‘The Muppets:’ Can the felt-y and wide-eyed find hipness?


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Thanksgiving brings with it the promise of many things: an abundance of side dishes, an uneven Detroit Lions game, a new holiday movie season.

That last one’s a little deceiving, since this year that new holiday movie season looks a lot like an old one. Kermit, Miss Piggy and the rest of the Muppets gang -- as they’ve been reminding us in every parody known to man (and Muppet) -- have come back.


With their return, though, personalities that once felt cutting edge can seem a little quaint. The Muppets are puppets in a CGI age, adult-like characters in a time of child heroes, sweetness in an age of snark.

Even their once-prescient characteristic is commonplace -- they’re pioneers of irony in a time when self-reference is practiced by everyone and their mother (or, I guess, my mother).

All of which makes for an interesting little lab experiment. Disney’s new Muppets movie will almost certainly be a hit this weekend, as scores of nostalgia-minded parents take themselves and even their kids to see it. But will it catch on with young people and become a part of 21st-century pop culture the way it did three decades ago?

Few creations are truly timeless, even the classics (try showing Lucille Ball to your 8-year-old). And though the Muppets of the 1970s and early 1980s were ahead of their time, they were also very much of it: Miss Piggy’s not-quite-feminist outbursts, the unhurried pacing, the Bob Hope and Steve Martin cameos, the stonerish remove of, well, so many of them. Bringing the Muppets back isn’t like rebooting ‘The Karate Kid.’ It’s more like rebooting a zeitgeist.

Or as veteran teen-television producer Dan Schneider (‘iCarly’) told me when I put the question to him: ‘Kermit on the bicycle in the first six minutes of ‘The Muppet Movie’ was exciting, because we’d never seen a puppet riding a bicycle. Now you click on YouTube and a million things look like that.’

The filmmakers understood this problem, of course, and baked it into the movie’s script. Just as the film fights for cultural standing, its characters do too. The storyline in ‘The Muppets’ -- created not by family-film veterans but grown-up types like director James Bobin (‘Flight of the Conchords’) writers Jason Segel and Nicholas Stoller (‘Forgetting Sarah Marshall) and producers David Hoberman and Todd Lieberman (‘The Fighter’) -- centers on a group that’s also trying to mount a comeback, plagued by doubt over whether anyone still cares.


It may be a first in children’s programming: ‘The Muppets’ are posing a question about their relevance to the very people who will determine the answer (the audience). It may also be the first time ever that Hollywood resistance to greenlighting a movie became part of that movie’s plotline.

The characters are mainly worried that they’re too nice compared to today’s reality shows, like the hillariously made-up ‘Punch Teacher.’ But the Muppets may have the opposite issue: One of the reasons they would struggle in 2011 is that in a lot of ways they’re too similar to what’s out there.

The original incarnations of the Muppets left a mark so deep on the children’s entertainment landscape that, if you look at Muppets offerings now, you can be forgiven for thinking they’re nothing special. Their heart and sweetness have become standard in Pixar films. Their sense of adventure has been imitated in Nickelodeon shows such as ‘Dora the Explorer.’

And their adult-friendly in-jokes, meta-ness (they did pull out the movie’s script in the middle of the ‘The Muppet Movie’ to figure out what to do) and pop-culture references is now common in everything from ‘Rango’ to ‘Puss in Boots.’

‘What you’ve seen over the years is so much of children’s programming going where the Muppets and Sesame Street first went,’ said Lesli Rotenberg, senior vice-president of media for PBS Kids, when I asked her about the legacy of Jim Henson’s creations. ‘You can see their footprint everywhere.’

In other words, the Muppets make it hard for ‘The Muppets.’

There’s still plenty for ‘The Muppets’ to spoof, including three decades of movies -- check out the film’s send-up of movie conventions like travel maps and angelic voiceovers--and the marketing campaign’s skewering of everything current, from ‘Twilight’ to ‘The Hangover.’

And entertainment even of the oldest sort has a way of coming back, reconstituted but somehow fresh. Early in the 20th century, radio began pushing out a format that had once seemed both original and immovable: vaudeville. The new mass medium made in-person performance unnecessary, and there was a reason to think vaudeville was gone forever.

Yet five decades later, a certain group found a way to use new mediums to cleverly breathe life into vaudeville. Kermit and Fozzie never looked back. RELATED:

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--Steven Zeitchik