The Muppets have become a forgotten relic of The Fabric Age, a pre-pixel, pre-Pixar tactile Cambrian of singing, animal-shaped socks. But with a big cast reunion, smart musical numbers, and special guest stars, Kermit, Miss Piggy, Fozzie, Gonzo, and the rest can win back the hearts of their old fans, and their fans’ children, in an era of crass humor and street savvy that the sincere Muppets have always eschewed.
That would be great, of course, if I were writing, I don’t know, an Entertainment Weekly (?) piece about the Muppets’ attempted comeback with their new movie, The Muppets. But what I’m describing is, in fact, the very plot of that very movie. The story OF The Muppets and the story IN the Muppets, in other words, are exactly the same. And I’m not sure how I feel about that much self-referentiality. Art Spiegelman just released a making-of-and-what-he’s-done-since version of Maus called Metamaus; maybe this version of the Muppet movie should have been called Meta-Muppets. Adding to the meta was the pre-movie announcement not to talk on cellphones, featuring the Muppets in a movie theater audience apparently waiting to see the very movie that they’re about the star in, about the return to Hollywood fame of the Muppets.
But it’s not just the meta that surprised me about the movie—it was also the maudlin. Yes, the bits, gags, and songs were awesome—I’m still singing “Am I a Man or a Muppet?” to myself (and I’m not sure, personally, what the answer is; Flight of the Conchords’s Brett McKenzie, who wrote the music, is still obsessed with masculinity, a la “I need a small man’s wetsuit”). But the exposition—that is, the plot details of getting the old group back together, renovating the old theater, learning the old acts, ___ing the old ___—everything between and setting up the set pieces—was nostalgic in the most depressing sense.
And the other plot vehicle that drove the Muppets’ meta-reunion was the most bizarre love triangle of the year, including that even-more maudlin movie about the consumptive girl who must choose between the centenarian sparkly vampire and the Native American werewolf’s abs. Here, Jason Segal’s Gary is essentially forced to choose between Walter, the Muppet brother whom he cares for, and his long-time girlfriend, Amy Adams’s Mary. She wants Gary to be there for her, but, in an unintentional but unmistakable metaphor for caring for a family member with a severe disability, he’s always shunting Mary aside to make sure that Walter is OK.
OK, so maybe I’m a jerk for pissing all over a great children’s movie, unlike, say the preview for Alvin and the Chipmunks VIII (or whatever), which made me want to firk out my eyeballs with a melon baller. So the important thing is this: in forgetting the Muppet’s maudlin meta, I’m guilty of the same nostalgia that The Muppets traffic in, since I blocked out that the Muppets have ALWAYS been meta, and they’ve ALWAYS been maudlin.
The golden age 1970s Muppet Show was never a Muppet Show; its tagline was “It’s the Muppet Show,” predating It’s Gary Shandling’s Show and The Larry Sanders Show by being a Muppet show about the making of The Muppet Show, a kind googly-eyed 30 Rock (unless 30 Rock is itself a googly-eyed 30 Rock). Kermit spent most of his time backstage, on the phone, and arguing with his cast and crew. Special guest stars appeared in the sketches but also, weirdly enough for a children’s show, making demands from their dressing room. Those old hecklers made it clear that they were watching the same show that the audience at home was, rather than that they were part of the show itself. The only way The Muppet Show could have been more transparent would be for them to display the puppeteers, a la Julie Traynor’s Lion King. But they didn’t need to go that far; when they pulled back the opening curtain, it was already clear that they weren’t hiding the man pulling the strings.
And I also forgot how sad Kermit was, how fraught and fragile, how dysfunctional his inter-species, gender-role inverted relationship with Miss Piggy. There was It’s Not Easy Being Green, of course, even though Kermit’s brand of melancholy seemed particularly white. And at least that song ended positively: “But green’s the color of spring/ And green can be cool and friendly-like.” No, it’s Rainbow Connection, a song so wistful, so elegiac, so full of unrequited yearning, that it’s beyond redemption:
Why are there so many songs about rainbows
and what’s on the other side?
Rainbows are visions, but only illusions,
and rainbows have nothing to hide.
So we’ve been told and some choose to believe it.
I know they’re wrong, wait and see.
Someday we’ll find it, the rainbow connection.
The lovers, the dreamers and me.
Who said that every wish would be heard
and answered when wished on the morning star?
Somebody thought of that and someone believed it.
Look what it’s done so far.
The end of the movie, with its roaring crowds and post-credit Deus ex Machina, may finally cure Kermit’s melancholy. But I doubt it, and, I suppose, it wouldn’t be The Muppets without it. So even if the movie is critical of current movies’ obsession with being hip and ironic, The Muppets, seeming sincerity to the contrary, still have a lock on modern mind’s twin concerns: consciousness, and conscience. Not bad for a talking sock.
Of course, this means that I appreciate the Muppets on a much deeper level than you do.
Time: 60 minutes. Close call.