THE FELT-LINED COUNTDOWN: The Muppets

11 May, 2019 at 8:38 pm (film, muppets)

PREVIOUSLY: Three years after this, the next film picks up mere seconds after this film’s conclusion, and dueling Kermits vie for control of the troupe in a trope-filled trip across Europe.

TITLE CARD: The Muppets (2011)

Well, it’s a small thing, but the second The Muppets begins, with the above title card floating in a hazy 4:3 aspect ratio in the middle of a wide screen, this film marks itself as separate from all other Muppet films: by unadorned use of pop music. The Muppet Show was, of course, no stranger to either use of or focus on a contemporary hit or a died-in-the-wool radio classic, let alone folk songs or ballads. But while covers and musical guests filled out the television shows, the films have always seemed to eschew anything except original music. The Muppets has its fair share of original songs, but the very first impression is one of nostalgia, deliberately evoked by Paul Simon’s ’72 release “Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard”. For a film that’s about creating a bridge between the current generation and the previous, culminating in a demonstration that the fans of the Muppets never really went away, it’s a clear (possibly manipulative) way of evoking the past. This is undercut only by the fact that young people may not actually connect with a chipper playground tune by half of a sixties folk-duo, and not-young people, like me, may have the song already firmly and inexorably assigned in their heads to the Royal Tenenbaums montage.

About a third of the way through the film, we have a second pop needle-drop, with the accumulated Muppets rebuilding the dilapidated Muppet Studios to a montage of Starship’s “We Built This City”, a tune I still vividly associate with watching animation from Kidd Video one Saturday morning in 1985. It’s a strange choice, in that apparently it’s a song that has largely been reduced to the internet’s lazy choice for “worst song ever” (an achievement I usually still reserve for Dave Barry’s choice of “MacArthur Park”), and again therefore doesn’t seem like the likeliest of affecting bridges between the old generation and the new.

The next two homages feel more appropriate: two skits in the Muppet Telethon do a good job of capturing the kind of viral reappropriation the Muppets had excelled at in 2008 and 2009. The first is the eyebrow raising of Camilla and the chickens covering Cee Lo Green’s “Fuck You” — a very strange thing to see as the title of an entry in the Muppet Wikia pages — which is fun in that since the entire song is performed in Chicken, the existence of profanity is skated over, but still feels like an edgy choice for a Disney production. Similarly, the necessity of kids having to ask their parents, “Hey, what’s a “libido”?” is handily evaded by having Beaker sing and therefore garble that particular word in the barbershop quartet cover of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit”.

A mulatto, an albino, a mosquito, mee mee mee mo(Both these songs, by the way, are performed in abbreviated versions in the film’s montage of the telethon numbers, but get full, extended versions on the soundtrack. I gambled the the $1.29 each on iTunes, and it turns out I much prefer the full-length editions. “Teen Spirit” removes all of the Jack Black, thus emphasizing the barbershop quartet harmonies, and “Cluck You” enjoyably pushes its simple punchline to a full two minutes, twenty-eight seconds.)

It’s a curious blend of Muppet Show technique with Muppet Movie expectations, culminating in a cast-wide rendition of “Rainbow Connection”, perhaps the Muppets’ most famous contribution to pop culture. Read the rest of this entry »

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THE FELT-LINED COUNTDOWN: Muppets Most Wanted

4 May, 2019 at 9:04 am (film, muppets)

Title card: Muppets Most Wanted

The second of the pure-Disney release Muppet films and the most recent theatrical Muppet Movie, we begin our peeling back of the Muppet onion with a great opening: the ending of the previous film. I’m not often a fan of “five minutes later” continuity (one of my main problems with The Incredibles 2), as it tends to mean that characters are plunged back into the waters of conflict after we’ve just reached some sort of catharsis and reconciliation, even if it was actually several years ago from the audience’s perspective. However, it’s hard not to be charmed by the audacity of beginning a film with fireworks and a “The End” card. (Especially as that’s the opening of my own unfinished screenplay…)

The film then charges into choppy waters. The very first scene is promising, in that it establishes that the end of the previous movie is the end of the filming of that movie, tapping into a conceit that is long rumored to be a key aspect of Muppet Movie-making: that all of the Muppet movies after The Muppet Movie are the movies that the Muppets made as part of their deal with Lew Grade. (Listen to film nerd and Muppet fan Griffin Newman speak on this as a guest on the No Excuses podcast.) The Muppet Movie is, after all, a screening of the Muppets watching “The Muppet Movie”, an “approximately how it happened” biopic of how The Muppets really got started. It’s an A Star Is Born narrative with the Muppets playing themselves, and most of the rest of the films are supposed to be films of the Muppets continuing to play the Muppets in various scenarios. The Great Muppet Caper perhaps does this metafiction best, with The Muppets Take Manhattan blurring the line the worst, but providing an explanation as to how Kermit and Piggy get married at the end of that film and yet remain romantically separated for the rest of their careers.

