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The Series Project: The Muppets (Part 3)

Professor Witney Seibold runs down the so-called fallow period of Muppet TV movies, and their triumphant return to theaters.

 

Welcome back, Muppeteers, to the third and final week in my exploration of eleven Muppet feature films as part of The Series Project, here, and only here, on CraveOnline. In the first week, I looked at the classic Muppet films from 1979 through the mid-1980s, touching briefly on other Jim Henson-directed projects like The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth. In the second week, I trekked through the oft-maligned but surprisingly solid ‘90s Muppet films, produced after Jim Henson’s tragic death. If you haven’t seen Muppet Treasure Island, I highly recommend it.

This week, we’ll be looking at a kind of sad time for The Muppets. After the cancellation of the short-lived Muppets Tonight, and the box-office drubbing of Muppets from Space, the Muppet characters entered into a kind of experimental phase wherein they would not make any theatrical features, and try to keep themselves in the public consciousness through a series of TV specials, straight-to-video movies, and a string of amusing online shorts. It wouldn’t be until 2011 that they would return to theaters (and with something of a bang at that). But the ‘00s were kind of a fallow time for the Muppets, where they seemed to be struggling to stay relevant.

The Muppets were no stranger to TV specials; indeed, I could have stretched this Series Project into six weeks had I bothered to include all the hour-long Christmas specials and TV shorts, but my arbitrary rules of cinema has me sticking to feature-length TV movies.

I do have to note that, in 2002, The Muppets made a big splash with the band Weezer, who staged the music video for the song “Keep Fishin’” with the Muppet players, as if they, the band, were special guests on an old episode of The Muppet Show. And while the video’s director, Marcos Siega, was better known for music videos, he really nailed the Muppet ethos, and the video was a sweet love letter to a series that Weezer doubtless grew up on. It was not a huge event, but that’s one awesome music video. Especially considering the way it came out of left field to pay tribute to the wonderment of The Muppets. The album came out in the spring of 2002, and the video debuted at about the same time. You can watch the video here.

The last film in this series, if you’ll recall, came out in 1999. The future of the Muppets was in question. Disney was still barking up their tree, and it seemed like there would be a hiatus. The first oasis in the Muppet desert of the ‘00s was…

 

It’s a Very Merry Muppet Christmas Movie (dir. Kirk R. Thatcher, 2002)

This was a 90-minute TV movie that ran on NBC in the Christmas season of 2002. And while it is a proper feature film, it seems to consist of three separate story arcs. My guess is that the director, who was also one of the producers of Muppets Tonight, intended this NBC special to be a sort of backdoor pilot for a new Muppet series to sort of keep the momentum going, although I have no evidence on that.

The film is fine, I suppose. It does feel low-rent, however, when compared to some of the previous feature films. The story is pretty usual, and, indeed, will be reused in the 2011 feature film The Muppets. So the setup is this: We’re watching what is, I presume, the actual lives of the Muppets, as opposed to the feature films that depict the Muppets as players. Kermit (Steve Whitmire), Gonzo (Dave Goelz), and Miss Piggy (now played by Eric Jacobson, replacing Frank Oz) are now, as we would assume them to be after several blows to their pop culture cred, taken to operating the old-fashioned Muppet Theater as seen in The Muppet Show, where they put on live performances.

This is a new conceit in the world of the Muppets, although it is, I think, what we’ve assumed about them all along. That The Muppet Show has continued being performed, even amidst all the other shows and movies, and we just haven’t been allowed to see it. This is the first time we’ve seen the Muppet Theater in a movie. It’s also stated in IAVMMCM that the Muppets put on annual Christmas pageants, and that they’re usually big hits. Joan Cusack, however, playing a greedy villain named Ms. Bitterman, wants to close down The Muppet Theater on Christmas Eve, the night of their big pageant, and raze the building in order to build a hot new nightclub. It’s up to The Muppets to raise enough money to pay back an old real estate debt and save the building by midnight. When they fail to do so, Kermit is thrown into despair.

