Why The Muppets (2011) Actually Worked

Muppets

Before watching it for myself, I simply couldn’t fathom why 2011’s The Muppets was as popular and as well-received a film as it ended up being.  The Muppets were those fuzzy, rainbow-colored puppets from the seventies that my grandmother liked to watch reenact A Christmas Carol, Treasure Island and The Wizard of Oz.  After being cancelled in the early eighties, they parleyed their popularity into a string of increasingly modest grossing films before falling out of the mainstream entirely at the end of the last century.

Somehow that strung-out franchise – which had not been even remotely relevant for the last two decades – had created a wildly popular, Academy Award winning film.  But therein, of course, lies the rub.  After finally caving into the incessant need to know what the big deal was – what I was missing out on – I realized that it was the franchise’s lack of relevance that was the exact reason why it worked as a film.

Even though there had not been a profitably relevant audience for the franchise in decades, the Muppets had somehow stayed in the peripheries of the popular culture.  My grandmother is proof that there was still an enthusiastic – if unprofitable – fan base that remembered the series and films fondly.  John Denver and the Muppets was a Christmas staple in my house throughout my childhood, ringing in the holidays with absurdly catchy renditions of popular carols.  And even though the films based on Jim Henson’s puppets were not turning over huge profits, there were still six of them (eight, if you count made-for-TV movies).  So while they were far from a relevant force in the popular culture, they were still there, in the back of people’s minds, getting at least some notice.

Muppet Walter

The film, as it turned out, was both intelligent and self-aware enough to take the franchise’s utter lack of relevance and mainstream appeal and build the rest of its narrative around it.  The Muppets are a bunch of washed up has-beens that both barely have nostalgic appeal and lack relevance in the Twenty-First Century.  They’re too dated, too old fashioned, to possibly have a place in the Electronic Age – and that’s the whole point.

The Muppets is itself a meta-fictive justification for its own existence.  This is most directly brought to the forefront in Kermit’s shockingly melancholy meditation on the prospect of “getting the band back together.”  He asks that “if we could do it all again, / just another chance to entertain, / would anybody watch or even care, / or did something break we can’t repair?”

While the villain is caricaturish, the plot is essentially a PG-rated version The Blues Brothers and several of the film’s subplots are extraneous at best (particularly Gary and Mary’s love problems), the film succeeds because it can justify its need within the popular culture: not for nostalgia, exactly, but for an old fashioned style of family friendly amusement.  At a time when entertainment as a whole is increasingly segmented into small, hyper-focused demographics – where it is increasingly unlikely that you and your family / neighbors / coworkers / friends are watching the same thing – The Muppets has an absurdly broad appeal.  It is something that everybody can enjoy at least a little, even if they would generally prefer to watch the high-octane thrills of Drive, the poetic meditations of The Tree of Life or the high-concept comedy of The Artist.

In this regard, The Muppets is perhaps the most unifying recent experience not grounded in the realities of the outside world.  Even Marvel and DC tend to draw a line in the sand, causing many fans to choose one or the other, but not both.  The Muppets, however, is unobjectionable entertainment that provides a common experience at a time when popular entertainment tends to isolate individuals, rather than connect them.

One Response

  1. Lucas Tetrault November 21, 2014

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