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It’s hard to call just about anything in pop culture a pure-pleasure. Sure, we all have movies and characters we like a whole lot, even love, but the business nature of our favorite properties can sour our fondness with alarmingly little effort. The Muppets are dear to many, myself included, and their antics on screens both big and small have won over audiences across age gaps and continents. But despite general adoration, time has been less kind to Jim Henson’s felt friends, with lazy specials and side projects over the last decade adding canonical blemishes. The stories of back-stage drama and bitterness didn’t help either and the sale of the rights to Disney left the Muppet legacy in danger of ending on a flat note.
With the first Muppet movie in 12 years just released, word of original operator and key performer Frank Oz’s dissatisfaction with The Muppets would seem to cast a shadow over the big comeback even before the opening number. But to heck with all that; I’m thankful that the Muppets are back, and no number of discouraging words from Yoda can make me think otherwise. Their return seems ready to reignite the world’s love of the Muppets, a feeling I’ve had for a long time but only recently understood.
The truth is that my exposure to the Muppet-tology was pretty limited as a kid; for a long time, about the only real memory I had of them was Muppet Treasure Island, the VHS of which must have been devoured by my parents VCR from overuse. Anyone with passing knowledge of Muppets or quality filmmaking in general will tell MTI isn’t exactly a great place to start and after that I went years without giving Henson’s creations more than a passing thought. It was probably back in 2006 then, that a DVD copy of The Muppet Show Season 1 was purchased by a friend of mine and I got my first real introduction to the thing that made Muppets a household name to begin with.
I’d be lying if I said I was hooked from the first episode but the handful I watched stuck with me for their clever dialogue and general goofiness, thus beginning my slow slip into Muppetdom. Thanks mostly to Youtube clips, my appreciation for the Muppets grew steadily over the years, such that when it was announced that Jason Segal would be making what was then titled “The Greatest Muppet Movie Ever Made,” I was more excited than I had any right to be. In preparation, it seemed fitting to watch the Muppets first theatrical outing, The Muppet Movie.
That’s when it all made sense. Thirty years old but as watchable as any truly great film from that era, The Muppet Movie brings to focus everything that makes the Muppets so amazing. It’s a fleet 90 minutes of subtle and silly wordplay, music that that can bring a tear to your eye or put a skip in your step and a cavalcade of partners in the Muppet madness that just happen to be famous comedians. But what really struck me about the film was its sentiment; it’s a comedy that openly embraces optimism, uses sarcasm only in jest and lets you think a little green frog from the swamp really can live out his dream, even one as humble as just making people happy.
And that’s really what the Muppets represent, a kind of earnest warmness and guilt-free enjoyment that’s been sorely lacking as of late. Though studios like Pixar speak to the same places that the Muppets are coming from, family entertainment these days far too often settles for the ease of spectacle and derivative humor to keep your attention. At a time when cynicism seems to be the new culture capital, it’s only fitting that the Muppets return to remind us of what it feels like to be a bright-eyed dreamer and a lover of something good. So yes, I can ignore all the behind-the-scenes ballyhoo and knowledge that not everything with the Muppet name is gold. I’m just thankful the Muppets are back, and I bet a whole lot of you out there are too.