I was late to climb aboard the Muppet train. If you’d asked me to name them when I was five, I’d have known Kermit the Frog, Miss Piggy, and maybe Gonzo. But I didn’t discover the other treasures that Jim Henson and Friends had put on screen over the years until I was 17, when I re-watched The Muppet Christmas Carol, quite possibly the most enjoyable Christmas movie ever. Yet finding The Muppets as a teenager wasn’t just a case of better late than never, but better late than early.
There’s a certain genius to The Muppets, and it’s better appreciated as an adult than as a kid. Take, for example, The Muppets Take Manhattan, the last Muppet movie released before Henson’s death. Within one four-minute scene, the film swings from the goofy and childish to the surprisingly sharp and mature. When Kermit suffers a bout of amnesia, he takes up with a group of frogs named Bill, Gil, and Jill—she won’t eat meat from the grill because it makes her ill. This sort of cute humor can keep kids laughing and an older audience entertained, but the real prize comes when the other Muppets devise a plan to get Kermit back. After Miss Piggy has her say, the seemingly uninterested Janice informs her friends, “I don’t take my clothes off for anyone, even if it is artistic.”
The Muppets Take Manhattan also shows the Muppets’ versatility extending beyond just humor. Upon being asked to help Kermit and his friends in New York, a human diner owner with a thick accent offers what he can, with the rationale that “Peoples is peoples.” Barely understandable, this is another laugh line for the kids, but it comes with a lesson. “Peoples is peoples”—that is, we need to think of each other before we think of our money and possessions. The delicacy with which The Muppets deliver this idea is impressive. It lacks the shameless brunt force of the “moral of the story” children’s movies often pile upon us; it also avoids the insincerity with which such an idea might be delivered in a crowd-pleaser for adults.
The forebear of today’s Pixar movies, Henson’s Muppet creations use the guise of children’s entertainment to offer the public real art. Buoyed by adorable puppets and a market of parents wanting to take their kids to the movies, Henson never had to worry about selling his films. They sold themselves. So, as long as he kept it fun for the kids, he was free to dot his work with real comedy and depth. Because the Muppet movies sell themselves, a line like Janice’s doesn’t have to be ruined by being surrounded with gratuitous sex, violence, and bathroom humor. In the film, the line “peoples is peoples” is sweetly sincere, but would have fallen flat in a manufactured love story designed as a vehicle for some mediocre actor.
It’s exciting that, a little more than 20 years after Henson’s death, The Muppets are back. This Thanksgiving will bring The Muppets, a film written by and starring Jason Segel, and the franchise’s first theatrical release since 1999. Stirring up buzz for the new movie is The Green Album, a collection of favorites recorded by various alternative and light-rock acts and released in August on Walt Disney Records. The album is headlined by Weezer and Hayley Williams’ cover of “Rainbow Connection,” while the other 11 songs feature not-quite A-list musicians such as OK Go, The Fray, and My Morning Jacket. This Muppet revival must seem incredible for any fan, but with neither Henson nor his cohorts involved, the question must be asked: do the “new” Muppets keep the original spirit—the whimsy and sincerity, the ability to transcend children’s entertainment—alive?
If The Green Album is any indication, the Muppet renaissance is off to a good start. The album itself has a disappointing first two tracks in OK Go’s “Muppet Show Theme Song” and Weezer and Hayley Williams’ “Rainbow Connection.” OK Go seems to miss the point entirely, trying far too hard to make a classic sound “cool” rather than introduce innovation while preserving the intent of the original. The enthusiasm, momentum and intricacy that made the original “Muppet Show Theme Song” so great are lost here so that OK Go can blare its synths. Meanwhile, Weezer and Hayley Williams make their best effort to turn “Rainbow Connection” from a song that’s emotionally evocative into one that’s just emo.
The album hits its stride, though, by its third track, The Fray’s “Mahna Mahna.” It’s impressively creative how The Fray is able to replicate through sound the visual gags that made the “Mahna Mahna” skit so enjoyable. My Morning Jacket’s “Our World” and Amy Lee’s “Halfway Down the Stairs” take simple melodies and update them with interesting instrumentation. Henson’s favorite, though, would be Andrew Bird’s “Bein’ Green.” This cover spends its first two minutes faithfully recreating the original—with Bird’s voice capturing Kermit in a way that Rivers Cuomo just can’t—before Bird spends the last two showcasing his unusual talents: a sweet whistle and precise violin-playing.
Bird’s “Bein’ Green” captures the essence of The Muppets. They only promise children’s entertainment, but deliver so much more. How often do we get to appreciate the beauty of something so simple as a whistle, of music we can create all by ourselves—no lyrics, no instruments? How often do we get to appreciate the beauty of something so intricate as the sound of a violin, of the skill we can acquire? And to appreciate them in concert with one another, both enhancing the song’s theme—that whether we’re green or red or white, anything is possible. The idea that “anything is possible” is found not only in the lyrics; it’s manifested in the magic of what Henson created and what Bird replicates.
Here’s hoping that Jason Segel’s The Muppets can meet the high standards first set by Henson and now reached by The Green Album. It’ll be tough. After all, it’s not easy bein’ green.