Oscar the Grouch

Others have commented that The Muppets serves as, by embodying or enacting, an answer to the fears fans had about what Disney would do with the Muppets franchise. That is to say: Disney knew fans would be afraid that they would exploit the Muppets and thereby destroy them, and this is exactly what the villain in the movie tries to do – replace the Muppets with the odious “Moopets.” By acknowledging the fear, and refuting it by making a movie that is true to the actual Muppet spirit, Disney has proven that they are not the villain in their own movie.

But has anyone noticed that this means the climactic speech of the movie is delivered in bad faith?

Near the end of the film, the Muppets have failed to raise the money necessary to save their old studio and keep their cherished name and brand from being strip-mined by Chris Cooper. As they file out of the home they’ve lost, Kermit gives a rousing, inspirational speech about how they haven’t failed at all, because they did get back together, they did put on a show, and if they want to make a go of it again, they can do that – and Chris Cooper and his contracts can’t stop them. They don’t need their old name and their old studio. They just need each other.

But if that’s true, then why did Disney buy the franchise?

I have mixed feelings about the movie as a whole. There were things in it that I thought were brilliant – and very true to the original Muppets. Top of the list, from my perspective, were the opening “growing up muppet” sequence of Walter and Gary, and the amazing ballad, “Man or Muppet;” close behind is May (Amy Adams) and Miss Piggy’s song, “Me Party.” And there were a variety of other moments that “clicked” with the original. The “rain” on the window that Mary looks out of that turns out to be water from a hose. Traveling by map. The fact that Mary is reading a thesaurus when she’s waiting for Gary back at the hotel. The verse, “Life’s a filet of fish….yes, it is” from “Life’s a Happy Song.” And so forth.

But precious few of these moments involved the original characters. Indeed, apart from Miss Piggy, I didn’t feel like any of them had their old joie de vivre. It was striking, to me, how easy it was to “get the gang back together.” Also how easy it was to whip the show into shape – we see one rehearsal going badly, and then the show going like clockwork. And none of the acts in the show remotely lived up to the original – Gonzo’s “head bowling” was particularly lame, but even the best act, the chickens singing “Cluck You” was a joke that wasn’t spun out to its full potential (I can’t believe they missed the opportunity to play off the fact that Gonzo, basically, keeps the chickens as a harem, but even if you didn’t want to go there the joke as it was delivered was just a bit of reference humor, because the actual song and dance routine the chickens do wasn’t, itself, funny).

And Kermit’s was the most problematic “reboot” of all. The outline of a character arc was there. Kermit needed Walter to remind him of what he really loved about life, which wasn’t being a star but putting on a show with his friends. Except that, from where I was sitting, it just didn’t happen on screen. In virtually every scene – most especially in his emceeing of the show – Kermit seemed to me to be phoning it in. It’s partly a problem of character – this Kermit is exceptionally passive, never coming up with solutions for problems, always ready to admit defeat. But this could have worked brilliantly if it had built to a big moment of recognition that this is what he was doing, and he finally returned to his true self. (Kermit is the Aragorn figure of the movie, the true king in self-imposed exile because he doesn’t believe he is actually fit to be king.) But that moment of recognition never really came. We got the speech after the moment – the speech about not having really failed and how it doesn’t really matter if they lose the studio or their name. But we didn’t get the moment.

But it was more a problem of performance. Kermit, in his prime, was a great leading man, a blend of Humphrey Bogart’s rumpled integrity and Cary Grant’s barely-suppressed hysteria. (Sorry, I’ve been reading Stanley Cavell again.) This Kermit doesn’t seem like that character grown old – it seems like that performer going through the motions.

There’s one flash of the old Kermit in the movie, in this exchange with Fozzie:

Kermit the Frog: Guys, we can’t kidnap Jack Black. That’s illegal!
bq. Fozzie Bear: What’s more illegal, Kermit: Kidnapping Jack Black, or destroying the Muppet name for good?
bq. Kermit the Frog: Kidnapping Jack Black!

There are plenty snappier and fresher lines in the movie, but this is the only one I remember Kermit delivering as if he were the old Kermit. (Unfortunately, Jack Black doesn’t actually do anything for the show he’s kidnapped to celebrity-host.)

To my mind, most of the best things in the movie involved the new characters: Walter, Gary and Mary. The old characters felt crushed under the weight of nostalgia. Their story was about their recovery of their true selves, but they never actually got to be their true selves. Their telethon show, after a while, started to feel like Mickey Rourke’s nostalgia bout at the end of The Wrestler. I can’t imagine that’s the effect the movie makers were aiming for.

All of which loops back to my original question: why do the reboot? If a reboot was to happen, it is obviously vastly preferable that it not be a Moopets-like desecration, and Disney is to be praised for sparing us that. But I sense that the level of praise this movie has received is partly due to sheer relief. It isn’t a desecration. But it’s a work of nostalgia. And nostalgia is not, in the end, a generative sentiment.

Or maybe it’s just that my son was kind of bored by it.