Thursday, September 24, 2015

Theory Thursday: "Muppet Treasure Island" Was the Last Good Muppet Movie

Scene from Muppet Treasure Island
Welcome to a weekly column called Theory Thursdays, which will be released every Thursday and discuss my "controversial opinion" related to something relative to the week of release. Sometimes it will be birthdays while others is current events or a new film release. Whatever the case may be, this is a personal defense for why I disagree with the general opinion and hope to convince you of the same. While I don't expect you to be on my side, I do hope for a rational argument. After all, film is a subjective medium and this is merely just a theory that can be proven either way. 

Subject: The Muppets premieres on ABC
Theory: Muppet Treasure Island was the last good Muppet movie

Tim Curry
There's a certain trepidation I get when I consider talking about The Muppets. I am not what you would call an avid fan. I do not go out of my way to watch every movie or TV appearance, clamoring to them because they're so endearing. That isn't to say that The Muppets don't mean something to me. It's just that what they are is reserved to a very specific portion of my life that happened in the 90's. I was a child who was exposed to the era of Muppets in the short time following creator Jim Henson's death. It was that brief time when his son Brian Henson directed the movies A Muppet Christmas Carol and Muppet Treasure Island. To me, there was something great about The Muppets, but not to the point where I watched The Muppet Show. It would also be close to a decade until I saw the masterpiece that was The Muppet Movie.

There are likely fans out there that were more excited for the reboot in 2011 with The Muppets (wrongly, annoyingly called The Muppet Movie by my friends). I was, too. I went to an advanced preview thanks to luck. Having not paid attention to their filmography since Brian Henson's 1996 take on the Robert Louis Stevenson pirate classic, I could only presume that there were fans out there passionate enough to make it work. After all, Jason Segel famously incorporated puppets in his breakout film Forgetting Sarah Marshall. The writing team featured Bret McKenzie of Flight of the Conchords. This was looking to be the reboot of the modern era. It was... fine.

Ever since that night, I have come to an existential crisis with The Muppets. What were they exactly, and what was the new direction? As much as I liked Segel, he stole the show from The Muppets. The new character Walter was an abomination meant to serve as a P.O.V. character. Most of the movie was lazily being self-referential and being a meta commentary on bringing The Muppet Show back to life. It was, basically, a love letter to nostalgia. Anything that was new was simply human characters fawning the Muppets with admiration for the past. In general, it's one of the lesser appealing things of modern pop culture. However, it lead me to one realization, especially as the sequel Muppets Most Wanted came out and only buried the cast further into the background: The Muppets are now irrelevant.

The Best Original Song winner that year went to "Man or Muppet" from the film. In a sense, it captures everything that I found wrong with the reboot. While The Muppets have always been experts on being existential vehicles for melancholic pop songs, this was grasping at straws. For starters, the song focuses on the crisis of Segel's character before shifting to Walter's. The song is nonsensical, trying to justify ignoring the main cast in favor of irrelevant side characters. Speaking as The Muppet Movie opens with the torch burning "The Rainbow Connection," this rings a little hollow. At the end, the better gags are about the original Muppets, but they're not the last image that you see. It's Segel and Walter singing the rather banal "Life's a Happy Song," which almost suggests that there's no conflict at all in the film. It's needless reassurance.

I understand the appeal of The Muppets. They're puppets that exist in this world and have a sly commentary laced into their fabric. Yet the thing that I feel is misunderstood is that The Muppets should be the center of their own stories. You can make a meta film about The Muppet Show coming back, but don't place the audience as outsiders. Just jump to the beloved characters like Kermit and Fozzie as they deal with that long gestating period of irrelevance. For example, even if The Muppet Movie is packed with a lot of celebrity cameos, they are rarely used as the main draw of the film. They existed in The Muppets' world instead of the other way around. Steve Martin was a waiter. Bob Hope sold cars. Orson Welles ran Hollywood. They served more as plot devices than simply cameos.

