Hey everyone, Nordling here and I’m back with another installment of YOU KNOW, FOR KIDS!, my family film column.
“Life’s like a movie,
Write your own ending,
Keep believing, keep pretending,
We’ve done just what we’ve set out to do…
Thanks to the lovers, the dreamers, and you!”
It’s a common question for any movie fan: what’s your most anticipated film for the next year? I think it may be a decent year, too. But that question – the most anticipated film of 2011? Easy. THE MUPPETS. I’m looking forward to that film more than any other. I was a little bummed when they changed the title from THE GREATEST MUPPET MOVIE EVER MADE – and I still think that’s a terrific title – but so what. It’s a new Muppet movie for those of us that grew up on it and to share with our kids. It’s got a great crew behind it – Jason Segel and Nick Stoller wrote the screenplay, and James Bobin (FLIGHT OF THE CONCHORDS, DA ALI G SHOW) is directing, with many comedic actors involved like Jason Segel and Amy Adams, with rumored appearances by Zach Galafianakis, Ed Helms, Billy Crystal, Ricky Gervais, even a rumored drum-off between Animal and Dave Grohl. Pound for pound, I don’t think it’s going to be matched in humor, at least for me.
I won’t lie – if I ever got to sit down with Kermit the Frog for a one on one, I don’t think I could take it. It would be Bruce Campbell all over again. The Muppets have special significance for me, as I’d imagine they do for a lot of people in my generation out there.
I’ve received some feedback over the past few weeks since I started this column that, in essence, it takes more than sharing movies with your kids to be a parent, as if I was suggesting some kind of panacea for bad parenting. The point of all of this is for parents and children to find some kind of common place to bond. And, as I’m a movie geek, of course this would be my frame of reference. I’m not the parent who bonds over football games – that’s just not who I am. For a lot of us geeks, our entry into our love of film was through our parents’ love of film, or even those experiences sharing movies with your parents. Those experiences are just as solid as any other, any vacation you took, any time spent with your mom and dad over the years. I’m fully understanding that you want your kids to be different than you, but these bonding moments aren’t necessarily for the kids, really – it’s moments that the parents want to remember as well, because like the cliché says, life is short. I make no apologies for being who I am. Any moment I can bond with my kid is a great one. She’ll be on her own soon enough, and I think she’ll remember those times with fondness and as she gets older she’ll carry them with her for the rest of her life. That’s all I want, and that’s all I’m trying to suggest with this column – places to bond with your kids, enter some kind of discussion, and maybe create learning experiences with your kids. As for me, I’ve had many learning experiences with the films and shows I’ve recommended, especially the work of Jim Henson.
You see, Jim Henson taught me how to read.
Not personally, but through Sesame Street. I’m an old guy, I guess, in comparison to much of this site’s reading demographic. But watching Sesame Street’s one of my first memories. And my mom swears that I watched it religiously. Speaking from personal experience, I can’t really think of my childhood without Sesame Street or the Muppets. I’m not saying that they dominated my life, but the fact is (and not to brag), I learned to read before I ever started school. I was three years old. The entry point was Sesame Street. I started calling out street signs and then my mom got me books and already before pre-school I was on my way. I lay that completely at the feet of PBS and Sesame Street. They made learning fun for toddlers and not only that, but Sesame Street even got the adults to watch with the kids. It wasn’t cloyingly sweet like much of the kids’ fare these days. Most of it for adults is practically intolerable. What sane grownup would want to sit through Barney? But adults could watch Sesame Street. It would even make them laugh.
Even before Sesame Street, however, Jim Henson was already making his mark, making TIME PIECE, an Oscar-nominated short film, which in its entirety played at BNAT twice:
Or this, which he did for IBM in 1967:
Jim Henson was a humorist, a puppeteer, an experimental filmmaker, an educator – he was many things to many people, but obviously to the majority of us who watched his work, he’s best known for the Muppets.
Now, Henson and his Muppets also did Saturday Night Live (Michael O’Donoghue famously hated them, saying he wouldn’t “write for felt”) but for a long time Henson felt he could make a show for more adult sensibilities with his Muppets. But he couldn’t seem to get the funding in the States. Undiscouraged, Henson and company got funding from a British production company and THE MUPPET SHOW was born.
Now, I’m probably diving too much into the history here. I’m supposed to be advocating for the various Muppet films and shows. And granted, they’re great for the family, and not just for kids. THE MUPPET MOVIE came out in 1979 and it still makes me laugh. I quote lines from it all the time. The movie works and many levels – it’s fun for the kids and adults alike, and it doesn’t use cheap or risqué humor for laughs, either. The whole Steve Martin sequence especially has me rolling.