The entire movie is watched from Heaven by none other than God herself (Whoopi Goldberg) who is being appealed to by an angel named Daniel (David Arquette, the first live actor to appear in more than one of the Muppet films), pleading for divine intervention in Kermit’s life. Daniel is eventually enlisted to be Kermit’s guardian angel who takes him on an It’s a Wonderful Life journey, wherein Kermit sees what the world would be like if he hadn’t been born.

Yeah, this film is episodic for sure. The first act is all rigmarole about making the show better. There are the usual last-minute replacements, battling with Miss Piggy’s ego, and all the slapstick that ensues. At this point in the Muppet history, Kermit is kind of an elder statesman or benevolent theater professor, who looks on all the Muppet shenanigans with a bemused resignation. I wonder, though, just what Miss Piggy offers to the show. I understand she’s supposed to be the typical diva, absorbed in her own antics, vain, and dubiously talented, but we rarely get to see her perform. In this film we finally do see her on stage for the first time, and while it’s fun to see her sing and dance, I wonder why she’s a star attraction. Oddly, despite her ego, her self-absorption, and her oft-fickle relationship with Kermit, Piggy comes across as a team player; an indispensable part of the troupe.

The show that they put on in this film is, by the way, an odd sendup of the 2001 film Moulin Rouge! called Moulin Scrooge! I say it’s odd because it makes the same references to absinthe that the original film did, including a Green Fairy as played by Kermit’s sweet li’l nephew Robin (the late Jerry Nelson). Indeed, the pop culture references fly fast and furious in this film. There’s a Steve Irwin-type (Cameron McDonald, I guess the real Steve Irwin was busy), there’s a scene where Fozzie (also Jacobson) gets painted like The Grinch and is chased by Whos à la the awful 2000 Grinch feature film. And Miss Piggy (in a brief plot point) lands a supporting role on the hit show "Scrubs," and we’re treated to cameos from most of that show’s cast.

The cameos are also back in place. In addition to Goldberg as God, and the "Scrubs" kids, we have appearances from Molly Shannon, Kelly Ripa, William H. Macy, Joe Rogan, Matthew Lillard as a pretentious French director, and Mel Brooks as the voice of a funny, would-be Burl Ives snowman narrator. The snowman, by the way, looks almost identical to the snowman from the notorious 1998 Christmas bomb Jack Frost, wherein the ghost of a young boy’s father possesses the body of a snowman. Jim Henson’s company did make that snowman, so I guess it was wise of them to reuse the puppet. There’s also a cameo by Triumph the Insult Comic Dog, which is especially hilarious, given how low-fi a puppet Triumph is when compared to the more sophisticated Muppet puppets.

The third act is, as I’ve said, an It’s a Wonderful Life thing, and we see a parallel universe wherein Piggy is a crazy cat lady, Beaker is a bouncer, Scooter (Brian Henson) is a cage dancer, and Gonzo is a homeless tramp. Also, Doc Hopper’s French Friend Frog Legs is real in the parallel universe. The film ends on a rather sweet note (how could it not) allowing the Muppets to realize how much they mean to each other. And the theater gets saved by some machinations of Pépe the King Prawn (Bill Barretta). The film is also cleverly theological, letting divine intervention take a kind of gentle and much more satisfying path. Henson himself was a Christian Scientist, so it makes sense that he should be so fond of loving and gentle numerous Christmas specials. And while some of the humor in It’s a Very Merry Muppet Christmas Movie is a little rough (did I mention that Scooter was a cage dancer?), I think he would have approved. Although I’m sure the pop culture stuff would have baffled him.

Also kind of baffling was the kid-friendly version of the Muppets which hit video that same year…


 

Kermit’s Swamp Years (dir. David Gumpel, 2002)

I’m not exactly sure how canonical this film should be considered. It only features a single familiar Muppet face in Kermit (Whitmire), and introduces us to a new universe. Kermit, in this film, is 12 years old, and living in the swamps of Mississippi, just about where Henson himself grew up. If Henson would have been baffled by the odd frenetic nature of the last few films, he would be completely gob-stopped by this. This is such a departure from the tone of the previous Muppet entries – any of them – that it almost feels like fan fiction.