I don't feel that way about contemporary Muppet culture. To me, the fans have gained influence in Hollywood and thus want to show their fandom. There was nothing more indicative of The Muppets having problems than when Frank Oz and David Goelz refused to participate due to script problems. To me, The Muppets have went past their date of relevance and are now mostly around for longtime fans of the old movies to work with. It's why Adam Sandler managed to work with people like Kathy Bates, Jack Nicholson, and Al Pacino. This mostly makes sense because when you take time to analyze the plot of The Muppets, it is coincidentally a nostalgic trip that will likely make you laugh - given that you cared about these characters. While The Muppets (2015 TV show) has fared better than the film by shifting focus back to Muppet characters, it still begs the question as to why this is relevant.

A deeper, more ingrained theory as to why I think that The Muppets are irrelevant is just because of technology and entertainment availability. Consider, if you will, modern entertainment. CG entertainment has made majority of hand drawn animation in film extinct. Even in the world of blockbusters, practical effects are less common than computer imagery, even in dramas like Gone Girl and The Wolf of Wall Street. Even if The Muppets are theoretically not that old compared to other forms of entertainment, they feel primitive. There's no real resurgence of interest in puppetry because of them as there was when Jim Henson made the various movies. They seem like novelty that cannot hold a candle to animated characters like Minions. The only ones keeping it alive are those who are already wrapped up in nostalgia, making it hard for them to do anything new. 

Those complaining that The Muppets (2015) is too edgy is ignoring the general appeal of the characters. They were always adult, but could appeal to kids in a harmless, slapstick way. It was the best subversion of its kind. While the ABC series is definitely more lazy about it, I think that The Muppets' job is to keep that barrier alive. If it becomes too edgy, the franchise will officially have proven that yes, The Muppets aren't for kids anymore. They are for adults wishing to relive those glory days when they could watch The Muppet Show live and enjoy when the edgy humor was actually well written. 

Then why, may you ask, am I specifically saying that Muppet Treasure Island was the last *good* Muppet movie? It is considered by many to be one of the lesser entries with some even outwardly dismissing it for being too silly and long. Well, the simple answer is that The Muppets could still be seen as barely relevant in 1996. Family entertainment hadn't fully shifted to the new model of CG entertainment as present in Pixar's Toy Story film from the previous year. There was still a mix of practical effects in the works and the entertainment market wasn't nearly as crowded as it was today. Most of all, it seemed more plausible for children to be into more primitive forms of entertainment since the overwhelming presence of phones and game culture had yet to add a stranglehold on the public places.

I'm not saying that Muppet Treasure Island is a great movie, but it is one of the last to understand the general appeal of the franchise. Even though it was satirizing a popular story, there wasn't a lot of nostalgia thrown in. Even if there were a few central human characters, the film was still mostly lead by Muppets. The musical numbers may be too kitschy for some, but captured the sporadic humor that made the series fun. It also continued the trend of Muppets tackling popular stories in their own fresh way, previously with caper stories and the Charles Dickens classic. Even if these don't hold a candle to the original's original story, they still reflect the ingenuity that they brought to satire. Yes, there were other parody films afterwards, but it makes sense why The Muppets (2011) ditched it. The idea had worn its course and the parody was becoming self-parody.

For my money, Muppet Treasure Island was just enjoyable because it understood what The Muppets did best. It could just be that it didn't feel like an overbearing cry for relevancy like the rebooted films to follow. It also could just be that it was the last film to be specifically guided by the hands of a Henson. Oz would stick around awhile and Goelz would eventually return for the TV series, but it wasn't the same after this. The characters were the same, but the world around them changed too much for it to be a commodity. We only like The Muppets now because we liked them as children. I am unsure that the younger audience today can appreciate them as such, especially when The Muppets (2011) lobbied them with nonexistent nostalgia and The Muppets (2015) is already considered too adult and restrictive. 

Can they be enjoyable? Sure. I just don't know that they anything recent shows them at their best. The culture has just changed too much for it to be true. Their only relevance outside of the aforementioned works is that of mash-up videos and the group singing old rock songs such as "Bohemian Rhapsody." This is hardly original material, and it ties more into them contributing to someone else's work. What I want is to feel like The Muppets can do their own thing and matter. But they're like grandfathers nowadays, seeming awkward for embracing the slightest bit of new technology. They're from a different world and, unlike Sesame Street - which at least serves educational value -, they haven't done anything recently to suggest that they are going to stand up to the younger and more spry competitors. At least not without doing ill conceived collaborations with them.

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