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The Muppets and Their Lasting Legacy

Updated on November 27, 2011

The Muppets are back! Yet, were they ever really gone? True, the last Muppet feature film was over a decade ago. However, it’s the multiple generations that grew up on the Muppets (myself included) that still hold Jim Henson’s influential contribution to entertainment in our hearts. After being out of the limelight for years, younger generations are not as familiar with the Muppet clan aside from the occasional Muppet cameo on the long-revered “Sesame Street” television program. However, it wasn’t until a pitch by actor/writer Jason Segel and his writing partner Nicholas Stoller to Disney that got public anticipation for the return of the Muppets back to the big screen.

As the Muppets are making their way back into the public’s consciousness, we are reminded of all the great things the Jim Henson Company has put out over the years and its lasting influence on film, television, and comedy. After Henson’s Muppet creations were given exposure on the children’s television series “Sesame Street,” Henson brought his troupe to prime time television with the comedy-variety show “The Muppet Show,” which ran from 1976 to 1981. The show reached a more adult audience but still appealed to younger viewers. In 1979, the Muppets starred in their first feature film, appropriately titled “The Muppet Movie.”

Over the years, the Muppets starred in numerous feature films, television specials, cartoons, and commercials. The characters themselves have become celebrities in their own right. They appeared on talk shows, award specials, and made cameo appearances in other films. But what is it about them that has been so funny and universally appealing that transcends every age group? For one, I believe Henson was able to tap into a certain comedic tone by utilizing puppetry. Considering these characters are comprised by felt material, comedic slapstick has been a common element in their performances with writing that relies on all kinds of classic comedy sensibilities. They were innocent enough to entertain and educate young viewers on Sesame Street but universally funny enough to make primetime audiences laugh. And let’s not forget the Muppet’s ability to create a catchy song-and-dance number. From “The Muppet Show” to their feature length films, the Muppets were not afraid to break out into song with an audience singing along.

After the untimely death of Henson in 1990, fans wondered if Kermit and the rest of the Muppets would be retired for good. The Jim Henson Company decided to continue on and they produced numerous films and specials throughout the 1990s into the next millennium. Puppeteer Steve Whitmire took over the primary duties of Kermit the Frog and several other Muppets. In 2004, the Walt Disney Company purchased the rights to the Muppet brand and were looking for a reboot.

By 2011, the new feature length film, simply titled “The Muppets,” hit theaters with public anticipation at a high level. In the months leading up to the film, the Muppets began seeping back into the public eye. From car rental commercials, in-theater promos, and a Muppets musical tribute album featuring many big name artists, the Muppets were welcomed back in a big way.

This brings us to the latest Muppets film, starring Segel, Amy Adams, Chris Cooper, and all of your favorite Muppet characters. In Smalltown, USA, brothers Gary (Segel) and his puppet brother Walter (performed by Peter Linz) grow up idolizing the Muppets after being introduced to their old “Muppet Show” television program. Walter, who at times feels like an outcast, finds a personal connection with the muppets and longs to meet the real Muppet clan. Unfortunately, with the Muppets out of the spotlight over the years, Walter is ridiculed by his peers for his Muppets devotion yet still relies on his supportive brother. As an adult living with Walter, Gary is planning a trip to Los Angeles with his long-time girlfriend Mary (Adams) to celebrate their tenth anniversary. Wanting not to leave out Walter, Gary invites him along and they plan to visit the Muppet Studios, yet Mary feels that Gary’s devotion to his brother is hindering their relationship.

Upon arriving at the now-dilapidated studio with the Muppets no where in sight, Walter sneaks into Kermit’s old office and overhears a conversation between Statler and Waldorf about selling the studio to oil tycoon Tex Richman (Cooper) for the purpose of turning the property into a Muppet Museum. However, Richman’s true motive is to demolish the property in order to drill for oil. The only way the studio could be saved would be for the Muppets to buy back the property for $10 million in just a matter of days. In a panic, Walter alerts Gary and Mary and they decide to pursue Kermit to help them stop Richman. A distressed Kermit decides the best way to raise the money was to get the gang back together to put on a massive show.

