The Muppet Show ran for several years and took one minor character from Sesame Street—Kermit the Frog—and introduced a slew of new ones who would become iconic in their own right: Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear, Gonzo the Great. The Swedish Chef. Statler and Waldorf. Lew Zealand and his Boomerang Fish. Rowlf, Scooter and Rizzo the Rat. Dr. Bunsen Honeydew and Beaker. The show featured a ton of TV and movie stars who, by the late 1970s were either over the hill, or were up-and-comers who starred in things kids might be interested in. The whole thing had this weird mix of puppeteering make-believe and live action, and for any number of reasons, the show should not have worked. And yet, it did.
Those of us who loved the show loved the hell out of it, and we still do. We miss it. We think fondly of those days, and of the first three Muppet movies that followed – The Muppet Movie, the Great Muppet Caper and Muppets Take Manhattan. And we think fondly of the shows and movies that incorporated Muppet-style effects into them, such Fraggle Rock, the Star Wars Trilogy, the Dark Crystal and Labyrinth.
Then Jim Henson died.
Henson, of course, was the guy who invented the Muppets. He was the voice of Kermit the Frog. He was to Muppets what Steve Jobs was to Apple. And once he was gone, his son Brian did his best to keep things going, and he even got three more Muppet movies made—The Muppet’s Christmas Story, Treasure Island and Muppets in Space—but they just weren’t the same. They felt all wrong. So did Muppets Tonight, a short-lived effort to create an updated version of the Muppet Show. So much for the Muppets.
Henson’s death really seemed to take part of my childhood with it. When you grow older, you forget about the heartfelt joys of your youth, or you push them aside to make room for the things adulthood requires of you. But who would not want to return to the things that once filled you with wonder? This is the essence of nostalgia, but without Jim Henson, that is what the Muppets had been relegated to: a thing of mere nostalgia. That hurt. Because it was the world’s way of telling you that as much as this thing might have mattered to you once, it just doesn’t matter any more at all. Nobody likes to hear that about the things they love.
Some years ago, Disney bought the rights to the Muppets in what seemed like a weird acquisition. And before long, the Muppets had their own theme park attraction, stoking the hopes that maybe they might actually do something with these characters again. And finally, after too long a wait, they did.
The Muppets came out in 2011, telling a simple tale of a boy, a girl, and a boy who is really a Muppet seeking out his own kind. It involves a “get the band back together” story in which Kermit must reunite all of the main characters from the Muppet Show for one last performance—a telethon, actually—in the hopes that they might raise enough money to save their old, decrepit theatre from being bulldozed. What follows is a simple musical story not that different from the original Muppet Movie so many years before wherein Kermit and his new friends road trip in search of their old friends, rekindling relationships gone to seed, and trying to make up for past transgressions.
It is the kind of story that works well for kids. But what makes the story work especially well for adults, and adults like me in particular, is that it acknowledges the history of the Muppets, and the long time that has past since they were originally popular. Kermit himself lives as kind of a shut in, a guy who was once really popular, and who has acknowledged that his days of fame have long passed him by. There is an utterly heartbreaking musical number called “Pictures in my Head,” in which Kermit walks through a gallery of photos of his old buddies, and laments that he lacked the leadership to keep them from all going their separate ways. I cried like a baby when I saw that because of a guy like Kermit falls to despair, what chance to the rest of us have? Kermit’s problems echo the fact that as we grew up and left the Muppets behind, so have the Muppets themselves.
The rest of the movie is not nearly so down, but you do get hints of it again when you realize that for all of their rekindled madcap energy, the Muppets are still unable to save their theatre. Near the end of the telethon, in a last hope to raise enough viewership to save the theatre, Kermit sings “The Rainbow Connection,” the wonderful, instrospective, melancholy song that he opened The Muppet Movie with way back in 1979. It’s as close to going back to the very beginning as these Muppets can ever get. And hearing Kermit sing that again not as a starry-eyed amphibian wondering what world exists for him outside of the swamp…but as a guy who is desperately trying to save the thing he built in the years since he left the swamp behind…well, it’s bittersweet. And then, as he is first joined by Miss Piggy, and then the rest of the cast, well, it’s like cutting onions.
But hey, this is a Muppet movie, and eventually things turn out. That’s not a spoiler, that’s just me telling you that no matter how brilliantly this movie went into dark territory, it never lost its way there. This thing is one crazy episode after the other that remind us how fun the Muppets are when they’re not constrained to teaching us how to read, count, or be decent citizens. Kermit and Miss Piggy’s failed relationship can’t stay failed forever. And even though the Muppets couldn’t raise the money they needed to save their theatre, they did manage to remind the world that they existed.
That is the movie’s moment of truth: when all seems lost, the Muppets accept their fate but renew their devotion to each other, and walk out into the world not as an act, but as a family. And there, filling the street are thousands of fans who cheer these crazy weirdos with a love that is vibrant and true and real. You guys. You guys! We haven’t forgotten you! We will never, ever forget you. We love you. And we always will.
Okay, I have got to quit cutting onions in here. I can’t even see the screen anymore.
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