What’s wrong with the Muppets?

Imagine you opened up the paper today and turned to the comics section. Right there, in the middle of the page, is a brand new Peanuts cartoon, drawn by someone else. Maybe it’s someone who was close to Shultz. Perhaps someone who studied under him and helped him finish up the last few comics. Whatever. It would still bother you, right?

Well, now you know how I feel about The Muppets.

Several weeks ago, I put this video on the Animation Aficionados facebook page. I picked the video specifically, because it’s Jim Henson singing and doing a character other than Kermit. I noted that Jim had a very gentle singing voice, even when playing such a rough character. Even so, I think people still misunderstood my point in this exercise, as I get the impression that some folks think that I’m trying to draw a comparison to Steve Whitmire. I’m not.

Perhaps I should have been more general. Jim Henson was a gentle person. Granted, he could have a rather sharp and wicked sense of humor. But he was a daydreamer, a creator, and a storyteller. He lived to make people smile and laugh. Sometimes he’d make you cry. He could tug at the strings of your heart, but he always did so gently. Jim Henson’s gentleness wasn’t just a quality of his voice. It was the personality he put into his performances. Of all the artist that I’ve ever looked up to, I’ve looked up to Jim Henson the most.

What irritates me is that people still think that this is about Kermit. The puppet itself is superfluous. it’s merely a device through which the performer reaches to the audience. The point here is that it’s the performer that makes the act. Not the character.

I feel the same way about other classic revivals as well, but not necessarily all. Think about how many times you’ve seen Bugs Bunny or Mickey Mouse brought back. Even when it seems like a noble attempt, they ultimately always seem very forgettable, as they fade rapidly from our memory. Nothing ever touches us like the original cartoons did. It amazes me that nobody learns the lesson from this, which is that the reason why we have such fond memories of these characters is because of the people who were bringing these characters to life in the first place.

I’m not saying that nobody is allowed to revive a character, though. Sometimes it is done right. For instance, Bruce Timm basically redefined Batman and then created his own version of the DC Universe. But that’s because Bruce Timm is a great storyteller. These characters thrived because of the creative force behind them, and instances such as this are rare. The way companies think now, the marquee is all that matters, but without someone like Bruce Timm leading the charge, the efforts would have fallen as flat as anythinge else when handled by someone who doesn’t have the vision of a great storyteller.

To me, the Muppets is a meaningless marquee in a world without Jim Henson. It doesn’t convey any emotion to me. When I was a kid, it did, but that was because I knew that there was a vision behind it. The vision was that of a man who I still regard as one of the greatest entertainers who ever lived. Whenever I see Muppet programs that have been produced in the wake of his passing, it feels stagnant, uncreative, and directionless.

It’s like watching an amateur trying to do a George Carlin stand-up routine. He can tell all the same jokes, but he’ll never have the presence of the man himself.

And from what I’ve heard, things haven’t changed. Why is “Rainbow Connection” in the new movie? There was a time when the Muppets would come up with their own songs and they’d have a new set with each film. I admit, it’s not as bad as the licensed music in Muppets From Space, but still, the problem I have is that Disney is trying to get everyone excited about the Muppets, but they don’t seem willing to deliver what the Muppets were actually all about.

I’ve made a decision. We’re going to be doing a show about the Muppets soon, but I’m not going to see the new movie until after we do the show. I’ve thought about it. Whether I love it or I hate it, those views should not be the focus of the show. I want it to be about Jim. And Richard. And everyone else who ever brought a smile to my face.

I’m a fan of the storyteller. Not the marquee.

One thought on “What’s wrong with the Muppets?

  1. My wife and I along with a couple of friends saw the new Muppets movie. Since you haven’t seen it I probably shouldn’t say much about it so that I don’t tarnish your opinion going into it. But I will say that while reviews were positive (98% on Rotten Tomatoes) and my wife and I were pretty excited, it was a big let-down. The Muppets themselves weren’t bad, but it definitely felt it was missing that key ingredient. I won’t say anymore, and there is plenty more I have to say. I’m lost as to why this movie got such rave reviews. Hopefully your experience is better than ours. I mean, when even my wife says she didn’t like a movie…you know it’s bad.

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