Unless you live in another solar system or are otherwise able to avoid all forms of advertising, you know that The Muppets opens this Wednesday. Advance critical buzz is very good, and the film seems poised to accomplish its goal of introducing a new generation to the awesomeness that is the Muppets. You’d think that that would be enough to make Muppets stalwarts happy, but it turns out there are some detractors among the old guard.
The chief detractor is none other than Frank Oz, one of Jim Henson’s earliest, longest-running collaborators and former performer of some of the more popular Muppets, including Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear, and Animal. Oz, who reportedly had been working on a script of his own for a new Muppets movie when Disney made the choice to go with one by Jason Segel and Nick Stoller, was offered a chance to work on the movie but turned it down. Last month he was quoted in an interview with the British website Metro as saying:
I wasn’t happy with the script. I don’t think they respected the characters. But I don’t want to go on about it like a sourpuss and hurt the movie.
Shortly after that article’s publication, other Muppets veterans — some of whom worked on the movie — were anonymously quoted in The Hollywood Reporter discussing their own reservations about the way the characters were handled.
I have nothing but respect for Oz and the other veterans’ decades of experience and in many cases friendship with the late, great Henson, but they’re wrong if they think this film is anything but… well, in the words being used by many people including Segel and Henson’s daughter Lisa, a “love letter to the Muppets.” It both pays tribute to, and makes accessible to today’s movie audiences, the history of the Muppets. Fans of The Muppet Show will realize as they watch the movie that it was made by kindred spirits, as they laugh at both the jokes aimed at newcomers to the franchise and the in-jokes that are aimed squarely at them.
Is it a film Jim Henson would have made? Nobody, not even Oz or Henson’s children can say, because Henson has been gone for 21 years, and who can say how he would have changed as a creator and performer over that time had he lived? Anyone who takes an honest look at Henson’s legacy can see that he was highly adaptable, adjusting his approach to keep up with changes in the times and technology. All we can say for sure is that he wouldn’t be doing the exact same things now that he was doing before. One of the driving reasons for making The Muppets is to relaunch the franchise for a new generation, and it doesn’t take a marketing genius to realize that using the same approaches that worked in the ’70s and ’80s won’t do it. Heck, the movie probably wouldn’t have been made at all if some the Muppets’ YouTube videos hadn’t become so popular.
Now, speaking for myself, I’ve been able to get my kids hooked on the Muppets just by showing them the best of the old movies and the episodes of The Muppet Show that are out on DVD. And they’re seriously hooked, despite my wife and I having to explain who most of the guest stars are, or were — and sometimes having to look them up to be sure, because we don’t remember them, either. But that won’t work for many kids, I think, or even many adults. The Muppets needed to be modern, and this movie accomplishes that, while yet managing to stay true to their rich heritage:The movie isn’t in 3D, there are no teen pop songs on the soundtrack, and there isn’t even any CGI.
I’ve been a huge fan of the Muppets since I was a kid, and I couldn’t be more thrilled that this movie is coming out. I’m going to a preview screening tonight (I’ve seen some of it already, but not all) and, while I know I won’t love everything about it, I’m confident it will bring me the same joy I get from watching the old movies and TV episodes. Only in addition to experiencing a certain amount of nostalgia, I’ll also get to look at my kids’ faces while they watch the first new Muppets film to hit theaters in their lifetimes. And you know what? That beats anything Oz and his fellow detractors have to say, and it’s not even close.