Monday, March 5, 2012

The Muppets: A Retrospect by Ivor Casey

HAVING recently seen the big screen revival of the terrific The Muppets I have discovered a whole new respect for the fifty plus old puppets. The big budget backing from children’s entertainment giant Disney has helped springboard the Muppets into a whole new generation with a reboot of the long loved franchise. It was a franchise which appeared to be fading into the depths of TV and movie history with the last big screen outing having not only happened thirteen years prior but having also proved to be a flop.

In 1999 Muppets From Space was apparently rushed to get a Summer release and despite its budget of $24m it only managed a return of about $22m. This seemed to mark an end for the felted figures of frolicking fun with only a few middling to fair TV movies subsequently made over the next six years. These included Kermit: The Swamp Years, It’s A Very Merry Muppet Christmas and The Muppets Wizard of Oz. This was a far cry from when The Muppets had dominated TV ratings during the late 1970’s with their series, The Muppet Show. However, the Muppets have had an enduring legacy going as far back as 1955 when characters such as Kermit The Frog first graced television on the Sam and Friends show.

Created by Jim Henson, who was also later involved in Sesame Street and Fraggle Rock, the characters began to emerge gradually on various TV shows and specials throughout the 1960’s and early 1970’s with the lead being Kermit The Frog, voiced by Jim Henson himself. However, what would become a defining ensemble of characters was yet to appear. In 1974 a pilot called, The Muppet Valentine Special and another pilot the following year titled, Sex and Violence, set the stage for a brand new series. With much offbeat and madcap good cheerful humour, often aimed at adults as well as children, The Muppet Show began a series run in 1976.

Other than Kermit, the main characters which took centre stage included Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear, Gonzo, The Swedish Chef, Rowlf The Dog, Dr. Bunsen Honeydew and Beaker, as well as the cynical yet hilarious pairing of Statler and Waldorf. The shows usually revolved around a variety style TV broadcast, with many musical numbers, a glimpse behind the scenes and the regular appearances of a famous guest star. These guest stars often included some of Hollywood’s leading and legendary performers such as Peter Sellers, Peter Ustinov, Vincent Price, Sylvester Stallone, John Cleese and Roger Moore.

The format was set and the Muppets saw themselves mixed up in adventures and obstacles in which to overcome, combined with the on and off romance between Kermit and Miss Piggy which goes on to this day. The show ended in 1981 but the Muppets had already lit up the big screen at this stage with their first celluloid appearance in 1979 with the The Muppet Movie which was followed by The Great Muppet Caper in 1981 and The Muppets Take Manhattan in 1984. The movies were great successes and continued to bring the Muppets to new generations, entertaining both children and adults alike.

Jim Henson sadly passed away in 1990 at the age of 53 and some thought this would mark the end of the Muppet franchise and the voice of Kermit. Nonetheless, puppeteer Steve Whitmore proved an excellent replacement for many of the characters which might have died with Jim. 1992 saw the release of The Muppet Christmas Carol in a wonderful retelling of the classic Charles Dickens novel. The Muppets kept on going and in 1996 they reunited for TV with Muppets Tonight. However, this was when the future of the loveable creatures began to go awry. The same year saw the release of Muppet Treasure Island and while it did get good reviews and a reasonable box office draw, the TV show was soon cancelled after two seasons, failing to prove to be as big a hit as their original series. With some faith still intact, a further movie went into production (Muppets From Space) but this proved to mark the end of their big screen appearance for the time being.

It would take a decade before a dedicated fan, actor Jason Segel, involved himself in a pitch for a new Muppet movie. Along with Nicholas Stoller he wrote a script for a reunion, simply titled The Muppets. It was considered a bit of risk, with critics unsure what to expect but it was a chance worth taking. The film marked the big return of the cuddly characters to the big screen and it was received incredibly well by both critics and fans. The movie itself proved to be a huge financial success, raking in over $150m making it the most successful Muppet movie of all, sparking renewed fascination with decades old good family entertainment.

The most recent film saw The Muppets reuniting to save their old studio by staging a telethon. It makes for the most ideal reunion as the muppets bond and collaborate in the face of adversary. The film itself is also more than just a nostalgia trip and reflects the modern humour of today while still keeping within the realms of acceptability for the target audience. As somebody less in favour of computer generated images I also found it deeply refreshing to see a new movie relying on good old fashioned puppetry. The Muppets, new and old, are everlasting and timeless. They help remind us of a time of innocence which in these turbulent times is something a lot of us desperately seek. They are cheeky, charming and cheerful with a strong message of togetherness, friendliness and happiness. With plans of a sequel already having been announced I am hoping to see a whole new age of Muppet madness roll in, to entertain, amuse and delight us all.

- Ivor Casey

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