A criticism toward open-source Muppets…

by on Jan.06, 2012

Holding back the Muppets?

Media reactions to the new Muppet movie had me thinking it might be nothing more than a passingly enjoyable trip down nostalgia lane, and it did have its moments (80’s Robot, holding a serving tray with cans of “New” Coke and Tab, was a nice touch). However, after taking my kids to see it, I came away unexpectedly juiced at the cynicism underlying this extension of the Muppet franchise.

Before I get too far into my analysis, understand that I am a lifelong Muppets fan. I grew up with the Muppets and my dingy green stuffed Kermit, with velcro tabs on all four flippers, consistently rated as one of my favorite bedtime friends. (I also had a Roowlf the Dog, but both ended up in garage sale heaven.) Needless to say, I have fond memories and, as an adult, an appreciation for folks like Jim Henson and crew taking something as common and everyday and, yes, as passé, as puppets and turning them into something more than they had perhaps ever been.

Henson, to me, says with his life and work that no material should be considered castoff, that even something as seemingly rudimentary as puppeteering, in the face of the ongoing march of technology, has ongoing value if we value it and, most importantly, if we practice it. And while the”value” he himself produced can be thought of in economic terms, clearly it was not economic gain that drove Jim Henson, and to equate the value of his work to mere money or a franchise or a trademarked name misses the point. What he created was a force affecting mass culture in multiplicitous ways.

Undoubtedly, for good and for bad, we would not have the society we have today if not for Jim Henson.  Not to romanticize him, clearly he bought into ideals of fame and celebrity, the promise of which lies like a comforting teddy bear in the bed of the unrealized American Dream. At the same time, though he participated by necessity within the productive framework of his time, I think he would be delighted with the explosion of artist production and dissemination enabled by computers and the internet and the leveling of hierarchies that potentially produces. In another world, I can conceive of an open-source and radically destabilized Muppets and that he would have encouraged it.


That’s why the cynicism underlying the story of the new Muppets movie hits a nerve with me. Book-ended by the song-and-dance, “I/We’ve got everything that we need,” this film nevertheless informs us that we clearly do not, that yes, the Muppets are cute, but it’s the investment money you put behind them that makes the difference, no matter how bright a smile makeup artists paint on the faces of Jason Segel and Amy Adams, who are indeed charming in kitschy over-the-top ways. Taking as its subject a movie franchise shuttered by Disney for nearly a decade, how ironic that this new installment should be in many ways the same Muppet story that Henson told in The Muppet Movie (actually, in all of the Muppet movies before his death) and that it should come evidently at the whim of Disney executives who apparently decided that enough time had gone by to pull out the old Muppets rag—profitably, that is. But that is only the surface of things.

My sense of irony built as I watched this film. Here we have a Muppets who embody the classic unwary victim to capitalistic greed. If someone would just believe in them (ie, front them the cash), what could they not do? But in this film, their “big chance” happens only circumstantially. They are filler for a vacant time slot. They are not believed in.

Instead of overcoming or navigating marketplace obstacles in their own right and by strenuous effort, as Henson did and as previous Muppet movies depicted, these Muppets fail—they remain in victim status, as non-agents toward their own fate. They are in need of their fans to rescue them or they will perish from the entertainment landscape for all time. As the Muppets leave their dilapidated theater in defeat, they encounter an unexpected (and largely unexplained) resurgence of their fans in the street (though these are ultimately expected fans—expected by the executives of Disney in their fondest dreams of profit, who have no doubt determined that the time is now profitably right for a new Muppets film).

Furthermore, the greedy capitalist (Tex Richman, played by Chris Cooper) cannot be defeated directly. He too powerfully enjoys the prospect of ruining the Muppets for any change of heart to occur. Along with Veronica Martin (played by Rashida Jones), the executive who reluctantly agrees to give the Muppets a shot after dosing them and the audience with a parody of the actual media executive preference for focus-group decision making, he represents the very Disney executives behind the film itself. So, rather than a triumph of ideals, he is changed, by purely accidental violence to his cranium, from a “bad” capitalist/executive (which is the stereotypical shrewdly conniving one with no soul) to a “good” one (whatever that means beyond the vaguely happy look on his transformed face). The best that can be hoped for in this vision: the same world but somehow “better” people in it.

