Saturday, April 26, 2008

Reviving The Muppets

Sifting through the hype about Jason Segel’s full-frontal performance in Forgetting Sarah Marshall, I came across a piece of news from March that I’d missed: Segel is working on a new Muppet movie. Details are slim at this point, but a story on MTV’s Movies Blog suggests that the plot of the Muppet project has been outlined and that Segel “hopes to dive in to the flick after his soon-to-shoot movie I Love You, Man.” The blog also reports that Seth Rogan, Jonah Hill, Kristen Wiig and Paul Rudd have been approached about making cameos in the movie, which Segel says will attempt to conjure the magic of The Muppet Movie (1979), The Great Muppet Caper (1981) and The Muppets Take Manhattan (1984), while moving away from “all those weird concept movies” like the literature-inspired The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992), Muppet Treasure Island (1996) and TV’s The Muppets’ Wizard Of Oz (2005), etcetera.

As a still-passionate fan of the Muppets (Season 3 of The Muppet Show can’t hit DVD fast enough), this comes as great news: not just that another Muppet movie is in the works but also that Segel will try to bring the Muppets back to heart-warming, knee-slapping basics. Then again, I’m more than a little concerned about how the R-rated-and-proud-of-it humor of the Judd Apatow clan will translate into the Muppet universe. I’d like to think that Segel & Friends have enough class and creativity to keep the Muppets G-rated, but I’m not willing to bet on it. For the moment, I’ll hesitantly give them the benefit of my massive doubt. That Segel identifies how and when the Muppets drifted off course (Jim Henson’s death had a lot to do with it) bodes well for his attempt at revitalization. But beyond the obvious requirement for the upcoming flick that Kermit shouldn’t bare his green genitalia or resort to making jokes about giving it to Miss Piggy “amphibian style,” here are 10 suggestions to make the new Muppet movie a must-see.

1) Put Kermit in the spotlight. Look, I know that Steve Whitmire’s Kermit doesn’t compare to Henson’s, but the character is iconic. After Henson’s death in 1990, the Muppet creative team (including Henson’s son Brian) wisely and respectfully tried to move away from Kermit as the focal point rather than pretend that Kermit’s heart and Henson’s weren’t one and the same. But Kermit is essential. M*A*S*H wouldn’t have worked without Hawkeye. Cheers wouldn’t have worked without Sam. The Muppets can’t work without Kermit. Henson used to be the axis upon which the Muppet world spun. Now the show must rely on Henson’s most famous character.

2) Pass on newer characters. In short, if the character was introduced to the public in the era of Muppets Tonight, the short-lived attempt at reinventing The Muppet Show in the mid-90s, don’t bother. Since only die-hard Muppet fans were watching Muppets Tonight, only die-hards could identify Clifford, Pepe, Bobo, Johnny Fiama and Sal, and most of us wouldn’t want to. Kids coming to the Muppets to the first time will fall in love with entertaining characters, period. Thus the new film would be wise to entice the nostalgia of lapsed fans by relying on the characters that powered five Muppet Show seasons and the Jim Henson-made movies, not to mention seven seasons of the animated Muppet Babies.

3) Use human actors for villains or brief cameos only. The Henson films rely on the personality of the Muppets themselves. Human actors have made great villains – Charles Durning as Doc Hopper, Charles Grodin as Nicky Holiday and even Michael Caine as Ebenezer Scrooge – but otherwise they have been best utilized in crisp, cherishable cameos, such as Bob Hope, Richard Pryor, Steve Martin, James Coburn and Orson Welles (among others) in Movie. Only John Cleese in Caper stands out as making a comparatively extended cameo without souring the Muppet spirit.

4) Use actual stars for the cameos. Just look at that list of names from No. 3. Sorry, but Rogan, Hill, Wiig and Rudd don’t compare, just like David Arquette, Kathy Griffin, Ray Liotta and Rob Schneider didn’t suffice in Muppets From Space (1999). If Jimmy Kimmel can draw Don Cheadle, Harrison Ford, Brad Pitt and Robin Williams for a YouTube-minded song about fucking Ben Affleck, the Muppets should be able to draw A-listers.