Unfortunately, over the years the Muppets have gone their separate ways and Kermit finds difficulty in convincing everyone to come back. Fozzie had gone off to perform with the crass-looking Muppet impersonating band The Moopets at a Reno, Nevada casino. Gonzo has become a plumbing magnate, Animal is in a anger management clinic with actor Jack Black as his sponsor, and the rest of the Electric Mayhem band is stuck performing at subway stations. After getting almost all of the group back together, Miss Piggy is the most reluctant to work again with her former lover Kermit as she has moved on to become a successful fashion magazine editor in Paris.

Once Tex Richman learns of the Muppets’ plan, he brushes them off but realizes the Muppets may have a chance to actually come up with the money. In addition, their deserted theater is in desperate need of repair and the Muppets are facing pressure from the only network that agreed to air their telethon special as long as they have a celebrity guest host the event. I won’t say who the celebrity guest is but the film itself is littered with various celebrity cameos. Can the Muppets come together to save their studio and pull off the comeback of the year? Of course they can, they’re the Muppets.

The primary plot of the story is nothing knew but reflects the real-world reality of the Muppets’ relevancy. As performers, they have been out of the limelight and a newer generation of viewers have grown up on different programing. Yet, in the world of the Muppets, the characters had gone their separate ways. It isn’t until Gary and Walter arrive to the dilapidated Muppet Studios that they realize the world has forgotten about them. Once they convince Kermit to bring the gang back together, that’s when the film takes familiar territory. Reminiscent to the plot of the “Blues Brothers” movie, the once celebrated cast of characters have to come together to raise money to save their old institution. This time, however, the film relies on the decades-long appreciation of the Muppets that spanned several generations of fans.

The new character Walter is a welcomed addition to the huge arsenal of Muppet characters. In a world inhabited by humans, Walter grew up in a loving family with a supporting brother but at times felt out of place. When he discovers the Muppets via their late 70s variety show, he develops his first real connection outside of his family. He sees the Muppets as an inspiration to his good-nature and fun-seeking personality and looks up to Kermit as his personal hero. Walter represents the inner-child in all of us while dealing with the pressure to mature since his older brother is out living his own life and looking to start a family with his girlfriend Mary. When Walter is welcomed amongst the Muppet family, he has to deal with his own insecurities in the face of pressure to measure up to the rest of the Muppets’ talents. During their comeback special, Walter has a difficult time trying to find his own specialty and then feels left out when his brother Gary bails on him to try to patch up his own relationship with Mary. It isn’t until Walter faces his own self where he overcomes his personal doubts and finds his own voice. Thus is the common theme of the Muppets over the course of their 30+ career in show business.

It seems like ages since the last full-length Muppet film, which happened to be “Muppets From Space” back in 1999 and the made for the television special “The Muppets’ Wizard of Oz,” the latter being the first Muppet venture by Disney since their 2004 acquisition. Around the spring the 2008, actor Jason Segel, primarily known at the time for his R-rated comedy hit “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” and the CBS sitcom “How I Met Your Mother,” had been a long-time Muppet fanatic and pitched his idea alongside writing partner Nicholas Stoller to Disney executives to reboot the franchise.

The story went through several drafts, including Segel’s character originally being a ventriloquist whose puppet was named Walter. However, according to Entertainment Weekly, that idea was scrapped after several Muppet puppeteers did not think of the Muppet characters as puppets. Instead, Walter became Gary’s genuine brother who shared in the same life-long love of the Muppets.

While Segel has built up a reputation in R-rated comedies like “Knocked Up” and “I Love You Man,” his inner child is represented across the board as the creative force behind this Muppets reboot. According to the same November 11, 2011 Entertainment Weekly cover story, Segel was a mere infant by the time “The Muppet Show” went off the air but it was his mother who introduced the feature films on VHS to him as a child. “The Great Muppet Caper” (1981) and “Muppets Take Manhattan” (1984) were hilarious and entertaining entries into the Muppet canon and Segel takes his genuine love of the lasting legacy of the Muppets for modern audiences. Unlike recent cinematic reboots of nostalgic fare such as “Alvin and the Chipmunks” and “The Smurfs,” the new Muppets movie brings back the old school production of puppetry without the pesky CGI effects that bastardize the institutions of our childhood memories.

“The Muppets” is a true-to-form” entry into their legacy that would make Jim Henson proud. In a world full of greed and cynicism, the Muppets remind us that funny song and dance routines performed by felt puppets originating from the creative force of Jim Henson can inspire us to dream. “Someday we’ll find it, that rainbow connection. The lovers, the dreamers, and me.


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