It’s rare for me to have as hard of a time starting off an article as I am right now. I feel like The Muppets deserves to be covered properly, and it’s a near certainty that I am ill-equipped to do so. That’s never stopped me before but this time feels different. As some of you may know, my wife and I are expecting our first-born soon but I’ve done a fairly shitty job of planning what kind of parent I’m going to be. Watching The Muppets, however, I began hoping, with every shred of hope my body holds, that this is the movie that my kid is going to latch onto and have be its first pop cultural obsession. Why? Because it’s awesome. Because it’s clever. And because it’s feels so damned wholesome and near-perfect that exposition of its flaws feels like desecration of an ideal world I’m not even sure exists.
I think that a huge part of The Muppets‘ success comes from its fluidity. At any given point, the realism (I know, I know) is subject to the needs of the moment. Even the Muppetry itself serves a dual purpose. Sometimes the inherent falsity of the puppet characters acts reductively, allowing any kind of expectation of “realism” to be stripped away in order to examine the basic motivations of the characters. Rather than having a John Malkovich come in to properly express the sadness of lost dreams, you can just throw a frog puppet up there, have him say he’s sad and squish your hand inside of his mouth so that his face gets all wonky. With the right music and the right cinematography, you’ll be shocked at how choked up you can get over this face.
So it’s realism by reduction BUT the Muppets also allow for a seemingly identical yet opposite purpose of freeing you from ANY empathy or sympathy. In one hilarious 15-second portion of a montage, the Swedish Chef cleans out a fridge by setting its insides ablaze (complete with a smorgasboard of screaming, moldy food-based Muppets).
The ultra-violence becomes permissible because of the unreality of the characters. They’re like cartoons. They can be electrocuted, beaten, and burned but as long as the brutality is a punchline, it’s unquestioned because of its victimlessness. So somehow, the Muppets are both us at our most basic but they are also the absurd, soulless other whenever the movie demands gruesome slapstick.
This isn’t a criticism of the movie, rather it’s a celebration of the blend of inauthenticity and authenticity which permeates the entire movie… intentionally. About half of the movie’s humour is grounded in the reality of the world in which these people live, while the other half is based on the cartoonish nature of this different world where the presence of the Muppets allows for magical experiences in the interest of gags and advancing the story (ie. traveling by map). Even the cameos are dependent on a varying degree of reference.
Toward the end of the movie, various celebrities start showing up in support the Muppets’ telethon. Kermit recognizes and acknowledges Whoopi Goldberg and Selena Gomez . He then half-recognizes Rico Rodriguez (Manny from Modern Family) who THEN asks Kermit if he is a Ninja Turtle. So this is clearly our real world because it shares a common culture. The Muppets then takes it a step further by having characters reference previous mediums in which The Muppets, as a troupe, have appeared (ie. “Didn’t you see our first movie?”). So not only is this a world where Selena Gomez is Selena Gomez, it’s also a universe in which all of the Muppet movies and shows existed but with the added wrinkle that the Muppets are real and that they are a group of entertainers who put on these performances.
But then, things take on an extra laminate of distance, where celebrities play characters other than themselves but are dependent on knowledge of their typical or previous roles for the gag to work. Take for example Emily Blunt, who plays, not herself, but her character from The Devil Wears Prada. The prime example of this comedic distance, though, is the Dave Grohl cameo. In a blink-or-you’ll-miss-it bit, Grohl shows up as the drummer for Fozzy’s Muppet tribute band. The joke is only a joke because “Holy shit, that’s Dave Grohl.” Then it’s over. We don’t know just how “meta” the joke is supposed to be we just know that it’s an hilarious split-second treat.
I may come back to talk about this movie some more, particularly having to do with the economy of the movie’s existence (seeing as how it seems anti-commercial, despite the main plot being about raising $10,000,000 … and being a movie released by Disney, with at least two gratuitous shots of Cars 2 posters) but that’s all for another time. For now, I’m happy to leave this by saying that watching The Muppets simply made me feel like everything is going to be okay. And, in a world filled with terrifying octopuses, economic uncertainty, and Liberian cannibals, that’s something that I’m happy to have been a part of. Even if it’s all a lie, it’s a lie that I’m not entirely uncomfortable with buying into.