This isn’t even the same Kermit, really. We see the Kermit we’re used to at first in an introduction, but then the bulk of the flick follows a kind of redesigned Kermit puppet, which a bigger head and cuter features. It’s like the halfway mark between "Muppet Babies" and the present. Kermit’s Swamp Years also, in terms of its target audience, skews way, way younger than any of the previous films. It’s calm and bland and safe. There are no sharp edges, and, indeed, the colorful felt characters and even TV lighting give the entire film a playpen aesthetic. This film is less like a Muppet film, and more like a "Sesame Street" spinoff. Adult fans of the series will find nothing here. I imagine little kids will like it, though.

The story is dirt simple: The 12-year-old Kermit (and the year is ambiguous), longs for something more outside of the swamp, much to chagrin of his childhood friends Croaker (Bill Barretta) and the toad Goggles (Joey Mazzarino). An evil frog hunter named Dr. Krassman (John Hostetter) is scouring the swamp for frogs for unknown purposes, and is aided by his good-hearted young assistant Mary (Kelly Collin Lintz). When Goggles and the local frog bully Blotch (John Kennedy) are kidnapped, it’s up to Kermit and Croaker to rescue them. They are eventually joined by a talking dog named Pilgrim (Alice Dinnean), and the three of them have to trek to a pet store and then to a high school to rescue their friends. Pilgrim is an odd creation, as she’s a real dog in long shots, but a Muppet in close-ups. I don’t know how that taxonomy works. Real animals rarely co-exist with Muppet animals. I guess I always assumed that Muppets were a species of Pokémon. Or maybe Pokémon are a species of Muppet. And who, really, cares?

Eventually it’s revealed that the frogs have been donated to a high school for dissection. Eep. Also that the mad frog hunter from the film’s beginning was mocked for talking to a frog back in school, and has hated frogs ever since. The usual, easy-to-digest kid film conceits are firmly in place. There are also a few songs, and a few musical montages, but they’re all pretty forgettable. No Paul Williams music here.

There is also another interesting and baffling notion in this film: Kermit speaks to humans for the first time in his life (assuming that the Nanny from Muppet Babies doesn’t count). This was, perhaps, the first time Muppets were revealed to the world of humans. What?? Were the Muppet animals hiding from the world up until this point? Were they like secret vampires, or the toys in Toy Story, having to remain animals in front of humans, due to unwritten rules of propriety? We can glean from Kermit’s Swamp Years that Kermit, at age 12, first introduced the world to Muppets, and that Muppets were, I guess, granted citizenship in human society. This lends a creepy and unneeded parallel universe vibe to all the Muppet films that I don’t like. I thought they just lived with us, and we only saw them on TV because they were big stars. I never thought that there was a time when Muppets were hidden from the world.

Kermit’s Swamp Years is a good way to introduce your young kids to Kermit the Frog, provided the breakneck pace and edgy humor of "Sesame Street" is too much for them.

In 2004, Disney would finally achieve their goal of buying the Muppet characters. Rather than supe them up immediately, and sell them in a big-budget feature film (as would happen in 2011), Disney opted for another cheap television special. Let’s look at…


 

The Muppets’ Wizard of Oz (dir. Kirk R. Thatcher, 2005)

I said last week that I loved the “Classic Theater” approach to the Muppets, i.e., that the Muppets would be repertory players and supporting characters in classic literature. L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz makes for a good classic book, and is most certainly a story most people are familiar with, but The Muppets’ Wizard of Oz makes a misstep in the conceit: They don’t adapt the novel directly (that is: setting their film version at the time the events of the book took place), opting instead for a Muppet version of The Wizard of Oz that also takes place in the modern day, and recasts the events of the book in a more pop-culture-friendly TV idiom.

