Heart Felt

We’re long past due for sincerity to make a comeback, and The Muppets are the perfect ones to bring it.

When I was younger, I used to wonder why the Muppets’ movies always started with them getting together or back together. They all met in The Muppet Movie — I saw it! — so why were they acting like strangers in The Great Muppet Caper, and why did The Muppets Take Manhattan need to have them singing about how great it was to be Together Again?

I’m sure there are all kinds of screenplay-driven justifications: setting up a conflict for the first act, making sure each character gets an entrance, giving room for a song about friendship. But after seeing the version in The Muppets, I suspect there’s more to it than that. It’s to let all of us shed the parts of ourselves that are self-conscious and mired in cynicism and irony, and let us get reacquainted with the parts of ourselves that just want to be joyously goofy.

The Muppets is joyously goofy, and it’s unabashedly a love letter to the Muppets themselves. A cynic could say that it’s nothing more than a feature-length advertisement for the franchise, but lucky for us, cynicism stopped being a thing years ago.

The movie follows the basic template of The Muppet Movie, but the gang isn’t starting out as unknowns working for their big break; they’re already famous. Recognized by everyone, but still actually loved only by obsessed weirdos. When they find Kermit, he’s living alone in his Bel Air home having lost touch with the rest of the gang — in an interview for the press kit, the director mentions the setup as like Sunset Boulevard, which is a brilliant connection I hadn’t picked up on. The Muppets stayed big; it’s everyone’s hearts that got small.

The problem for the Muppets in this movie isn’t recognition but relevance. Everyone loved the Muppets as a kid, but there’s no audience for them anymore. The world’s outgrown them. Normally, basing so much of your story’s premise on the idea that your characters are no longer relevant would cross the line of “self-aware” and go straight to “defensive.” But The Muppets treats the issue just like everything else: by saying it’s silly.

So many attempts to make family entertainment make the mistake of targeting parents by taking children’s material and making it more adult. But who wants that? It’s far better to make something that lets adults remember how awesome it is to be a kid? The movie shows that the Muppets’ hipper, edgier counterparts seem laughably dated, and it’s the decades-old, shamelessly earnest original Muppet Movie that’s had the real staying power.

Those of us who dismiss the 70s as a painfully un-self-aware dark age in which someone as schmaltzy as Paul Williams could become a bona fide trans-media celebrity: this isn’t the movie for us. It’s mode for those of us who still cry at the final chorus to “Rainbow Connection.” And if you don’t tear up during The Muppets‘s version when Animal finally loses it, then you’re made of cold, hard stuff.

But then, I had tears in my eyes for the whole thing, from the short (which was a brilliant, unexpected surprise) all the way to the end. It’s at the same time a celebration of being silly, and it’s a reminder that there’s no reason we shouldn’t be silly all the time. (Speaking of being silly, I never would’ve realized how Muppet-like the Flight of the Conchords already are without seeing Bret Mckenzie’s songs performed Muppet-style. I was skeptical that it would fit without being jarring, but the songs are the best part of the movie).

When the Castro Theater did a special presentation of Labyrinth, they had a great Q&A with Dave Goelz (far too unassuming a guy for someone with his history) and Karen Prell (who has the most amazing resume of any living human). For me, it was kind of a reality check: “I’ve loved you people for years and hadn’t even realized it!” The outpouring of love from the audience made it clear that the Muppets never stopped being relevant; most of us just let ourselves forget how miserably grown-up we’ve gotten.

And everybody should go in as unspoiled as possible, so skip the rest of this if you haven’t yet seen the movie. What happens at a me party stays at a me party. Or, the first rule of The Muppets is not to spoil any of the enjoyment of The Muppets.

I think even if we didn’t know the story of how Jason Segel got to be involved with the project, it’d still be clear that the movie was made by unabashed fans. Forgetting Sarah Marshall turned out to be basically forgettable, but the one memorable part was Segel’s opera about Dracula with puppets. It was such a bizarrely brave non-sequitur. Refreshing to see someone who didn’t feel the need to make excuses or qualifications, and just be weird.

And that’s what makes the Gary-Mary-Walter triangle, not the let’s-save-the-theater storyline, the main story of The Muppets. It’s hard not to see it as a Fight Club situation, especially after the “Man or Muppet” song. There’s the lifelong Muppets fan who never felt like he fit in anywhere else, and then there’s the part who has to grow up and behave like an adult.

It’s cleverly done, since it keeps the message from being as trite as “be yourself” or “never lose your sense of childlike joy,” both fine lessons to keep in mind, but both too simple to mean anything on their own. The lesson is how to be self-aware without being self-conscious, and how to retain your childhood without being a manchild. Even Kermit has to learn it’s not enough to be loved by everyone if you end up alone. He has to get over himself and his commitment issues, and finally acknowledge who’s important to him.

Surprisingly grown-up for a movie with fart shoes. (Which are still hilarious no matter how old you are).

One of the best moments in the movie is when Walter’s trying to find out how he can contribute, what exactly it is he’s good at. He tells Kermit, “You’re all so talented,” right as Fozzie shows up with his fart shoes. Kermit’s reaction says more than any actor with an articulated face could. The appeal of The Muppets isn’t that they’re talented, but that they put themselves out there to bring us all the world’s third greatest gift.

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