For me, THE MUPPET MOVIE was a huge gateway into other artists and their works, including Martin, Richard Pryor, Mel Brooks, and even Orson Welles. One of the best things about the Muppets is that their humor, although at times silly, was never insulting. Even some of the puns and jokes took a little work to get. You never felt like you were being sold to with the Muppets, unlike so much other family entertainment these days. Now, that’s not to say that the Muppets isn’t a huge brand name, because it is. But they sell their merchandise through the quality of the work. Even in later years, after Henson’s death, I’d put any of the Muppet films up against most any other family film. They are the mark of quality. Not to mention that it was the success of the Muppets that led to THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK’s Yoda, who may be the most compelling character in all the STAR WARS films.
Paul Williams’ songs are also wonderful. Everyone knows “Rainbow Connection,” of course – it’s been covered by artists like Willie Nelson and Sara McLachlan – but I also adore “The Magic Store” and “Movin’ Right Along.” His songs give THE MUPPET MOVIE its vast heart. I’m not sure if he’s involved with the new film, but I sincerely hope so. I know Jason Segel approached him, if the articles I’ve read are correct, but I don’t know if he accepted. Paul Williams has brought so much great music to films, like PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE and even ISHTAR, and I really hope to hear a new Muppet song from him with the new film. Check out EMMET OTTER’S JUGBAND CHRISTMAS too for more terrific Paul Williams’ music, another Muppets classic:
The Muppets’ influence is huge, even today. My generation’s sense of humor comes directly from Henson’s films. Maybe that’s because the laughs aren’t pandering laughs. In THE MUPPET MOVIE, especially, the jokes come from the characters and situations, and even though the characters are silly, they have a dignity about them. Fozzie knows he’s a terrible comedian, but he perseveres. Miss Piggy actually believes she’s the most beautiful thing in the world, and the fact that she’s a pig isn’t even a setback for her. I’d never eat anything the Swedish Chef cooks up, but he never quits, not ever. And of course, Kermit has the heart big enough for all of them.
That’s the thing – the Muppets commit to their humor. They dive in, like the best comics, and whether or not you laugh, you’re along for the ride. Some of the jokes and puns are flinch-worthy, but that’s kind of the point – as adults we know what they mean, but kids don’t, and anything that expands their world is always a good thing. You want to see something mind-expanding? Here’s Harry Belafonte singing an African traditional song with the Muppets on one of the episodes:
Later, Belafonte performed the song at Jim Henson’s memorial. It’s an amazing, celebratory moment. Mr. Belafonte says what the Muppets, and Jim Henson, means better than anything I could ever write:
There’s a fierce creativity to the Muppet Show and the various films. Henson, Oz, the various puppeteers and the many voices that it takes to make the Muppets work every day – it’s a real collaborative effort and at the end of it, they create genuine art and beauty. Their influence has spread throughout film, comedy, music, art – kids have grown up on the Muppets and went on to bring those influences to their work. Just ask Jason Segel, who pushed for years to bring back the Muppets to the big screen for a new generation of children to discover and enjoy.
My hopes for THE MUPPETS are through the stratosphere. My daughter’s probably a little too old for them now, but in her younger days she enjoyed the various Muppet shows and films, and I remember her asking to hear “Rainbow Connection” over and over in the car. Or maybe that was just me playing it over and over. Who knows? But I’m going to take her anyway. These are my great moments with my child, and although they may not be yours, I urge you to find that connection, in any way you can. It makes your children better people and it makes you a better person, and your life and theirs is bigger because of that connection.
I wouldn’t be a movie geek if not for Jim Henson and Frank Oz and the Muppets. I imagine it’s like that for many of us. To share these shows and films with our children – well, for me it’s a duty. There’s joy, wonder, life lessons, laughter, creativity, and beauty in all of it. When I decided to begin this column it was pretty much to write this. I’m not the type of person to direct any kind of filmmaker on their project, but I hope that’s what Jason Segel and Nick Stoller had in mind when they set out to bring the Muppets back to the screen. It’s a lot to ask of one film. I think they can deliver. And I’m sure many of you can’t wait to take your kids to find out. The quote I started this article with, from “The Magic Store” in THE MUPPET MOVIE, is a life credo for me. It’s not a bad credo to live by, in my opinion.
I leave you with this:
The first three seasons of THE MUPPET SHOW are available for purchase, as well as THE MUPPET MOVIE, THE GREAT MUPPET CAPER and THE MUPPET CHRISTMAS CAROL. THE MUPPETS TAKE MANHATTAN and MUPPETS IN SPACE are available also on Instant Netflix.