done since then, and...well, it says something that the peak of their career from 1990 to 2010 was a handful of clips released directly to YouTube.

4. Then again, those clips themselves were a sign that the movie might be great. And they weren't entirely unprecedented. You look at Jim Henson's early work and you don't just find puppetry. You find weird little films and other avant-garde experiments -- the kind of stuff that gravitates to YouTube today. Though of course that option wasn't open then. Instead he inserted his experimental work into places where you might not expect to find it, like industrial films or guest spots on late-night TV shows.

5. And, for that matter, he inserted it into The Muppet Show.

6. So today I took Maya to see The Muppets, and blessed be, it is great. Oh, it has a few problems here and there: There's one or two too many endings, I could have done without Jason Segel's pep talk to Walter near the end, the world has had enough James Carville cameos already, and (above all) there really isn't any circumstance that could ever justify putting "We Built This City on Rock'n'Roll" in a movie soundtrack. But that's carping. What a tremendously entertaining and poignant picture this is.

Anyone who revives a dormant media franchise is going to either alienate or appeal to nostalgists and fans. The Muppets, aware of this, is about nostalgia and fandom. Its new character, Walter, is a Muppet born to a human family, a boy out of place who feels a special connection to the lost world of old Muppet Show videos. He watches the Muppets constantly. He lives surrounded by old Muppet merchandise. He even has Videodrome-style dreams in which the Muppets come out of his TV set and invite him to join them; and he tries to follow; and he can't. He and his brother, a boy-man who's been dating a girl for 10 years without progressing past kissing her lightly on the cheek, live in an idealized Small Town U.S.A.: a place that Exists Only In The Movies, like the highways we saw in the Muppets' first feature. But remember, nothing exists only in the movies. Walter's love for the Muppets is exaggerated, maybe even a little grotesque, but it should ring true for anyone who's ever had a strong attachment to a book or band or film or TV show. He's an everyfan. Except that Walter isn't just a fan; he's a Muppet too, a fact he doesn't realize but which all of us in the audience can see. The average Who fan isn't going to discover someday that he's really Keith Moon.

7. The remainder of the movie includes the best getting-the-band-back-together sequence since The Blues Brothers (with Fozzie's tribute act, the Moopets, in the Murph and the Magic Tones role) and a Cee Lo cover that should be a model for any family filmmaker trying to insert a risqué gag for the grown-ups without the kiddies noticing. And there's a lot in there about growing up, which Walter and his brother both do in different ways. Except...Walter really doesn't grow up, does he? He's a three-foot puppet who will always be a three-foot puppet, and who gets to join a troupe of puppets who have already outlived their creator and who may well be having another comeback in another 20 years, with Walter looking the same as ever.

No no no. Beneath that talk about growing up, this is a movie about growing old. There's a scene early on where young Walter goes out one Halloween dressed as Kermit the Frog. Some other kids laugh and jeer, and one of them says something like, "What is this? 1978?" And out in the audience, sitting with our kids, are a bunch of aging men and women who are happy to have Kermit back but who know it will never be 1978 again, and that one day when we're gone our grown children might stumble on this old movie called The Muppets and realize in a sad flash that it will never be 2011 again either.

posted by Jesse 10:28 PM
. . .

. . .

For past entries, click here.

. . .