Wednesday, February 22, 2012

No More Muppets for Brian

There is a scene in the new 'Muppets' movie where the Muppets are going from one TV station to another, trying to find someone who will air a telethon that will (hopefully) save their old theatre (from the original Muppet Show) from getting bulldozed. The TV exec who finally gives them a shot initially turns them down by telling them that they are not popular enough anymore and showing them their most popular show, a game show called "Punch Teacher". Now, the whole "Punch Teacher" segment simply makes the point that alot of children's entertainment today sends the wrong messages (too true!) and that the Muppets were never like that (when Jim Henson was alive, before his son Brian messed up alot of things). After seeing 'Punch Teacher', Kermit starts to say "Y'know, I think kids are better and smarter than all this..." before getting clobbered with an opening door, allowing the movie to make its point without getting preachy and getting back to the silly fun, mixed with satire, that the Muppets have always been about.

The Muppets (under Jim Henson) were all about being upbeat and positive, but with a certain mischevious quality to the humor that keeps it from being 'Brady Bunch' corny. Kermit enjoys show business because he gets to make "millions of people happy". He believes in his friends and won't do commercials for a restaurant that sells frog legs because he has integrity. All he can see are 'millions of frogs on crutches'. But when Brian Henson took over after his father's death, he started sticking the Muppets in movies where the human characters were front and center, movies based on classic literature (Treasure Island, A Christmas Carol) where the Muppets played other characters (Kermit as Bob Crachitt etc.) Also, he started making Muppet movies that were obviously for younger kids, but with a few adult (sometimes inappropriate) references thrown in, because the Muppets are supposed to be for adults too. Well, there is a BIG difference between a movie being for EVERYBODY (like the first three Muppet films...and most Pixar movies) and throwing adult references into a kids' movie. The most offensive example being a TV/direct to video movie called 'Muppets' Wizard of Oz' in which one of the bad Muppets (a member of a biker gang called 'The Flying Monkeys') excitedly blurts out something about wanting to be spit on and called names. Yes, Janice used to say stuff about people wanting her to pose nude (in the Jim Henson Muppet movies), but she was pretty adamant about not doing it, which made her a good role model for young girls in show business (kinda) and it was a joke for the adults. Statler and Waldorf have made a few jokes about going on vacation and seeing bikinis, but there is a BIG difference between that and 'please spit on me'. It's the kind of thing that parents complain about with the first two Shrek movies, but (again) there is a big difference between a reference to an R-rated film that would go over a kids' head (with nothing bad actually shown) and some puppet blurting out something dirty.

So, maybe when Kermit said that kids were better and smarter than 'Punch Teacher', he was apologizing for some of the creative choices that were made after Jim Henson's death. "This is not what we do. The Muppet Show was much classier than our later work." Maybe, in a future Muppet movie, the story will go back into why the Muppets went their seperate ways to begin with and it will be because. after Jim Henson died, they lost their creative spark and they needed a fan who gets what they were about (Walter) to reunite and inspire them. In real life, it took Jason Segel to bring the Muppets back to where Jim Henson left them. They even based a good chunk of the script for the new Muppet movie on what Segel experienced trying to make the movie (studio execs thinking the Muppets weren't popular enough) so Jason Segel is the real-life Walter. I'm not expecting the future Muppet movies to crack on Brian Henson the way I am, but maybe the fact that the Muppets lost their spark after Henson's death could be worked into a future story. They were sad. He was their producer. He inspired them. He had a talent-less hack of a son who drove their act into the ground. (Or whatever.)

At any rate, the BEST thing about the new Muppet movie is that Brian Henson's name is nowhere in the credits. He sold all of his father's characters to Disney and they gave it to someone who gets the Muppets. Fun songs. Intelligent writing. Positive characters with a mischevious sense of humor. A nostalgic trip to the days of the Muppet Show. And no vulgar S&M references. "No, Rhianna! You can't be in the sequel!"