As such, Dorothy Gale is not a put-upon 10-year-old white girl, but is now played by the 25-year-old pop star Ashanti. And she’s not just bored by Kansas life, but dreams of running away and getting a big-city career as a pop star. Oz is not an enchanted semi-Medieval kingdom, but a hip land of nightclubs and motorcycles and bottled water. Toto is no longer a little dog, but is played by the sassy Pépe (Bill Barretta). I don’t mind the repurposing of Baum’s original novel; after all, how many versions of this story are there on film? I’d wager dozens. But the one-two punch of Muppetizing the story and making at all hip seems like overkill.

The film still has the slightly irreverent humor that The Muppets are known for, but it’s lacking in the sweetness that many of the previous films had. I think a lot of that comes from the absence of Kermit. Well, Kermit is in the film, but he plays a very small role, and, indeed, is recast as The Scarecrow. Kermit may be feckless and naïve at times, but he’s not a clumsy idiot like The Scarecrow. Gonzo is recast at The Tin Woodman, although in this version, he’s an android called The T.I.N. Thing. Fozzie is the Cowardly Lion. The Munchkins are all played by Rizzo (Steve Whitmire) and the other rats we’ve seen in previous movies.

Something to the film’s credit: I actually hews closer to Baum’s original novel, and doesn’t just remake the well-known 1939 Wizard of Oz feature film. Indeed, apart from a gingham apron, there don’t seem to be any references to the 1939 film at all. It also includes the book’s conceit that The Wizard looks different to each of the travelers, it reincorporated the Kalidahs (in the book, a species of intelligent catbears, in this movie, Waldorf and Statler), and separates Glinda and The Witch of the North back into the separate characters as they were in the source material. The witches, however, are all played by Miss Piggy. As the Wicked Witch of the West, Piggy is given an eyepatch, and her magical cap is now a biker’s cap. The flying monkeys are all the evil pirate Muppets from Muppet Treasure Island, and all bikers. I’ll say this for the ‘00s Muppet films: They’re very good about maintaining the supporting Muppet players that have been introduced along the way. If you’re a fan of Bobo the Bear, for instance, or the lovely Angel Marie, they’re all in this film.

It’s a genial enough film, The Muppets’ Wizard of Oz, but, I dunno, it feels a little flat. It doesn’t have the wit, the classical oomph, or the energy of the earlier adaptation films. The jokes don’t feel like sprightly punchlines, but more like pop culture pandering. I can’t say if this is a result of the Disney influence. I can’t say how much of the film’s material was dictated by the studio. Some of the usual Muppet-flavored jokes are there, but there’s a vital innocence missing. Like the film elected, rather actively, to skew away from the sweet and lovely corniness of the Muppet ethos, and stabbed toward the self-aware “I recognize that!” jokes that marked a lot of kid flicks of the era. True, The Muppets were always self-aware; it started out as a behind-the-scenes TV show after all; but too much self-awareness – especially in a pop culture mode – is no good thing. I think I might blame Shrek for this. That self-aware, snarky (and bafflingly popular) 2001 film was more influential than it should have been.

This is clearly evidenced by the presence of Ashanti in the lead role. She’s a charming screen presence, but is clearly more a singer than she is an actress. I’m guessing that she was cast because she was really hot in 2005. The cameos are in place here, but they’re kind of odd celebrities to select. Auntie Em is played by Queen Latifah. Uncle Henry is played by David Allen Grier. The Wizard is played by Jeffrey Tambor, the second live actor to reappear in a Muppet film. And then – get this – there’s a totally bonkers cameo by Quentin Tarantino, playing himself. Right at the film’s climax, Tarantino interrupts the action and pitches an action scene to Kermit. He’s just as twitchy and hyperkinetic as you’ve seen in interviews. Tarantino’s presence in this movie makes no sense at all. Little kids who would be into this ABC TV movie would not be old enough – or really interested – in Tarantino’s movies. The adults who have seen Tarantino’s movies are not likely to rent The Muppets’ Wizard of Oz. Well, unless they’re bonkers critics like me with a mad compulsion toward completion.

