By Rebekah Fitzsimmons
“I don’t really know who you guys are. My agent told me to be here.” Selena Gomez in The Muppets
I’m not going to lie: I have been humming the theme song to the original Muppet Show ever since I heard Disney planned to reboot the Muppet movie franchise. I was especially excited to hear they had involved Jason Segel, who proved his Muppet street-cred in Forgetting Sarah Marshall as he lovingly acted and sang the Dracula puppet musical, which is reportedly his own creation. Add in Amy Adams and I was sold – there was no way that this film would ruin the Muppet legacy and destroy yet another of my favorite parts of childhood (see Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, Ramona and Beezus and a host of others).
We went to see the movie Thanksgiving night and I was not disappointed. The film was filled with music (original Muppet songs and new ones written just for this film), hilarious banter, Muppet slapstick (“I think that is an electric fence. Zap. Its an electric fence), meta-humor and outstanding cameo appearances by multiple generations of Hollywood stars (my favorite being Dave Grohl from Foo Fighters as the Animal impersonator in the Moopets).The overarching plot of the film was fairly predictable: in order to save Muppet Studios from being torn down by the evil 1% representative Tex Richman, the Muppets must come back together and put on a show/telethon to raise $10 million. Sure, there were huge plot holes (such as, if Miss Piggy edits Vogue, Scooter works for Google and Gonzo owns his own plumbing factory, why couldn’t they contribute to the “Save the Muppets” fund?) The secondary story line, about Gary, Mary and Walter was adorable and sweet and helped keep the film in the present rather than slipping back into purely old tricks.
In fact, it was Walter’s character that exemplified for me the time rift in the film’s marketing and targeted audience. Walter, younger puppet sibling to Jason Segel’s Gary, is the Muppet’s biggest fan. He and his brother have grown up watching old episodes of The Muppet Show (on VHS it should be noted). Walter has a Kermit watch, Muppet posters on his wall and an encyclopedic knowledge of Muppet history. As a 30-something puppet man still obsessed with the Muppets, he seems to represent the Comic-Con cult fan, obsessed with an arcane bit of pop culture history, which only a very small group of fellow geeks can understand.
Except, the people going to see Muppets on Thanksgiving were not basement-dwelling geeks in Kermit costumes. We were, as ticket sales reveal, the masses. Millions of people spent millions of dollars (an estimated $43.5 million five-day earnings over Thanksgiving weekend) to see the Muppets on the big screen for the first time in 12 years. But here, the rift appears again. The top film at the box office was Twilight, marketed directly towards young adults, 18-29, a big ticket demographic for Hollywood marketing execs. So the question becomes: who went to see The Muppets? We stood in line behind a family of 6 at the popcorn counter: the three teens were off to see Twilight, while the adults and youngest child were headed to Muppets.
All the reviews I have read of The Muppets points to the “problem” of marketing a film to children who were not alive when the Muppet Show hit its peak. (See the NYTimes review to start). Yet in my humble opinion, this film was far more adult driven than it was for kids. Add to this the film’s content the marketing campaign: many of the commercials and trailers for the movie involved self-referential and meta-commentary from the characters, cut straight from the film footage. Fozzie Bear remarks on how expensive an explosion must have been for the film to produce. When Kermit initially turns Walter down, Amy Adams quips “This is going to be a short movie.” This is the kind of humor and savvy that made the original Muppet Show fun for adults, while the kids laughed at the slapstick and the actual explosions.
In addition to the differences in humor, you needed to be familiar with the Muppets, specifically with Animal’s rage-induced drumming, Kermit and Piggy’s love affair and many of the conventions of the Muppet Show in order to get many of the jokes. The scene of Kermit and Piggy walking through the streets of Paris is complex humor, from the commentary on the on again/off again romance to Kermit’s black turtleneck sweater. Further, most of the cameo appearances played on meta-references to adult popular culture: Emily Blunt’s appearance as Miss Piggy’s assistant at Paris Vogue is only really funny if you have seen and enjoyed The Devil Wears Prada. Otherwise, the joke is lost.
Yet, all of the trailers leading into the feature presentation were for children’s films (including an animated adaptation of The Borrowers and Brave the first Pixar movie to feature a female main character). Commercials for The Muppets played during family friendly television and heavily during children’s productions. So, this is why the scene with Selena Gomez is so pivotal to my understanding of the film’s place in the cultural spectrum. Whoppi Goldberg and Kermit greet one another warmly. Then, Kermit recognizes Selena, while she admits she has no idea who he is. Then Kermit turns to Rico Rodriguez from Modern Family and blinks unrecognizing at him (as did I) and says “Oh hi, you.” The younger the actor, the less likely that Kermit knows them and vice versa. There is a generational divide that the film fully owns, plays with and uses for humor, one that the marketing blows right past.
The articles Casey cites in her review of Twilight’s latest installment references the idea that parents have been dragged to see this film by their teens. I contend that there is now a generation of children who have been dragged to see The Muppets by their nostalgic parents, (or ordered to cameo in by their agents!) While the Hollywood media machine can not seem to fathom a film’s audience equation more complex than “puppets = children’s film,” it will be up to us, the lovers and the dreamers, to make the rainbow connection to a new generation of fans.
Rebekah is a PhD student who knows all the words to Rainbow Connection and has seen The Muppets Take Manhattan more times then she cares to admit.