Here is where the cynicism runs deep. The Disney-executive-approved storyline tells us that the fictional Kermit’s original contract (from the original Muppet Movie) contained the seeds of his loss of fame and fortune. A clause in this contract favored the greedy capitalist always looking to recapture what has been temporarily traded away (ie, by returning physical assets such as the Muppet Theater as well as intellectual property rights to the capitalist).

This imaginary contract (which has, we must not forget, multiple real-world counterparts) calls for the trademarked term “Muppet” to become the property of the greedy capitalist. But in fact, the trademarked term “Muppet” DOES belong to the capitalists, to Disney, and this is a loss to who? To the Henson family? No, not principally, for it is doubtful they would have sold the rights if they thought they could have held onto them and “done their thing” independently. Our societal structure does not encourage that but passes assets upward. Rather, we see the existing social structure, the one in action against the Muppets in the film, is behind this film’s production and upholds the very thing it coyly pretends to criticize.

There is no solution to the predicament, says the corporate executive. Just join a song and dance number instead and pretend that “We’ve got everything that we need.” Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

So much have we lost: rather more deeply, but hidden by the unquestioned logic of the film and of the economic system which gave birth to it, the capturing of the rights to the Muppets by Disney is a loss to the swarming, mingling, indeterminate thing we sometimes call culture. For what is Kermit the Frog but a stocking worn on the hand and made to appear alive by the talent of a skilled puppeteer? And to whom is this not available and accessible? But do we perceive this availability and accessibility?

Some of us do, perhaps, but by and large, it is the unreal celebrity-Henson and his posthumous non-celebrity-stand-in performers (his son, Brian, and Steve Whitmire, who have “performed” Kermit since Jim Henson’s death, and who are no doubt bound by contractual terms of a contract I can only guess at but must assume restricts to some extent such activities to profiting Disney and/or its public image), and it is the idea of Kermit the Frog as owned by Disney, who alone are allowed to enact the Muppet magic, and this in order to bring back profits to the corporate entity.

Only this capitalist magic will bring the crowds back out to the movie theaters to buy tickets, we are led to believe. Even Kermit, according to this film, is reluctant to hop back into the high stakes world of entertainment. Far easier to sit in his mansion won by the successes of another decade. Only by appealing to nostalgia can we and he muster enough energy to overcome the entropy of knowing how the world really is.

There are no alternatives to this “reality” given in the movie, though a half-hearted recital of “The Rainbow Connection” is given its bleached moment in the spotlight. The dream of something else than what we have, which always drove Henson’s work, is dead in this film. Despite the resemblance to an Occupy-style gathering that is the crowded streetscape at the end of The Muppets, this crowd is a crowd of momentary observers and exclaimers only, spectators having found a spectacle that they join for no apparent reason except that the film needs an audience in order to finish its plot and make its money. They are extras, necessary consumers (for now). They do not occupy themselves, the set, the film, the economy, or the politics of the moment that is the possible end of the Muppets in the radically different way proposed by the Occupy Wall Street encampments and their attempt to create a new social logic outside the system. They are thoroughly within it, only even aware of the Muppets’ plight because they happened to see them through mass media channels.

Most cynically, then, according to this film’s logic, we are to be thankful that the capitalists and their executives have not (yet, or have they?) “ruined” the Muppets (or at least our nostalgic view of them) by indeed exchanging them for their seedier and more streetwise compatriots (the “Moopets”) as threatened in the film’s story line.

