It’s not easy being green … or yellow … or blue … or fuchsia … or any of the other cornucopia of colors that Muppets typically are. Let’s face it: It’s not so much the color that separates Muppets from the rest of their world. It’s their innate Muppet-ness. Most of ’em are pretty short, for one thing—like, walk-under-the-coffee-table short—which makes them susceptible to getting sat on or kicked or thrown like Frisbees. They’re not great in the looks department either, all fur and flippers and curled-up noses. Even the human-looking ones never seem to blink—pretty creepy when you think about it (not to mention murder on the contact lenses). And pity the poor Muppet who doesn’t work as an entertainer in this job market. What else could they do? Their wiry arms don’t lend themselves to construction work. Few would be taken seriously as bouncers. It’s astounding, really, that the Muppets haven’t formed a special interest group or organized civil rights sit-ins. Forget about Kermit. All the Muppets will tell you that it’s not easy being Muppets.
Take Walter, for instance. He didn’t always know he was a Muppet. He started out as just a Smalltown boy (that is, he was raised in Smalltown), doing all the things Smalltown boys do. He ran around with his brother, Gary. He played Little League. When Walter got older, he and Gary went on double dates.
But as time trundled on, it became increasingly obvious that Walter was a little … different. While Gary grew from little boy to gangly teen to strapping young man, Walter never crested the two-foot mark. His dates looked at him askance. And while Walter did prove his mettle on the baseball diamond, it was only because Gary would throw him up in the air so he could catch those really high fly balls.
Walter just wasn’t like the other kids. And as time went on, he felt his isolation more and more acutely.
Walter and Gary were watching TV when everything changed. It was an old rerun of The Muppet Show that they’d tuned in to, and Walter realized that he’d finally found a group of folks with whom he could see eye to eye (quite literally). He loved The Muppet Show. He loved the Muppets. If only he could somehow meet them.
Then one day, Gary announces that he and his longtime girlfriend, Mary, are going to Los Angeles to commemorate their 10th anniversary together—and they invite Walter to come along. Really? He gasps. _I wouldn’t be in the way?
Of course not!_
Gary and Mary say, their smiles only slightly forced. We’d love for you to come! And so they set off for the coast and mythical Hollywood—where dreams can come true. Or so the brochures say. Because when they get into town, they see that the studio’s a dilapidated mess. That the Muppets have gone their separate ways. That some nefarious oil baron wants to raze the building and drill for oil underneath.
Well, you know what they say: It’s not easy being a really short tourist.
With the old Muppets studio under threat, Kermit (encouraged by Walter) decides to try to get the gang back together for one last show—a telethon to raise the money to save the place. But that’s not as easy as it sounds.
When the film opens, the cast of The Muppet Show is scattered around the globe. Fozzie’s working with a Muppets tribute group, The Moopets, in Reno. Gonzo is CEO of a large toilet-manufacturing corporation. Miss Piggy’s a fashion tycoon in Paris. They’ve all moved on, and some—be it through pride or hurt feelings or any number of other emotional hurdles—aren’t so sure they want to get back together.
Naturally, their reservations don’t last long. They’re a family, you see, and they care about one another. In the end, we’re told it doesn’t really matter that much whether the old building survives: It’s about the people—or rather, the Muppets—and the fact that the crisis brought them back together.
“Thanks to Walter here, we tried,” Kermit says. “And if we failed, we failed together. And that’s not failing at all.”
But even in the context of family, we also learn that things do change, and that people grow up and move on. Brothers Gary and Walter are prime examples: Each cares deeply about the other, and they’ve been practically inseparable since birth. Clearly, though, Gary can’t be with Walter forever. Both have their own lives to live. And The Muppets gives them opportunity to find and pursue those lives without losing their affection for each other.
Kermit and Miss Piggy gamely grapple with their own life-balance issues: Kermit knows Piggy can become rather enamored with fame. Piggy feels slighted by Kermit’s dedication to the Muppet community (“It’s never about you and me,” she squeals, “it’s always we“). While Kermit’s dedication to the studio is laudable, we all know that worthy causes can sometimes distract us too much from worthy relationships—a truth both eventually realize. Gary and Mary struggle with some of the same problems, but from the other side of the chasm. And eventually they set aside some of their you and me time for the good of the we, helping the Muppets try to save their show.
When Walter first sets eyes on Kermit, the diminutive frog is bathed in a halo-like light bolstered by what sounds like an angelic chorus. Turns out, though, the “angels” are merely a busload of choir members practicing.
The Facebook relationship status “It’s complicated” might have been invented with Kermit and Miss Piggy in mind. The two were married in The Muppets Take Manhattan, and in subsequent interviews, Piggy has indicated that she took those vows quite seriously. Kermit insists both of them were acting at the time.
Regardless, the two are estranged when The Muppets opens—Miss Piggy in Paris, Kermit living alone in a mansion that Piggy apparently had built for both of them. Whether the Manhattan wedding was a sham or not, it seems to mean something to Kermit and Piggy: Each has a piece of their wedding picture. But are they divorced? Separated? Just taking a break? The film never makes it completely clear.