The film wasn’t a big hit, needless to say. Indeed, it would be six years before The Muppets were to return to the screen in a feature film context. There was a 2008 hour-long TV special called A Muppets Christmas: Letters to Santa, which I haven’t seen. I have seen several of the stop-gap Muppet projects, however, that were, in addition being clearly produced to keep the franchise afloat, were actually slick and funny. It’s likely that you saw the 2009 music video of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” featuring the Muppet players. Waldorf and Statler would comment on the video as if they were, like you, watching it on YouTube. Is it me, or is it odd to see The Muppets embracing new media like this? I know that, should they want to keep the characters alive and active, they need to adapt to how things are being consumed, but there has always been something old-fashioned about The Muppets. Something quaint.

Disney’s attempts at beefing up their recently-acquired Muppets stretched into the flowing area: They hired a well-loved comedy presence – someone who was a fan of the Muppets, and who previously had nothing to do with the franchise – to do their own take on the material. This was also done rather successfully with Star Trek, if you’ll recall. So let’s see how life was put back into the series with the first theatrical Muppet feature since 1999.


 

The Muppets (dir. James Bobin, 2011)

James Bobin directed most of the episodes of the delightful cult comedy series "Flight of the Conchords." Bret McKenzie from Flight of the Conchords wrote the songs, and they’re delightful and pretty spot-on. This film was conceived and written by hipster comedian Jason Segel from Forgetting Sarah Marshall, a rabid Muppet fan.

The Muppets is a pretty dang delightful film, even though it does have a slight whiff of fan pandering. Only a slight whiff, though. The film is, after all, about a Muppets fan who, because of his fandom, breathes new life into the Muppets, and, indeed, is allowed to join the Muppets. This is a rather self-indulgent premise, coming, as it does, from a Muppets fan. Its fandom, The Muppets posits, that will keep the object of your affection alive. This is, of course, true; a property will only continue as long as fans support it. But this film seems to place some undue credit in the hands of the fans, and not so much in the magic and glory of the actual Muppets. The film then reprises Muppet hits like “Manah Manah” and “The Rainbow Connection.”

I’ll try to be brief on this film, as it has been reviewed in the pages of CraveOnline before. You likely saw this film, as it was a big hit and a critical darling (getting a 9 out of 10 on this very site). Many critics, indeed, were rather superlative on it.

The film follows a Muppet character named Walter (Peter Linz), who lives in a small town in the middle of America. He is a biological brother of Gary (Jason Segel), who is dating the lovely Mary (Amy Adams), frustrated that Gary has not proposed marriage after a decade of dating. This setup implies that Muppets are occasionally born to human parents. Maybe Gary is half Muppet. Maybe being a Muppet is like being born left-handed. Anyway, Walter, dissatisfied with his life as a puppet man, latches onto The Muppet Show as an object of aspiration. This means we’re also in a new level of reality. The Muppet Show is, in this universe, an actual show. How meta.

Also in this universe, Kermit and The Muppets have, as we have perceived them, kind of scattered. They are no longer working together, and each have their own jobs. How long do Muppets live, I wonder? Kermit (Steve Whitmire) lives in a big empty mansion, alone. Miss Piggy (Eric Jacobson) is a magazine editor in Paris. Gonzo (Dave Goelz) runs his own plumbing factory. Fozzie (Jacobson) is working the b-performer circuit. Even though The Muppets have been steadily churning out content (however popular), this film treats them as if they are popularly fallow. Which indeed, in a way, they are at this point. But I think The Muppets exaggerates a little too much.

