the Muppets (with a lowercase ‘t’)

It’s no doubt disproportionately philosophical to think as deeply and agonizingly about The Muppets as I have the past few days, let alone write a critical essay about it. But the Muppets—being Jim Henson’s wonderfully dexterous family of puppets led by Kermit the Frog—played a huge role in my happy childhood days. We inherited a love for the Muppets from our mother, and while I only saw bits and pieces of the original Muppet Show growing up, I fed on a steady diet of The Muppet Movie, The Great Muppet Caper, The Muppets Take Manhattan, The Muppet Christmas Carol, Muppet Treasure Island, and Muppets from Space—not to mention Labyrinth, The Dark Crystal, Sesame Street, Fraggle Rock, Muppet Babies, and far lesser known offshoots (Muppet Classic Theatre, anyone? How about the album Kermit Unpigged?). I should hope I qualify as a fan.

Jim Henson was something special. Like Walt Disney, he had a massive imagination and the entrepreneurial gumption to bring it to life. The inimitable voice of Kermit, Rowlf, Ernie, and others, he created a distinct brand of entertainment—part wordplay, part sarcasm, part slapstick, part irony…all heart. Along with Frank Oz, Henson authored a world where felt-and-fur puppets interacted effortlessly and convincingly with the real world. The Muppets rode bicycles, drove cars, cooked, danced, bent iron bars in half, and broke the occasional human heart. Jim Henson brought a lovable family of misfits and drama queens to life, and we never believed for a minute that they weren’t real. He built an enduring piece of Americana entertainment, and imbued this goofy band of characters with such aching warmth and love that the term “Muppet” will always mean something far more meaningful and transcendent than “puppet.”

I was always aware of the shift that happened when Jim Henson (and Richard Hunt) died, drawing a line before A Muppet Christmas Carol and on. Not only was Kermit’s voice different (along with several other central characters), but the Muppets began assuming the roles of other characters—albeit with a Muppety spin. The timbre and quality of latter projects was admittedly inferior to the authentic, earthy zest of the Henson era, but I still found much of the same humor, warmth, and zaniness in them (Christmas Carol is an unparalleled Yuletide gem), and it was still largely the same people and voices underneath the characters. For me, as long as Frank Oz was involved it was still certified Muppets.

Then the franchise got sold around to different companies, eventually bought by Disney, and languished in embarrassing made-for-TV specials for years. Frank Oz took his hands out of Miss Piggy and Fozzie Bear, and I lost all interest.

News of The Muppets swirled around long before 2011, and the (annoying) campaign of parody trailers and ubiquitous TV appearances built anticipation for an unusually long period of time. I didn’t find the parodies funny, and I saw nothing in the glimpses of the film to get my hopes up. I was mostly ambivalent about the prospects, if not a little bugged by what seemed like yet another failed opportunity to do something special with these great characters.

Then the critical buzz began to overwhelmingly counter my blasé assumptions about the movie. Critics were almost unanimously praising the movie, lifting it to the darling status typically reserved for Pixar. (Even Kevin Clash—Elmo himself—assured me that they “got it right” when I shared my worry.) My expectations altered course, and I was actually excited to see the movie on Thanksgiving day—to see my beloved Muppets given their due on the big screen once again, and wash away all the mediocrity they’ve suffered over the past decade or more.

All this is to preface why I was so disappointed with The Muppets.

The movie simply didn’t work for me. That’s the most gracious way I can put it. It wasn’t a terrible movie, it wasn’t as bad as some of the junk I’ve seen the Muppets in, but it didn’t work. It promised to be a reverent reanimation of what the classic Muppets did so well, and (for me) it didn’t keep its promise. It was clearly created by fans; if anything, it almost sagged under the weight of all the Muppet Show / Movie in-jokes and self-aware references. I appreciate all that, on paper, but the execution was void of the charm and magic of the very thing at which the movie kept looking over its shoulder.

moopetsYes, it bothered me that all of Frank Oz’s classic characters are now voiced by new people. It really bothered me that one of the last original guys standing, Dave Goelz (aka Gonzo), was given all of about three lines (or perhaps, like Oz, it was his choice to step back and play a diminished role). What resulted was predominantly imitations of the key characters that comprise the Muppets, and while that doesn’t necessarily spell doom (iconic characters like Goofy, Donald Duck, Winnie the Pooh, and countless others have been re-voiced to varying degrees of success), it prevented me from getting lost in the Muppet world, and contributed to the general vibe I got: that in fact the movie was just an imitation of a Muppet film.

The jokes, the human cast (does it get any more innocuous than Rashida Jones?), the Ben Foldsy songs, the Enchanted dance numbers—they all felt like they belonged to another movie. The story centers, at least initially, on Jason Segel’s character and a new Muppet (Walter), and really hinges on these two for a long while (Kermit and the gang don’t enter the picture until several sequences in). And because I failed to find Segel (or Amy Adams) appealing, and found Walter to be the most boring, anonymous Muppet ever created, the story was nearly dead on arrival. Once the real Muppets came on the scene, things picked up a little and steered closer to true Muppet territory, but again, they felt kind of like imposters. A few jokes worked (I liked Zach Galifianakis’ Hobo Joe, for instance, and Gonzo’s “destroy plumbing business” button), and the movie certainly had moments (it was special seeing a spot-on recreation of The Muppet Show opening, and how can you go wrong with “The Rainbow Connection”?). But more jokes fizzled than fired, elements like the Jack Black cameo felt lazy, and when the movie wasn’t piling up acknowledgments of Muppet heritage it was operating like a silly family movie from a completely different franchise.

I’m probably giving this way more thought than it’s worth. (Although, Jeffrey Overstreet’s thoughtful and touching reflections on the Muppets and their role in his development have inspired me to dig deeper into my love for Kermit and Company.) I’m just perplexed as to why this movie made a “rainbow connection” with so many fellow Muppet lovers (and is drawing praise from almost every film critic), when it missed my receptors by a country mile. I am truly glad there are still Muppet fans out there, and that a group of them made this movie in an effort to celebrate the warmth and nostalgia of the fuzzy troupe. ‘A’ for effort, as they say. But I wanted this movie to stoke the old Muppets fire in me, and it didn’t. I saw a bunch of kids lovingly paying homage to a great, great thing…but it wasn’t the real thing. The hands and voices have changed, and the enterprise has changed with them. The movie itself offers what might be the best metaphor for what I found: a Muppet tribute band.