19 November 2010

The Muppets Take Manhattan / Muppets from Space

Over the last two days, I've watched two different Muppet films—The Muppets Take Manhattan (1984, dir. Frank Oz) and Muppets from Space (2004, dir. Tim Hill). Why these two? Well, primarily because they are the only two on Netflix Instant Streaming, probably because they happen to be the only two Muppet films not owned by Disney, who is often rather protective with their products (sort of like Apple Records with the Beatles music). They also happen to be landmark films for the Muppets, as The Muppets Take Manhattan was the last feature film from the franchise to be made while Jim Henson was still alive and was the first film to be directed solely by Frank Oz, while Muppets From Space was the last major Muppets product to feature Frank Oz as puppeteer for Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear, and others.

My desire to watch some films by the Muppets started with a YouTube clip of a Muppets parody of Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody." Seeing all the characters again kick started a sort of nostalgia, and an interesting one at that.

Obviously, my strongest feelings of nostalgia are tied to my big favourites from my childhood. I loved Star Wars, Pokémon, and Chrono Cross. These games have so many memories attached to them. I know much of them inside and out. Though my knowledge of Pokémon has certainly begun to atrophy a little, I can still name all 151 of the originals as well as lot of the second generation.

But the Muppets are a bit different. It's more of a feeling of déjà vu. Sitting down to watch the films, I don't actively know what's going to happen to next, but once it happens, it all feels oddly familiar.

The Muppets Take Manhattan
I have to admit, this one was a bit outside my time. The film was made in 1984, so I'm certain that whenever I did happen to see it, I was very young. I didn't get as much of a déjà vu feeling, but I did at times. Certain gags must've stuck in my brain more than others.
The film is, essentially, a musical about trying to get a musical on Broadway. I may have said this before, but I'll say it again: Why are so many children's movies also musicals? I suppose that the change between talking and singing may help to hold a child's attention better. Still, as I've been watching more kid's movies lately (not sure why, guess I just must be on a nostalgia kick), it's really begun to sink in how often they involve musical numbers. It also seems like the older they are, the more likely it'll be a musical, while newer ones tend to be straight dialogue (for example, I can't actually think of a Pixar musical).

I've gotten off topic, so I might as well extend this tangent a little further. I said that The Muppets Take Manhattan is a kid's movie, but I'm not sure that's entirely correct. Perhaps it's better to say "family-friendly." Yes, it is entirely appropriate for kids, but there's a lot of stuff in there for adults too. Honestly, I think this is what makes for a better film. Often, especially when it comes to television, there are shows and films that are geared specifically towards children. While this isn't necessarily a bad thing in-and-of-itself, I think it does have some major defects in the long run. For one, the plots are usually incredibly simplified with very direct and obvious meanings and morals, but I don't think this is really giving kids enough credit. Kids can actually be pretty smart, and while they may not be able to explain the message of, say, Pixar's Up the same way an adult could, I don't think that means that they didn't still get something out of it. A good film will have layers of meaning and understandings, as even a five-year-old and ten-year-old are going to have different levels of comprehension. Appealing to a wider audiences not only means that the product becomes more interesting and complex, but that, well... you have more people to sell it to, and economics is, for better or worse, an integral part of cinematic arts.

The other problem, though, is that without something there to entertain the parents as well, parents are less likely to watch with the kids. My parents have always said they thought Sesame Street was one of the best children's shows for this very reason. They could sit down and watch it with us and be entertained as well. Imagine sitting down and watching Teletubbies. You'd go mad. So what happens? Well, parents let the TV be the babysitter. I don't entirely know if this is a bad thing or not, but it doesn't quite feel right. Not that parents can't occasionally use some distraction for their kids to give them a chance to do some work in peace, but I don't think this should be the standard way of doing things, and even if parents aren't always there watching, it's still nice when the film or television show is actively encouraging it through its writing.

Muppets from Space
At any rate, this film was certainly more of a nostalgia bomb for me. The biggest scene that sticks out in my mind is when the aliens sing, "Celebration" by Kool & the Gang. I believe I saw this film in theatres or shortly after it came to VHS and I really enjoyed it. And, well, that's probably the first time I ever heard that song. So in some ways, that song has always reminded me of the Muppets, even if just vaguely. That and Al Gore.

Between the two, I felt like The Muppets Take Manhattan had, perhaps, a bit more creative writing. At least it felt fresher. But there were a lot of good moments in Muppets from Space as well. For one, my friends and I all enjoyed Bobo the bear in his role as Rentro, who is generally pushed around at the government agency he works at and is fairly timid despite being, well, a big brown bear.

Both films are a lot of fun, and really got me in the mood for the new Muppets film coming out next year. Too bad it's not going to be released until around Christmas, so I'll have to wait over a year.

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