Walter, while on vacation in Hollywood, and visiting the now-abandoned Muppet film studio (previously unseen in the previous movies), overhears an evil corporate sleazeball named Tex Richman (a very good Chris Cooper) say that he intends to buy the studio, raze it, and dig for oil underneath. Just like Joan Cusack! It’s up to Walter to go to Kermit’s house and convince him to reunite the Muppets, put on another show, and raise the money needed to save the studio from the evil Richman. By the end of the film, the Muppets have reunited, Walter is given credit, is allowed to join the Muppet troupe, and Gary finally proposes to Mary.

Some of the new Muppets aren’t here. Pépe is only in one scene. Clifford is around, I think. Celebrity cameos include Jack Black, Sarah Silverman, Zach Galifianakis, Kristen Schaal, Dave Grohl… yeah a lot of hip young comedians. There’s also Whoopi Goldberg and Selena Gomez and Neil Patrick Harris, and a few others.

I like the songs, I like the characters, and the film is bright and fun in a way kids films almost never are. The Muppets is certainly the best of the films since the mid-1990s. But there is, still, some of that sweet melancholy and shabbiness missing from this new version. I guess it’s gone for good. This film contains kung fu references, and the word “fart” is spoken aloud. This is not really the old Muppet way. Frank Oz, the original voice of Miss Piggy, reportedly, complained about this as well. His complaints are legitimate, but that doesn’t mean The Muppets isn’t fun and funny.

There was some controversy, I understand, about the casting of this film. Whitmire, Goelz, and Jacobson were all involved, but a lot of the supporting Muppet puppeteers, who have been with the characters since the beginning, were replaced by new puppeteers. The film was a hit, and, as many have observed, a welcome shot in the arm for The Muppets, but Jason Segel may perhaps have been disinvited from continuing the franchise because of this. I want it heard that the previous paragraph is based entirely on hearsay, and I apologize for perpetuating gossip, if that’s what it proves to be.


 

Series Overview:

As I said at the beginning of this three-week endeavor, The Muppets, just like the Peanuts characters, no matter their iteration, seem to be such wonderfully pure characters that they are practically immune to all commercial ruination. No matter how unpopular the project they are currently involved in, and no matter how much over-marketing and overexposure they are exposed to, they come out on the other side as sweet and as lovable as they were at the start. The Muppets are strangely immortal.

Whither the Muppets now? I hear The Muppets 2 (and I hope that’s not the final title) is in the works, and will continue the myth established in the 2011 film. I would love to see more musical shorts and music videos in the interim. And while I did very much like the 2011 film, I think I would prefer if they continued less with the fates of the Muppet characters and did more classical literature. Because of their purity and immortality, it would only be unwise to explore the characters origins in any sort of “canonical” way. Y’know, like how Miss Piggy got that way is not nearly as interesting as that she is that way. They don’t need to build The Muppets’ myth. It’s built. Don’t tear it down by prodding at the base.

To reiterate the three eras:
 

The Classic Era (1979 – 1985)

This era contained the first three feature films, as well as Labyrinth and The Dark Crystal. Even though some of the films in this era are of dubious humor, and I’m still not too keen on The Great Muppet Caper, my generation tends to adore these movies. The Muppet Movie is still sweet and lovely.
 

The Literature Era (1992 – 1999)

This was the post-Jim Henson era wherein different studios vied for control of the Muppets, and they made two solid, good-looking and funny films by retelling classic stories with Muppet players. This was also the time, sadly, of Muppets Tonight, and its notable failure. It was this failure, I think, that crippled the Muppets until 2011.
 

The Dregs (2002 – 2010)

This was all TV specials and straight-to-video movies, and the era when Disney bought the characters in earnest. I only admire these films for keeping the Muppets active, but I don’t think I’ll have too much nostalgia for, say, The Muppets’ Wizard of Oz the same way I do for The Muppet Movie or Muppet Treasure Island.
 

A Modern Era? (2011 – ?)

Some critics have said that the most recent film will allow The Muppets to grow in a new direction. If they’re all as good as the 2011, I have no problem with that. I’m eager, though, to see how these characters will live on.

And they will live on.