Everyone knows there’s a new Muppet movie in cinemas now. The tagline is “MUPPET DOMINATION”, after all. They’re obviously taking no prisoners where publicity’s concerned. It’s the plot of James Bobbin and Jason Segel’s new film The Muppets, too: how to best return these characters from pop cultural obscurity to their rightful position as entertainment icons?
The good news: the movie’s very enjoyable. The concept used to introduce brothers Gary and Walter – one human, one muppet – is a clever one; the songs are mostly great; Jason Segel’s excitement at being surrounded by these puppets is palpable. I laughed, I cried. And yet…
The bad news: the voices are wrong. For the first hour of the movie I cringed every time Fozzie or Piggy spoke. It’s like seeing your favourite band play but hearing a cover song boom out of the speakers. It made me feel a little bit like I was going mad.
This isn’t the first time. When Jim Henson died, and Kermit’s voice changed forever, I remember thinking that maybe the character should’ve been retired. But that’s a selfish thought – why shouldn’t new generations enjoy Kermit, just to spare my feelings? New voices won’t matter to the kids who see the film. That’s how it should be.
It’s harder to take in The Muppets because Frank Oz – the man who gave life to Fozzie and Piggy – is still alive. The fact that Oz was unhappy with the script and worried it didn’t “respect the characters” did affect my viewing experience. Couldn’t they find some way to allay his concerns and get him on board?
It doesn’t always serve art to give creators the final say over their creations. Everyone alive agrees the Star Wars universe would be much improved if someone had found a way to ignore George Lucas’ whims. Everyone except Lucas, anyway.
It comes down to this: what is a muppet? Is it a character that should stay an extension of its creator or creators? Or is a muppet a Robin Hood or a Sherlock Holmes or a Batman, kept alive by dozens and dozens of different interpretations by artists good and bad?
(Or, as Homer Simpson once said, a muppet might be “not quite a mop and it’s not quite a puppet… but man! So to answer your question, I don’t know.”)
My favourite new Muppet story isn’t the film. It’s the muppet comic book by Roger Langridge from a few years ago. They mimic the format of the 1970s Muppet Show, keeping its anarchic humour while managing some beautiful character moments. His muppets are pencil-and-ink abstractions of already abstracted foam-and-felt, but they’re absolutely alive.
Ignore the funk revelations of the decade-old Muppets in Space movie. Langridge provides the definitive answer to Gonzo the Great’s true identity, completing an emotional journey that began in 1979’s The Muppet Movie as he sang ‘I’m Going To Go Back There Someday’.
Scooter asks Gonzo: “Tell me… please… what the heck are you??”
And Gonzo replies: “Oh, Scooter. I thought you knew. I’m an artist.”