Monday, December 5, 2011

The Muppets (2011)

"Who hates their kids enough to see Alvin and the Chipmunks 3 when The Muppets is in theaters?" - Larry Collins
I am a 43 year-old man. Sesame Street debuted when I was one. Mine is the original Muppet generation.

In 1976, Jim Henson finally realized his dream of developing a prime-time television program, The Muppet Show, which lasted for five seasons. The Muppet Movie premiered in 1979 and from that point on you could count on a new Muppet movie every few years. Each were increasingly terrible.

Don't get me wrong, they had their moments. Unfortunately, following the masterful template set by songwriter Paul Williams, the songs for all Muppet movies are better bland and forgettable (with the exception of "Together Again" from Muppets Take Manhattan, 1984.) In addition, as the model from Muppet movies became "let's adapt a familiar story and put Muppets in it" there were more and more human characters eating up valuable Muppet time.

This summer we took the kids to the Palace for Cinema on the Square to see Muppet Treasure Island (1996) which is wretched -- never, never, never take your kids to see Muppet Treasure Island. I refuse to consider ever spending time on A Muppet Christmas Carol.

In spite all of all this, my wife and I are apparently the only two people in the world who loved the 1996 ABC television prime-time reboot Muppets Tonight. Purists were snitty as hell about the new Muppet creations, and everyone else said, oh yeah, Muppets. Whatever.

It was the 90s. You know. Jim Henson had died in 1990, transferring rights to the Muppets to Disney, assuming only the House of Mouse could keep his creation true. In a way, they did. And no one cared anymore.

The largest category of contemporary humor and witticisms is insult humor. Humor reassures the insecure. There are two ways to feel superior. The first is to accomplish exemplary work that achieves public acclaim. The second is to publicly criticize the accomplishment of others. This deflates their prestige and focuses attention on ourselves. - Mel Helitzer, Comedy Writing Secrets
We saw the new movie The Muppets over the holiday weekend. It is as good as they say. In fact, it's better. I can't think of a family film that has continued to roll around in my head the way this has. I keep trying to figure out why it works so well. I laughed out loud, sure, a lot (more than I can say for Muppet Treasure Island) but I did not cry the way some of my friends have claimed they have.

I did feel a sinking sensation as this movie laid out in embarrassing candor how Muppets have kind of vanished from the scene. It's the funny subject for an SNL sketch maybe to depict a sad, forgotten Fozzie Bear whoring himself in a casino, trying to maintain his dignity and failing miserably, and yet this movie goes there and yet it is absolutely perfect.

When was the last time I left a family film wanting to own the soundtrack because I want to get the songs right in my head? Probably when I bought that Peter Gabriel song from Wall-E. And it's not just me, my twenty-something companions are quoting lyrics from these songs daily.

I heard co-writer and star of the film Jason Segel on Terry Gross last week, and he was talking about how he and director James Bobin had to convince the powers-that-be of their sincerity in this endeavor, the key word being sincere. Muppets aren't mean. Muppets don't insult anyone, they want to be friends with everyone. "Live and let live," is the sentiment of the best Muppet endeavors.

We don't have cable. The girl gluts herself on the Disney Channel when she's at her grandparents, she knows she's missing out on what all of her schoolmates are talking about. And while these programs stay away from the kind of subject matter and language on network sit-coms I would rather she not be exposed to, I still find so many of them to pander to what Helitzer defines as our human weakness to feel superior, and that listening to everyone snark at each other leaves me demoralized. The Muppets presents a world where being sweet and goofy can be undervalued. Box office receipts prove that it doesn't have to be.

The kids are asking me to take them to see The Muppets again. They never ask me to go to the theater to see a movie twice.

Well? Am I supposed to take them to see Alvin and the Chipmunks 3 instead?

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