Heading into a screening of "The Muppets" this week, the cheerful theme song from "The Muppet Show" ran giddy circles in my head. Ninety minutes later, I left with that same tune stuck in there, unlike any of the new material written for this vibrant, eager and unabashedly nostalgic indulgence. For viewers committed to "The Muppets" on the basis of rediscovering their childhood memories, this movie is their drug. Others should consider a better gateway.
In "Being Elmo: A Puppeteer's Journey," documentarian Constance Marks follows the journey of Kevin Clash, the affable Elmo creator whose career found him overcoming the barriers of a lower-class upbringing in Baltimore with the opportunity to join the "Sesame Street" family. Clash's early struggles make his eventual success with Elmo especially moving because of the universal good cheer that "Sesame Street" represents. If, like me, your childhood entertainment owed much to the Muppets and their furry ilk, "Being Elmo" explains how that joy extends to their creation.
Clash owes a lot of his early career momentum to support from puppeteer Kermit Love, but like the rest of the "Sesame Street" team his greatest inspiration comes from Jim Henson. The Muppets pioneer began toying around with his creations on television as early as the 1950s, which explains the mastery behind both "The Muppet Show" and the earlier Muppets movies: He took a long time to get there. As the recent Jim Henson exhibit presented at the Museum of the Moving Image demonstrates in extraordinary detail, Henson's inspiration extended beyond the puppet factory and stemmed from a larger interest in pushing art forms in unexplored directions.
In 1966, his immersive, cryptic, Muppet-free short film "Time Piece" landed an Oscar nomination for Best Short Film. A fascinating jumble of stop-motion animation and footage of Henson in random locations, "Time Piece" represented the artist's urge to explore "a kind of flow of consciousness form of editing," as the museum's notes explain. "There was no logic to it, but your mind put it together."
This was likely the same approach Henson took with the Muppets, a group of strange and fabricated creatures that nevertheless looked oddly familiar, contained emotional depth and even managed to feel like our friends. While Henson created the Muppets with the same experimental approach, he continually tinkered with them throughout his career, exploring the prospects of melding humor and commentary that thrilled to children while simultaenously addressing an educated public. Henson's application of puppets was a continual work in progress, as his journey into darker territory with "Labyrinth" and "The Dark Crystal" compellingly displayed. He was an inventor until the day he died.
"The Muppets," the new movie, puts a cap on that emphasis on evolution, although the brand deteriorated long ago. Director James Bobin finds a number of sweet, amusing moments not unlike the similar musical comedy of HBO's "The Flight of Conchords," for which Bobin was a central director. (The film's music was written by that show's co-creator, Bret McKenzie.) The script, co-written by leading man Jason Segel and Nicholas Stoller (whose "Forgetting Sarah Marshall" including a climactic puppeting sequence that served as an audition for this project) only manages to acknowledge the Muppets' original appeal without finding a solid hook to justify the feature-length treatment aside from, hey, it's the Muppets! Which, I'm sorry, just isn't enough.
An early scene holds promise. In it, a puppet named Walter (voiced by Peter Linz) recalls growing up with human brother Gary (Segel) as a pariah whose solace lies in watching "The Muppet Show." Walter loves the show so much that his everyday life looks boring by comparison. Nothing else in the movie can top a trippy dream sequence that finds Walter glued to a television set when it suddenly comes to life. The history of the Muppets, as a force of influence in living rooms across the country, takes on a brilliant literal dimension as the characters drift off the screen like ghostly specters of cultural ephemera. Henson would probably love it.
But when "The Muppets" settles into its plot, there's little distinction. Walter joins Gary and his girlfriend (Amy Adams) on a trip to Hollywood where, during a tour of the dusty old Muppets studio, Gary slinks off to explore Kermit the Frog's old office and discovers the movie's flimsy plot: Namely: Avaricious oilman Tex Richman (an enjoyably cartoonish Chris Cooper) plans to destroy the famed Muppet Theater to profit from the resources buried under it.
By tracking down Kermit, Miss Piggy and the rest of the gang, Walter helps organize a Muppet Show reunion to raise the $10 million needed to salvage the space. The rest of the movie is consumed with the gathering of these members, a few hopeless pitch sessions and the resulting star-studded show. It's not a Muppets movie like, say, "The Muppets Take Manhattan," which placed these wonderful characters in a classic urban musical framework, but rather a movie about the Muppets.
This struck me as a fallacy before seeing the movie and remained on my mind as I watched it. The Muppets were Pixar before there was Pixar, a smart kind of shtick with complicated undertones that had nothing to do with their internal mythology. "The Muppets" worships that mythology ad infinitum, unlike the superior Pixar short playing in theaters before it. Entitled "Small Fry," the short takes place in the "Toy Story" universe and finds Buzz Lightyear getting trapped in a fast-food restaurant populated by rejected Happy Meal toys. Living in oblivion, this entourage gathers in the shadows after closing hours for an organized complaint session, which is really a kind of group therapy for people dealing with neglect. Ironically, "The Muppets" deals with that same issue, chronicling the demise of its property, and then goes into denial about it.
I laughed at certain parts of "The Muppets"; it must have been fun to make. The credit sequence, which shows virtually every cast member singing along to the eternally catchy "Mahna Mahna," proves at least that. For those with an affinity for the Muppets, the fervor hasn't gone away; the youngest audiences may not see a reason to care. Reared on online video phenomena like Fred Figglehorn (whose popularity brought a teenage YouTube star into Nickoledeon's domain), pre-teen viewers respond to entertainment that's cheap, rough and disposable. As Tex Richman tells the Muppets when they plead for his sympathies, the new paradigm calls for "a hard, cynical act for a hard, cynical time." And then he unloads his trademark line: "Maniacal lauuuuuugh…"
I hate to embolden evil Tex's point, but he has one. By making a movie focused on why the Muppets matter, Disney distracts from the opportunity let them do what they do best: Transcend the superficial boundaries of pop culture and tap into the complicated moods that constitute real life. "The Muppets" has the same attraction as the OK Go video of the band covering the show's theme song. It's adorable but redundant, a way of homogenizing the Muppets by giving them chic appeal they don't need. Cut to Tex Richman and his maniacal lauuuuuugh.
Anyway, before you commit to "The Muppets," give "Being Elmo" a shot. (Among other things, it's important for completist purposes: Legal issues kept Elmo from appearing in the new movie.) The documentary makes a powerful case for the advanced intellect driving the Muppets' iconography. They can't keep that status alone; someone has to take them there. If younger viewers still need the Muppets, their salvation exists not in the movie theater, but on the countless hours of material available on DVD.