So this first scene starts in line with the metafictional expectations of certain Muppet fans — so far, so strong — but then immediately wrong-foots itself by launching into a backlot song-and-dance number. The song is moderately catchy but a little flat. I found the Hollywood backlot stuff confusing, as I didn’t click with the decision the grips and wardrobe people performing in a vaguely ’40s atmosphere, which serves as homage, but adds little else. The main problem is that the dancing line of the main Muppet cast is stiff, and lacks depth or interesting choreography, and the stilted Singing in the Rain antics of the humans does not make up for it, especially as the action is so obviously segregated on two planes. The film satire montage is fun, but both it and the retro heart of dance number seem to essentially misjudge the audience.

Thank goodness for the insane cut to Constantine: The World’s Most Dangerous Frog.

CONSTANTINE: The World's Most Dangerous Frog

“It’s like ’83 all over again. Out of the shadows and, ‘All right, squire?
Trust me.’ and gone before you know it. Christ, that was a laugh…”

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Someday We’ll Find It: THE FELT-LINED COUNTDOWN

21 April, 2019 at 9:12 pm (clerical, film, muppets)

After the moderate success (read: I believe I still haven’t written at all about The Constant Gardener and my thoughts about Tinker, Tailor, Commissioner, Gordon are still conflicted and incomplete) of my series leading up to the release of the largely unheralded le Carré adaptation Our Kind of Traitor, I dabbled with the idea of blogging about each of the Oceans movies leading up to the release of Ocean’s Eight in 2018. The plan was to write about the Rat Pack original, the Clooney trilogy, and then Logan Lucky (aka “Ocean’s 7-11”) during the weeks leading up to number-one-with-a-Bullock release on June 8. (There was even a plan to cap it off the next week with a review of The Deep End of the Ocean full of complaints about how they totally violated the spirit of the franchise. It was going to be absurd, and may actually have stretched successfully to funny. We’ll never know.) It would have been a more manageable project with only six films, versus nine intended le Carré entries.

I have little memory of how I dropped that particular ball last year, but looking back on my calendar, it seems I watched the original Ocean’s 11, took some notes about some research I needed to do — including finding that elusive article about how the Soderbergh Eleven was picketed by men in Rat Pack cosplay, protesting that it was being remade — and then I was overwhelmed by two twentieth reunions, supervising a TedX event, and family visiting from out of town. Real life sometimes gets in the way of even a dedicated commitment to pursuing an existence of entertainment.

So that plan was shelved, barring the slim possibility of a Bullock/Blanchett Ocean’s Nine. But then I noticed recently that we were coming up on the fiftieth anniversary of the theatrical release of The Muppet Movie on June 22, 1979. This seemed like a good opportunity to do a countdown to that event, reviewing the other theatrically-released Muppet films that spun out of that original, ahem, leap to the big screen.

What insights do I hope to gain by watching the theatrical Muppet films in reverse order? Is this a kind of return-to-basics, purity test, where I strip away all of the hullabaloo and see, progressively, what about the characters the audience wasn’t expected to take for granted? Is it a paean to primitivism, as the films in reverse chronology lose more and more special effects and trickery and revert to basic, essential puppeteering?

Maybe. Mostly, it will give me a chance to watch the newer films without comparing them to the earlier films I know best. I’ve watched The Muppet Movie easily a dozen times, and Great Muppet Caper half that. From there, my drop-off of exposure is precipitous, so much so that I haven’t ever seen the two post-Henson “storybook” adaptations. While Muppet Christmas Carol has become a staple in many of my peers’ holiday households, I’ve only ever seen the occasional clip from the film. So this will give me an opportunity to visit and revisit the films without the memory of my childhood ringing immediately in my ears, and perhaps therefore judge the films on their own merits.

BlogalongaMuppets

May 4 — Muppets Most Wanted (2014)
May 11 — The Muppets (2011)
May 18 — Muppets From Space (1999)
May 25 — Muppet Treasure Island (1996)
June 1 — A Muppet Christmas Carol (1992)
June 8 — Muppets Take Manhattan (1984)
June 15 — The Great Muppet Caper (1981)
June 22 — The Muppet Movie (1979)

 

Related Links:
+ A YouTube clip of the scene from the above screencap.
+ Review of the Kermit’s 50th Anniversary DVD edition of The Muppet Movie.
+ A pretty good Vox longread about the issues surrounding Kermit’s character, cultural footprint, and the firing of Steve Whitmire in 2017.

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Phenomena (Doot Doo Do Doo Doo!)

12 January, 2008 at 9:39 pm (muppets, music, webjunk)

It’s 4:30pm, and the sun ain’t set yet. You winter people can complain about the rain and the fog and the fifty degree days and the other things that are melting and destroying your precious, precious snow. I got news for you: the days are getting noticeably longer again. The end is near.

Mahna Mahna and the Snowths on the Muppet ShowSure, not near enough that we won’t have to suffer through a frigid couple of weeks after this annual January thaw (read: “tease”) and the bleakness of February, the longest month of the year… but it’s acomin’. Be sure of that.

In other news, the ever popular Mahna Mahna phenomena is actually from the soundtrack to an Italian sex travelogue of Sweden. God love the Muppets. And god love the A.V. Club, who provided me with this particular fact.

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