The Blog

Muppets and the Modern World

With the recent deaths of Bin Laden, Gadaffi and Kim Jong Il, there is officially nobody left on the planet who doesn't love the Muppets. You'd have to be a soulless idiot not to.

Steve Martin has made some really bad choices, hasn't he? It's been more than 20 years since he convincingly knocked it out of the park and although there has been the occasional blip in his downward trajectory (I guess I'm just talking about Bowfinger), it has generally been two decades of below-par fare and a couple of truly baffling choices.

In 1996, he decided to take the role of Sgt Bilko - the character immortalised by the incomparable Phil Silvers 40 years earlier. Martin was rightly slated for the choice and hauled over the coals by the critics. History has been kind in forgetting. A decade later, lesson not learned, Martin made the frankly insane choice of stepping into Peter Sellers' shoes and taking over the role of Inspector Clouseau.

I never understood why a comedian so uniquely talented as Steve Martin would choose to turn his back on the brilliant deadpan moronity of his early career and opt to spend his autumn years trying to emulate the genius of his peers in roles they defined. Martin was at his peak in the 70s - his 'Wild and Crazy Guy' era - and that peak was validated in a rite-of-passage shared by anyone who was anyone in that era. He got to spend some time with the Muppets.

With the recent deaths of Bin Laden, Gadaffi and Kim Jong Il, there is officially nobody left on the planet who doesn't love the Muppets. You'd have to be a soulless idiot not to. Jim Henson managed to distill an unparalleled formula - unerringly optimistic yet tempered with a sardonic wit, fabulously silly yet unexpectedly poignant, simple and colourful enough for kids yet wry and witty enough for grown-ups. Few have come close to making work so accessible and well-crafted enough for an audience spanning entire generations.

For my part, there will never be another resident of the Muppet-shaped place in my heart. A couple of times a year, I'll flick through the DVDs to recharge my soul, I still proudly own my original Muppet Show LP (bought for the syrupy Halfway Down The Stairs, continuously appreciated for the melancholic whimsy of Bein' Green), a handful of books and, as I type this, a lifesize Gonzo replica watches me with open-mouthed joy from the shelf in my office.

I couldn't believe it when my dad scored tickets to take the family to the advance screening of the new Muppets film at the BFI last week, indeed seeing it with the family seemed strangely apt. For a 6.30pm screening on a Friday night, there were very few kids in the audience, but, as mentioned by the director in the post-screening Q&A, the current crop of four-year-olds aren't terribly familiar with Muppets.

The film's an odd 'un. Echoing 1979's The Muppet Movie which showed how the Muppets assembled and then made a film about it, this tells the story of a wannabe Muppet and his human brother who, on learning that the Muppet Studio and Theatre are to be destroyed by a greedy oil baron, put the Muppets back together again to stage a show which will raise the money to stop him.

It's a bold step away from the post-Jim Henson Muppet films, which have mainly been charming re-tellings of classic stories with a Muppet cast, overseen by his son Brian Henson. This time, the creative power has been handed to some well-meaning outsiders. Actor/writer/exec producer Jason Segel is probably the most Muppety of Hollywood's current brood, carving out a charismatic career of lovable 'manchildren' since his brilliant emergence as Nick on the TV show Freaks and Geeks (a one-season work of excellence, also responsible for kickstarting the careers of Seth Rogan and Judd Apatow) working with James Bobin - writer-director of The Flight of the Conchords. I've always been uneasy about Disney's ownership of the Muppets but I'm glad they took a risk with these guys rather than just handing it to a bland, safe team.

The resulting film is a curious piece of work. In essence, it's an homage to the Muppets, yet... starring the Muppets. The focus is a bit hazy. Although they have a lot of screentime, the Muppets themselves seem relegated to minor characters due to them being denied proper storylines of their own. That said, Segel, his faltering relationship and his Muppet brother also seem to fade into the background between a strong start and dramatic finish. It's a great conceit - the re-visiting of a faded pop-culture legend - I have an enduring fascination for the film Rocky Balboa for precisely this reason.

But Muppets can't age, so the poigancy of time passed and opportunity wasted can't ever really kick in. I'm critiquing a kids film. A Muppet film. Look, it's a lot of fun - it's silly and rousing and warm and funny and colourful and it's got funny celebrity cameos and some great songs in it. If you have kids, not taking them so see it would be an unnecessary cruelty, even if you don't, it's a great pick-me-up and you'd be hard-pushed to not grin like a loon, throughout.

On leaving the cinema, though, the grin faded quite quickly and I realised it had been more to do with the familiarity, the joy of seeing Kermit, Fozzie, Piggy and Gonzo on the big screen for the first time in 20 years (which isn't to say they haven't been on it, just that I haven't seen a Muppet film in the cinema since The Muppet Christmas Carol). It's a charming film but there is no escaping the fact that this is the first ever Muppet film without the name Henson in the credits. Frank Oz has long since jumped ship, Jerry Juhl who wrote most of what The Muppets ever said passed away in '05. Although the puppets still exist and the new generation of Muppeteers, led valiantly by Steve Whitmire and Eric Jacobson, do their best to uphold the quality, there is no escaping that these were more than just characters and cloth, they were the souls and personalities of their originators. That's why the Farrelly Brothers' forthcoming Three Stooges reboot is a horrible idea. That's why a brilliant comedian like Steve Martin can't just dress up as Bilko or Clouseau and make it work.

There was a lot of talk in the Q&A about introducing a new audience to the Muppets but this seemed shrouded in irony since the BFI is traditionally the place parents take their kids to introduce them to the brilliance of Chaplin, Laurel & Hardy, Buster Keaton... If something is of an incredible timeless quality, sometimes the most effective and respectful thing is to preserve and promote it rather than recycle and update it. The Henson Muppet material isn't going anywhere, there's loads of it and to introduce a new audience to it, you really just have to press play.

I did enjoy the film but can't help thinking how much better something Segel and Bobin might produce for a family audience today could be if left unsaddled by the demands of someone else's 30-year-old material.