Monday, December 12, 2011

Disney’s the Muppets - Yes, it's Both

The Muppet Movie brought back the Muppet Show crew, with all their heart and humor.  For the most part new actors have retained the spirit of the characters and presented what’s been great about the Muppets for all these years.

Tha gang's all here, and they brought the funny.
However, as full of laughs and other emotions that this film was, I can’t call it a real “Muppet Movie”.

It was a Muppet tribute.
Here’s the key way to tell the difference. This film had all the old Muppet gang getting together for a wonderful, heartfelt, and touching performance of “The Rainbow Connection”. 

That’s a tribute.

A Muppet movie would have a gang of Muppets getting together to sing a new, original, wonderful, heartfelt, and touching song that makes everyone feel as good as “Rainbow Connection” does.

This is not a bad thing however; as I think the world’s not ready for a real Muppet movie just yet.  I’m all about vaudeville/burlesque/music hall comedy, and have been my whole life.  I’ve been a fan of original Sesame Street and the Electric Company, Abbot and Costello and Marx Brother's films, Laugh In, Benny Hill, You Can’t Do that on Television,  countless seventies variety series (and nineties revivals thereof) and of course, The Muppet Show.  There’s almost always been a way to see that kind of comedy.  Earlier years had even more with examples like the Ed Sullivan and Dean Martin shows, and Your Show of Shows. 

A typical "Weirdo!" scene from my favorite episode.
The Muppets were amazing, as not only did they carry that kind of humor along, integrating it seamlessly with everyone from obvious guests like Peter Sellers, Steve Martin and Milton Berle, but also those that it shouldn’t, such as Alice Cooper, Harry Belafonte and Sylvester Stallone.
Elton John, I think, may actually be a Muppet.
Also, with the possible exceptions of Ernie Kovacs and the Monty Python troupe, the Henson gang had the best handle on how to exploit the medium of television to make the comedy work.

These days, that type of humor is sorely missing. Conjuring up a straight Muppet Movie might have lacked an audience.  Therefore, the way Jason Segel pulled this off was brilliant.  Instead of an original style, unbridled, craziness filled, old school Muppet film; or yet another watered down “Muppet version” of some other story, this was an explanation.  Segel took the role of the voice of all of us rabidly looney Muppet Show fans, and used this movie as an example filled pile of “show don’t tell” to explain to the rest of the world why the Muppets were so great. 

Almost all the original songs are carried more than half by humans.  (Bonus points for getting Amy Adams, who proved in Enchanted that she is the queen of Broadway style musical numbers, erupting out of nowhere, in inappropriate locations, for no reason at all.)  There’s only one exception to this, which I’ll get to later.  Even the big new “single” from the film, “Life’s a Happy Song” wasn’t really a Muppet song, which is why the version of it on Dancing with the Stars scared the snot out of me by being totally soulless. It was a Mickey Rooney, Judy Garland, randomly dancing town full of people number, with Muppets thrown in.  Squeezing the reprise onto a stage didn't work to begin with, not to mention that a reprise tends to lack punch if you haven't heard the initial version of the song.
Note the very low Muppet to Human ratio.
The big Muppet numbers were either set to stock music (“We Built This City”, “Me and Julio”...Nice nodd to the only Muppet Show guest to have an entire episode feature only songs he wrote.) or old Muppet Standards (“Rainbow Connection”, “Manah Manah”).  However, in another example of “show don’t tell” they did work in a couple wonderful Muppetizations of modern hits in the telethon.

I was very concerned about this film focusing on the old gang, mostly because I’ve seen what’s happened on Sesame Street.  Puppets are far more based on their puppeteers than cartoons are on voice actors. (Don’t get me started on digital Yoda.) Mel Blanc always voiced Bugs Bunny, but the Tex Avery, Friz Freeling, and Chuck Jones Bugs’s are all different.
Disagree? Sorry, I can't hear you, there's a banana in my ear.
Henson and Oz turned Ernie and Bert into one of the premier comedy teams of the twentieth century. They had chemistry, heart, soul, timing, and they brought the funny by the truckload.  The combination of new artists running them, with the stranglehold the educational "experts” have on the show now has rendered Ernie as just a puppet in most scenes. 

Someone new taking over a Muppet has two choices.

1) Do a direct imitation of the original performer- which can come off as hollow and emotionless.
2) Infuse their own personality into the Muppet - which can change the character from who we all know and love.

Steve Whitmire’s Kermit SOUNDED much more like Henson’s when he first started, but Kermit comes across as much more alive now that he’s made the frog his own, even though it’s increased the difference from the original version than when he started.

