Part Three in Our Seven-Part Series of Muppet Reviews
It’s hard to pinpoint the precise beginning. Was it 1996, when ABC pulled Muppets Tonight after only 10 episodes? Was it 1999, when Muppets from Space lost millions at the box office? Was it 2004, when Disney acquired and promptly squandered the franchise, madly reassigning them to different divisions of the company? Or was it far earlier than that: 1990, the year Kermit lost his voice, the year that the Muppets lost their creator, the year that Jim Henson died? After all, how could the children of the 1990s and 2000s be anything other than a Lost Generation, raised as they were by mere mothers and fathers, without that crucial third parent Jim Henson to nurture them?
Well, here’s how. I was two years old when Jim Henson died, and somehow I survived the Muppet Ice Age.
Muppet Babies was my favorite show, at an age when “favorite show” meant only that I watched it compulsively, sucked my thumb, and admired Baby Animal as a role model. If I feel a strange ownership over the Muppets, it’s because when I met them, they were toddlers just like me. They turned skyward to talk to adults, navigated around couches as if they were geographical features, and sang hymns to the power of imagination.
The post-Henson films shaped my childhood, too. The Muppet Christmas Carol left me struggling for years to distinguish Gonzo from the character he played, some author named Charles Dickens. (I’m still not sure which one had a wisecracking rat sidekick.) Christmas Carol remains my favorite Muppet film, and Dickens has held up all right, too. My views on Muppet Treasure Island have evolved—boy Muppets dressed as girls don’t slay me the way they did when I was nine—but I still defend the Kermit-Piggy ballad “Love Led Us Here,” sung while they dangle upside down over a cliff, as the most romantic song of the 1990s. Celine Dion can go drown in the North Atlantic for all I care.
The centerpiece of my Muppet universe, though, was Muppets Tonight.
Now thirteen years off the air, Muppets Tonight rarely earns a word of mention from anyone, and when it does, that word is usually “short-lived.” Sometimes “flop” or “bomb” or—if the writer has column space to spare—“ratings fiasco.”
But at age 10, I didn’t know that, and wouldn’t have cared. What The Muppet Show three decades earlier gave to so many people, Muppets Tonight gave to me: something to share with my family, a source of inside jokes and automatic laughs that lasted us for years. My father recorded the series onto VHS tapes that my sisters and I watched over and over. My mother used to crack us up by imitating the leg-wagging dance that Kermit performs in one episode. When my mother died three years later, I struggled to cling to memories of her, but for whatever reason, that goofy dance stayed crisp in my mind.
Of course, Muppets Tonight failed, and the Muppets vanished from primetime TV. Three years later they vanished from theaters, too, and even the diehards had to agree that the Muppet Ice Age was underway.
Now it’s 2011, and in rides Jason Segel, a white knight from the far-off kingdom of R-rated comedies, promising to break the curse and wake the sleeping franchise.
Segel’s new film is steeped in Muppet history—even worshipful of it. The movie deifies “The Rainbow Connection” (from 1979), recreates the Muppet Show opening shot by shot (1976), and features a Muppets Take Manhattan-like sequence (1985) with the gang trying to sell their show to a parade of uninterested entertainment bigwigs.
What’s missing is everything since Henson’s death. Rizzo the Rat, Pepe the Prawn, Bobo the Bear—fixtures of the 1990s, these Muppets are shunted to the sidelines, if they appear at all. The Muppets isn’t a revival so much as a reboot, jettisoning all the characters that have evolved since I became a fan.
I won’t pretend I didn’t love the movie. But it’s strangely alienating to see the Muppets back in the spotlight, for a movie that brims with nostalgia—and then to realize that the things I’m nostalgic for are precisely the ones that Segel and company wish to forget.