Thursday, October 4, 2012

One couch, two audiences (The Muppets)

The weekend before last, I took the kids to the library. The little girl isn’t quite at the point of picking out books to borrow, but the children’s section of our library has quite a few puzzles and foam blocks and whatnot that she enjoyed playing with while her brother perused the shelves for some new stories to incorporate into the bedtime rotation. We also (finally) discovered the children’s DVD section, from which the little guy was permitted to select a couple of discs. He picked out a Cookie Monster compilation and the recent (2011) big-screen franchise revivification effort The Muppets.

It wasn’t until we got home and were relating our library excursion to my wife that it occurred to me The Muppets is actually a PG-rated movie, and the little guy had so far only ever been allowed to watch G-rated Disney and Sesame Street and Doctor Seuss stuff. Ok, technically, Sesame Street is well-populated with Muppets, but I knew in my heart of hearts that beyond Big Bird’s barrio things might skew a little less all-ages appropriate. The library only allows DVD’s to be checked out for one week, so I had seven days to screen The Muppets myself, determine if I thought the little guy should be exposed to it, and if so, let him watch it before it was due back.

Long story short, it all worked out. I watched the movie mid-week, didn’t find anything overly objectionable in it, and my wife and I told the little guy that if he had a good week he could earn the special treat of staying up late Friday to watch the movie (and, not incidentally, wait for mommy to get home from her very last night working past bedtime ever). And that’s more or less how it went down.

Initially, my main concern about The Muppets was that it might be too scary for the little guy. It was not that long ago that he was completely freaked out by the climactic chase scene in the new Lorax movie, and I know that Muppet flicks tend to be more conflict-driven than the usual PBS fare the little guy consumes, plus they’re all the more potentially threatening for being live-action. (You have to admit, Snake Walker the frog-killer-for-hire from The Muppet Movie could be quite the nightmare fuel for a pre-schooler.) As it turns out, The Muppets does technically have an antagonist, but firmly in the evil-businessman mold, setting up a classic “let’s put on a show to save the old studio from being torn down” narrative. Which is pretty handleable, right?

But as I watched The Muppets my concern shifted to something I hadn’t considered before: slapstick violence. There are a couple of comic setpieces in the movie which involve some over-the-top punching, and the little guy is just at that age where we are struggling mightily to teach him just how wrong it is to hit other people (or push his sister, or pull the dog’s tail, &c.) I don’t want to send the kid mixed messages, but I also don’t want to deprive him of a Fun Film Friday headlined by something he picked out himself by disqualifying a 90-minute children’s movie that’s all about friendship and believing in yourself and happens to have a grand total of 60 seconds of cartoonish fisticuffs. My wife and I talked about it and ultimately agreed that as long as there was a parental disclaimer at the outset about how the Muppets do crazy things that we don’t do in real life, we could proceed.

So the little guy and I watched the movie together and he wasn’t scared by the villains and he didn’t fly into a miniature berserker rage inspired by the moments of violent physical comedy, but once again it’s the things I don’t even think of beforehand that manage to sneak up on me. What failed to register with me the first time around was this: (SPOILER) the movie pulls a fake-out ending. After all their efforts, Kermit and the gang fail to raise enough money to save the studio. The bad guys win! But Kermit gives a rousing speech about how even though they failed the effort brought them all together again and reminded them that they’re a great big family-by-choice full of love and everything that Really Matters. And while the amount of comfort a person might derive from that is bound to be variable, when the disappointed yet brave-faced Muppets start to head home, they discover screaming throngs of fans waiting for them, all signs indicating that the Muppet comeback was actually a success and even if they technically lost the old studio they’ll soon be able to buy an even better one. (Then on top of all that, in a throwaway gag during the closing credits, Gonzo accidentally hits the main villain with a bowling ball and the head trauma leads directly to the villain deciding to return the studio to the Muppets, hooray.)

All well and good for an emotionally resonant and non-straightforward resolution, but oh MAN. The little guy was so crushed during the brief “bad guys triumphant” stretch there at the end. I forget that he lacks the lifelong exposure to predominantly happy endings which allows the rest of us to hang in there when things seem bleak for our heroes, secure in the knowledge that some dues ex machina or other is doubtless right around the corner. I had to provide the reassurance for him, but it wasn’t easy. Thankfully the movie didn’t draw it out too long, or I think the little guy might have just run out of the room in tears.

I did not see that sucker-punch for him coming, but I probably should have. Here’s the true takeaway from both my viewings of The Muppets: it is a children’s movie that was unequivocally made for and aimed at me and my generation. It’s a relentless nostalgia-trip, and there are call-outs galore to the older Muppet films, mainly The Muppet Movie. The thesis of the movie is that the answer to the question “Are the Muppets still relevant?” is “Yes, kids and adults of all ages still love them!” – but really the more correct way of answering that is “Kids today can find some appeal in them but the real appeal is for Gen Xers recalling their own childhoods”. And it’s patently (and arguably brilliantly) obvious who the movie is for right from the get-go.

The Muppets opens with its main character, Walter, filling us in on his childhood, which was mostly awesome although there were times when he felt he didn’t quite belong, until he discovered the Muppet Show on tv and became their biggest fan. The voiceover-driven montage of Walter growing up looks like home movie footage, and is underscored by Paul Simon’s “Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard”. In other words, it references a kind of technological medium that post-millennials haven’t seen and rides atop music that post-millennials haven’t heard. But those elements don’t properly belong to Gen X, either; if anything, they belong to the Boomers – our parents. So grainy home movies and Paul Simon don’t even bring to mind the things I was into when I was old enough to be my own arbitrator of taste, they remind me of my early childhood, when my parents were in charge. That is a sneaky, semi-genius headtrip right there, but again, it’s going to be utterly lost on a small child today.

OK, and then to really hammer the point home, the movie’s points of reference advance in time with the plot but only up to a point. Specifically, to the point where we meet Kermit’s new valet:

80’s ROBOT. Complete with “jokes” about Tab and New Coke and dial-up modems. Well-played, sirs. Please just direct me to where I might purchase some 80’s Robot merchandise and I will take it from there.

1 comment:

  1. I hear ya. My older girl had a similar moment watching "The Lion King." When Simba was having the climactic throwdown with Scar, she looked at me in terror and asked, "The good guy's going to win, isn't he?" As you said, she was unfamiliar enough with storytelling that she was in genuine doubt. I hadn't expected that. Fortunately, as with "The Muppets," resolution came quickly.

    I'm still irritated that "The Muppets" was pitched at nostalgists rather than the kids. Dammit, I *have* my Muppet movies! Put out one for my kids! Let them have their own consarn Muppet movie! Older Girl loved it anyway, so it worked out okay. She still sings "Man or Muppet" around the house sometimes.

    (Muppet love runs deep: my little one is obsessed with "Mahna Mahna." To the point that she regards the family laptop as the "Mahna Mahna machine," because she believes its sole purpose is to go to YouTube and play for her dozens of variations of that song.)