5) Songs, goddammit, songs! Kermit’s mission in Movie is to sing, dance and make people happy. That’s what the Muppets do. To have them try to win over audiences doing something else is to miss the point. Movie and Caper remain the best two Muppet films because they have the best songs: “Rainbow Connection,” “Movin’ Right Along,” “I Hope That Something Better Comes Along,” “Hey, A Movie,” “Happiness Hotel,” and “The First Time It Happens,” to name a few. If you don’t have music, you don’t have Muppets.

6) Put the Muppets in the real world. Though Jim Henson’s movies put the Muppets in the spotlight, they also put the Muppets into human-dominated surroundings. It’s the juxtaposition of the Muppets against their human counterparts that makes them special. It’s the sincerity with which the Muppets are treated in these human settings that makes them real. And by putting mostly vertically-challenged Muppets next to humans, Henson shows the world though the eyes of children. Watching Kermit walk into the loud, chaotic El Sleezo at the start of Movie, we sense his vulnerability, only to be won over by his determination. This is why we love the Muppets.

7) No special effects. In Movie, Kermit rides a bicycle. At the end of Caper, Henson ups the ante by putting the entire Muppet cast on bikes. These moments are special in part because they are almost impossible to do while remaining faithful to the laws of puppetry. CGI, by making anything possible, takes the magic out of it. The classic homage to High Noon at the end of the Movie, featuring a skinny-legged Kermit in cowboy boots, would be pedestrian if done digitally. Puppetry must prevail.

8) Pay homage. How about tipping the cap back to some of the old Muppet films? I’d pay good money to see Martin back in that tie-and-shorts ensemble as the “insolent waiter” from Movie. What’s Grodin doing these days? And throw in some allusions to non-Muppets cinema. Why can’t John Cusack appear as Being John Malkovich’s Craig Schwartz? So long as Kermit isn’t drinking anyone’s milkshake, I’m for it.

9) Keep it loose. “Good grief, it’s a running gag,” Kermit says to the camera in Movie when the waitress with a lisp keeps answering to the word “myth.” “Your voice was dubbed,” Miss Piggy screams at Grodin’s Nicky in Caper. As in those moments and others, Henson was never afraid to let his characters remind us that we’re only watching a movie. No joke was ever too foolish for his pun-happy Muppets, and no one loved to revel in the foolishness more than Henson. So throw some penguins in the air and have fun with it.

10) Have Jim Henson and Jerry Juhl write it. Oh, well. Nine out of 10 ain’t bad.


Tom said...

Great list! I agree with almost everything.

I would agree with #7 but only with qualifications. Henson always used to amaze the audience with what the puppets could do in a movie. There have been many movies where the Muppets haven't done anything amazing at all.

You remember the car commercial that Kermit was in about 2 years ago? Kermit canoed down a river and climbed up a mountain. While the puppet was real, the puppeteer had been digitally removed. I kept asking myself, "How did they do that?" The new Muppet movie needs some amazing moments like that, and if it has to be computer-assissted (as opposed to all-CGI Muppets or something), then I'm all for it.

Also, The Muppet Show ran for 5 seasons, not 6. :)

Overall, though, everything you say is spot-on. Thanks for sharing!

Jason Bellamy said...

Tom: Thanks for the comment, and the correction (I've edited the post accordingly).

As for special effects: I'm with you. My qualification is that the Muppets themselves must always be puppets. If the puppeteers are camouflaged by green screen or otherwise digitally removed, I'm okay with that. Still, I think the old-fashioned "How did they do that?" (Kermit playing his banjo in the swamp) is more exciting, because the answer isn't: they used a computer. So smoke and mirrors trumps CGI.

Thanks again for the comments.