What is clear is that when the two are reunited, Piggy flings herself at Kermit, crashing with him to the floor. She peppers her frog with kisses and, later, they share a tender smooch.
Human relationships, frankly, aren’t that much easier to decipher. Gary and Mary have been going steady for the past decade, but they’re not married (perhaps because Gary feels the weight of his duty to take care of Walter). Still, they take a trip to Los Angeles together. (For what it’s worth, their hotel room contains two double beds, and any physical contact we see would be completely at home in a 1950s-era sitcom.) Mary fantasizes about Gary proposing to her. (And later, Gary does propose.)
There’s nothing really wrong with actors playing characters of the opposite sex, but it’s still worth mentioning that there may be something of a cultural (closeted) joke attached to the fact that members of The Moopets cross-dress, with the Moopet version of Miss Piggy appearing to be particularly manly.
We briefly see a bikini-clad woman on a beach. Kermit’s advice to counter stage fright by imagining the audience naked prompts a visual of humans in their underwear. Muppet females wear dresses that would bare cleavage … if they had any to bare.
Muppets and slapstick violence go together like Lew Zealand and fish. The original Muppet Show was loaded with outlandish mayhem, and while this film tones it down a notch, it’s still the sort of hyperactive hilarity that’d make The Three Stooges smile in approval.
Walter pleads with Gary to throw him over a fence. Gary finally agrees and folds Walter’s legs up to make him more aerodynamic. (The folds are accompanied by breaking sounds.) He then hurls him straight into the electrified fence, leaving poor Walter to spark for several moments before falling to the ground, a little charred.
Muppets start a huge fight during a self-control class. A celebrity has his head shrunk. A large bear is slightly injured several times in a fencing match. A car runs into an electrical pole. Kermit gets slammed into a door. A head hits a desk. A face hits a TV. Muppets fall down. A man falls off a building (but survives, apparently unhurt) and is smacked in the gut with a bowling ball (which miraculously improves his temper). Piggy lays down a karate chop on a rival. Gonzo literally blows up his toilet business. A refrigerator full of moldy (talking) food is destroyed.
One (bad) Muppet exclaims, “What the wocka?!” A bevy of chickens cluck their way through a fowl rendition of Cee Lo Green’s hit “F**k You.” (It’s sung in gibberish chickenese.) We hear a use each of “jeez,” “heck” and “butt.”
In the midst of a musical number, someone who looks to be a refugee from Woodstock says, “Life is full of highs.”
Muppets kidnap a celebrity. Fozzie works in a casino. At one point, Fozzie wears what he describes as “fart shoes”—whoopee cushions strapped to his feet. A Muppet Studios tour guide lies when someone mistakes the place for Universal Studios. Characters are invited to sit on toilets during one of Gonzo’s business meetings.
Let me admit a bias here. I grew up with the Muppets—both on Sesame Street and on The Muppet Show. While The Muppets is a ticklish movie in some respects, it still won me over. Let me tell you why:
I think most kids, when they’re little, feel something like Walter. Sure, they may have wonderful families and folks who love them (as Walter does), but that doesn’t change the fact that—living in a world built by grownups for grownups, you inherently feel a little … different. When I was a boy, I was pretty conscious of how small I was. How different I looked. How weak I felt.
And like Walter, I found friends (of a sort) in Jim Henson’s creations. Grover. Oscar the Grouch. Bert and Ernie. They didn’t look at all like me, but there was something in the way they acted that helped me see them inside of me—or me inside of them. I could be grouchy like Oscar, silly like Grover, even a little persnickety like Bert. They didn’t just teach me about the alphabet or how to add. They told me that my thoughts and feelings weren’t alien. They taught me that I was normal—or maybe abnormal in a good way, like they were. They told me I wasn’t alone.
No wonder the Muppets so often revisit themes of community and friendship. They show us how different we all can be—and what, in spite of those differences, we all share. Is that sappy? Yes. But there’s something beautiful in the simplicity and truth of that message.
Midway through The Muppets, evil oil magnate Tex Richmond forms an alliance with The Moopets, hoping this new troupe will supplant the Muppets in popularity. “The Moopets are a hard, cynical act for a hard, cynical world,” he says, stifling a maniacal laugh. And we see that he’s onto something: The world is hard. It is cynical. And the question lingers, Are we too “adult” now for the Muppets? Have we traveled too far, seen too much?
Of course not. The Muppets are as hip as ever. We may have gotten acquainted with them first as children, but they’re surprisingly mature in their sensibilities … and then they temper that maturity by flashing a sideways smirk. In short, they’re as self-aware a group of non-sentient puppets you’ll ever likely meet. One minute they’ll give you a wink and a hip pop-culture reference. The next they’ll reach out and hold your hand.
Like us, Muppets are small and weak and … colorful. They’re also sometimes just a tad off-color. Yet they dream and hope and believe like mad. And in so doing, they give us permission to do the same.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.