Much like the debate about raising taxes on the exorbitantly wealthy in America, any change to the Muppets must necessarily represent a bad one, so that they must be encased in a nostalgic block of profiteering instinct against the horrors of what they might become “in the wrong hands.” Our dear Disney executives (fear not, consumers) are “good” capitalists, after all. They will protect the Muppet name, have their performers make the same film every decade or so, and make sure that the Muppets never hit the public domain where just any old chap with long hair and a bushy beard might resurrect, re-imagine, and extend their reach beyond what even Henson could have achieved had he lived to this day.

On the other hand, what juices me up and as OWS has shown us, perhaps an open-source and cooperative Muppet world is just over the horizon. Capitalists don’t know, and don’t own, everything.

2 comments for this entry:
  1. Tim Jones-Yelvington

    I like this, and I think it is definitely true that like so many mass cultural texts produced by corporate media, this movie appropriates and incorporates the critique of the very systems it ultimately perpetuates, which I get is how neoliberalism functions.

    But I guess I feel like I also had a different reading at points? …Like I felt like their “loss” at the end, their failure to navigate market obstacles seemed at least initially validating of something more akin to an open-source Muppets in that it seemed like a kind of winning-in-failure or stigmaphile embrace of an abject status, but I guess I can see how Richman ultimately restoring their properties to them undercuts that. (Incidentally, I read this move not as a transformation of his character’s motivations but as a response to external/consumer pressure, the commodity was no longer of value to him once he witnessed the influence exerted by the “authentic” Muppets). And if there were anything truly open-source abt this, the “good” muppets would not need to be pitted against the hip hop performing, race and class-coded “bad” ones (who I thought had a lot of delicious necro-potential). And of course the winning-through-loss can also be read as an essentialism that reinforces the dominant systems — we are not our name, and capitalism can kick us as much as it wants as long as we got each other.

    But I guess I also read the crowd a bit differently — to me, they read solely as a mass consumer presence, and like, that particular kind of consumer presence — which in this case I guess I would call fandom — is something I think is a little bit more ambiguous in terms of whether it reinforces or challenges the system-as-is. And I guess in general, my feelings about our role as consumers is less cynical than somebody like, say, Baudrillard. If only because I enjoyed the shit out of this movie while watching it, I refuse to believe that enjoyment is only me being snowed.

  2. Jared

    Great points, Tim. Working in reverse, I agree that the crowd is a reflection of fandom and is therefore ambiguous. It is this very ambiguity of the crowd that keeps the crowd from becoming a truly political presence, IMO, in both the film and in “real life.” It is the fact that I enjoy the film and enjoy that my kids enjoy the film despite its distortions that keeps things going on as they are. Left un-commented on, this film helps me raise my kids as go-with-the-flow consumers.

    The market is called the “private sector” while government is the “public sector” and never the twain shall meet. The fans in The Muppets (and by extension, us too) have no agency except to either enjoy or not enjoy. We are reduced (in rhetoric, not in reality) to *mere* fans rather than being something more. This is neoliberalism at work and OWS in some ways tries to correct the misperception by showing that the category of “consumer” masks in market-speak the complexity that lies beneath.

    To go with this, did you notice that the “audience” watching the Muppet telethon from home was largely a non-networked audience? And why not show the crowd’s gathering in the streets as a direct reaction against Tex Richman’s actions rather than an inexplicable event? To give them the benefit of the doubt, the script was no doubt written and filmed before the Arab Spring and OWS challenged a lot of thinking on these things, but I still think the absence of the “fans” texting, social networking, and such, is telling. It represents a pre-Arab Spring/OWS mentality.

    Great point on the bad muppets having necro-potential, and I was very disappointed that more was not done to incorporate them as a potentially positive force. The answer, of course, is the need to use the “bad” Muppets to reflect back on the “bad” capitalist.

    The Muppets have long been a fluid presence in the media, posing for Calvin Klein and the like, so why not go there? Why not take the Muppets into the 21st century and let YouTube puppeteers have a heyday with it?

    All in all, I am definitely reading into the film in ways it never intended, and most of these issues can no doubt be chalked up to rather mundane choices by writers, producers, and the director. However, I think any film represents its own cultural moment and bears unintended traces of the complex soup from which it was born.