This was why I really liked Muppets Tonight.  The original gang was mostly in the background, allowing new performers to fully develop original loveable and hysterical characters. Bill Barretta seemed to fare the best: Pepe, Bobo, Bill the Bubble Guy, Johnny Fiamma, Big Mean Carl, etc. Brian Henson also had several good ones, often working with Barretta (Seymour the Elephant, Sal the Monkey) plus Doctor Phil Van Neuter.  The Muppet philosophy can easily continue, even if every single character doesn’t.
Disney didn't force this cameo in, my daughter did.
The reason for focusing on the Muppet Show gang is part of the proof that this was definitely DISNEY’S the Muppets. Aside from cameos by Disney stars and the in your face Cars 2 poster, there were some large indications that the Great Mouse Empire is running the show now.

The original Muppet Show headliners were focused on, and positioned for, establishment and maintenance of the brand. Keeping their characters true to form, relevant and in the public eye is something Disney does better than anyone else, and while it may limit new character development, will go a long way to preventing any future “Muppet droughts.”

As a side note, I hope this doesn’t lead to a revamp of the Disney Park’s Muppetvision 3D attraction. It’s the final appearance of Jim Henson voicing Kermit. Considering his ways to finish a sketch he couldn’t figure out how to end was either:

A) Blow something up
B) Have something eat something else
C) Throw a bunch of penguins around
Penguins about to blow things up right before being eaten by a giant vacuum.

As Muppetvision ends with all three, I can think of no better tribute to one of the few I think should have been granted immortality.  (Actually, I can. They should retire Rowlf, but that’s a thought for another day.)

The other obvious indication of Disney involvement is the fact that almost every fun moment was balanced with emotional tearjerker scenes as well.  The Muppets had some of them in the past, but not with this frequency or power.   When you’ve got a theater full of crying children (and adults) right before the big happy closing number, you can bet the film started with a magic castle, and Walt’s “For every laugh a tear must fall,” edict is still in vogue.

The song I said I’d mention later is Kermit’s “Pictures in my Head”.  It combined both of these Disneyisms into one powerful emotional punch reminding us how much we missed the Muppet Show days.

We’re not losing the old ways to sentimentality and Disnified mush, however. There was also plenty of evidence that this was, Disney’s THE MUPPETS.  The gags about some of the cameo’s being forced were just part of it. The key is that every single sad, depressing, or heartbreaking moment was at least partially shattered by an inside joke, ignoring of the fourth wall, or (in extreme cases) fart shoes.

I guess I’m going to have to accept the romance between Kermit and Piggy as real. While long established in the Muppet world it does represent a shift from the original status quo. Yes, seeing the frog and pig work through their differences and admit their love for each other is sweet, heartwarming, and full of Disneyishness (which is why I’m sure it isn’t going away). But the Muppet Show version with Kermit exasperatingly trying to deal with Piggy’s obsessive romantic fantasies was WAAAAAAAY funnier. (And I always thought Kermit and Linda Ronstadt made a more natural couple.)
It's not easy bein' green, but it's so easy to fall in love.
While I’m ranting: (It really wouldn’t be a movie review without some.) Animal’s journey with Jack Black was a nice nod to the James Coburn episode, but when he finally grabbed his drumsticks, we should have gotten an out of control, primal, grunt and scream filled solo, much longer, louder and more immediate than the token one that had to wait for after the rhythmic beat of “Rainbow Connection”…
I’m just saying.
Chuck Norris WISHES he was this awesome.
Oh, and please drop the subtitles...if you can't understand the Chef or the chickens, you need to buckle down and watch more Muppets until you do.

Over the top geekly rants aside, this celebration of Muppety things was a great return to yesteryear, and it gave me two very good reasons to expect to see real Muppet Movies following after it.

The evolution of a whatever.
The first is Gonzo. Like many Muppets, and other fictional characters in general, Gonzo got cuter over time.  He, Fozzie and Piggy are all became much more marketable than their initial, kinda creepy, appearances.  However, Gonzo’s personality changed too.  He’s always been performed by the great Dave Goelz, but over time the character matured. (Matured may be too strong a word here.)  Gonzo started out as a borderline disturbing lunatic performance artist, doing the surreal, the hazardous, or the unsanitary (often all three).  He frequently found himself reduced to yelling at the audience (“RUBES!, YOKELS”) or at least injuring them. Over time he became much more of a Late Night TV/Used Car Salesman huckster type personality.  When the gang finds him running a successful plumbing business, and he finally gives in, he reveals what us old school fans have long believed.  His performance artist attire was on underneath the suit all this time, and he always had a stunt involving an insane fall and giant explosion planned, just in case.

Let's hear it for the new guy!

The second hope I have for the future is named Walter.  This is not only because the newest Muppet made me cry, laugh, and emotionally root for him to succeed.  It’s because of his special talent.

Walter can whistle. He can whistle well enough to move the entire audience (the real one, not the one on screen) to cheer for his triumph and skill.  In other words, a group of actual people were vastly impressed by the abilities of a puppet to whistle.

I can only think of one thing more strangely impressive.

The answer to the question which has baffled mankind throughout the ages.

Namely: Can the Frog Tap Dance?

And the answer is…


Anabelle said...

900 out of 10. I love you so much! Love, Anabelle

Jeff McGinley said...

Thanx kiddo, laughing at it with you made it extra special.