It would be easy to ruin the Muppets: Just make them modern. Why do the Muppets have so much staying power? They're real. They actually exist. Felt and batting in the era of CGI.
Kermit the Frog made his first TV appearance in 1955 on Afternoon Footlight Theater. Rowlf the Dog followed up in 1962 on a Purina commercial. And the first nationally broadcast Muppet show, The Muppets Valentine Show, premiered in 1974. It is decidedly hoary. I got to sit down to talk to the Muppets (!!); I wanted to hear about how this old fashioned franchise had been brought into the modern world.
We live in the era of Transformers and Shrek and Gollum. Increasingly, the protagonists in our movie exist nowhere other than inside a computer. And as film gives way to digital projection, they increasingly don't even live on celluloid. And moreover, the technology plot point has become a gratuitous tool used by too many writers and directors to lazily advance a narrative. Zoom in. Enhance. Is that a Pig?
As I sat down in a dark Hollywood theater to see the new Muppet movie, I was worried about them. I was worried that this new vehicle would fuck up everything I loved about the Muppets by modernizing it. That there would be gratuitous effects or gratuitous tech. That Kermit would suddenly take on new stunts made possible only by CGI, or bust out an iPhone and start tweeting to his pals. I was terrified that this new vehicle would Jar Jar up one of my cherished childhood memories.
The Muppets is very much, an island out of place in time. It takes place in the modern day, yet also doesn't seem to be set in any one particular era. Change the cars, lose a few props, and you could have set it in the 1930s.
It's not that the film or the franchise is afraid of technology. There's a Facebook app that lets you drop yourself into a never-ending Mah Na Mah Na video. Just Monday, Kermit and Miss Piggy were talking to fans in a Google+ Hangout. One of the main characters, a TV executive played by Rashida Jones is constantly on her Blackberry, Scooter has a job at, well... I won't spoil it for you. But while it makes nods to the present day, it doesn't use our time as a plot mechanism. And that was smart.
And then there's the technology used to make the movie itself. The Muppets are still the same basic technology from way back when (although you might notice how great and slightly different Miss Piggy looks—she does cop to having some work done). It's all still puppetry. There are no modern special effects.
For example, as per tradition The Muppets is loaded up with song and dance musical numbers. Yet in order to do a full body shot of a Muppet singing or dancing, the puppeteer can't be in the shot. Moreover, to have Miss Piggy really kick up her heels, CGI would be a natural go to.
Instead, the film's director James Bobin used battery-powered remote-control Muppets from the 1980s. It means that the Muppets movements are a little herky jerky, more limited than they would have been if digital effects were used. But it also means that you're never dropped into the uncanny valley. You never experience a narrative interruption by thinking "man, I never thought I'd see Rolf do the Dougie." Bobin kept it real.
Because the Muppets are real. Very literally. That is very much the secret of their success. You can sit down in a room with the actual Kermit The Frog. You can touch him and he will touch you back. You can shake his hand. You can give him a hug. They are physically engaging and facially expressive, with subtle gestures driven by master puppeteers that convey more than human qualities.
When I sat down to talk to Miss Piggy and Kermit, I was more nervous than I had been speaking to Amy Adams, who is both an amazing Academy nominated actress and just drop dead gorgeous. I was more nervous than I was talking to Jason Segal or Bobin. Hell, I was more nervous than I'd ever been interviewing Sergey Brin or Trent Reznor or Nancy Pelosi or any of the other celebrities, politicians, or executives I've had the privilege to speak with. The Muppets were the icons of my childhood. And now here I was in the room with them.
The embargo hasn't lifted for reviewing the movie. I can't tell you what I thought of it. But I can tell you what I thought of the Muppets themselves: They are as real as any human I've ever met. The film preserves and builds upon that reality. It gives them human qualities—longings, regrets, failures—that we haven't really seen before. There are no Jar Jar moments. Han still shoots first.
And that's great. Because it is that reality the Muppets possess, their humanity, that makes us love them so much. It's why we wish they were hosting the Oscars. It's why, when I thought for a moment I might have insulted Miss Piggy, I was embarrassed, and ashamed. That moment wouldn't have been possible with Woody or Wall-E or a guy in a Shrek suit. But I'm so glad it happened. It's time to light the lights.