Sunday, November 27, 2011

Some Muppet Semiotics

Went to see the new Disney film The Muppets with my sister's family, at a kid-heavy Saturday afternoon matinee, no less. Sort of a mixed reaction: Adults loved it, and some of a certain age got teary-eyed at the end. Most of the older kids loved it, but some of the younger tots (like my youngest niece and the seat-kicking little squealer sitting right behind me) got bored at the one-third point and started a noisy rebellion.  I thought it was very clever and entertaining (all I ask for in a movie, really)-- but there was a weirdness about the whole affair that lingered after the tag-less credits.

The Muppets is a bildungsroman with two main characters: Gary (Jason Segel) and his brother Walter, who is a muppet. We see their relationship develop in a series of childhood flashbacks, Gary growing to adult size while Walter remains about 2' tall. We never see their parents fully onscreen-- but we see enough of them to know they are both human. So the movie's context is set up: sentient beings made of stuffing and felt are treated as fully normal, fellow people.

This context is expanded as Gary and Walter discover what has become of the famous muppets as the years have passed since their show faded from our collective memory (and even syndication): The principals have all moved on with their lives. Kermit lives alone in a moldering Bel Air mansion among mementos of his former fame, attended to by a hilariously antiquated 80s-era robot (my favorite new character, as I'm a bit of an 80s robot myself). Miss Piggy runs a magazine, Gonzo has become a manufacturing magnate, and Fozzie is barely hanging on fronting a muppet cover band in Reno. In other words, this elaboration shows that muppets have exact same aspirations, failings and material needs as any nominal human being.

(There is a very brief but philosophically jarring shot in the film where the camera pans over the picture-covered walls of Kermit's abandoned studio office. Among all the publicity stills of long-past "Muppet Show" guest stars is a 8x10 glossy of Kermit and Jim Henson. This is what I'd call a "meta-meta-moment:" even in the self-referential world of this film, it is an image of a concept that cannot be parsed.)

Walter, though raised in human society, is fascinated by the muppets, and it is made obvious as the story unfolds that he will eventually fully accept his muppet-ness and be folded into the troupe. Really, the main plot arc hinges on his acceptance a a "real" muppet: His brother Gary cannot fully become a man and consummate his relationship with his long, long, long-standing girlfriend Mary (Amy Adams, about a radiant as she was in Enchanted) until Walter has moved on and no longer needs his protection and companionship.

But what is a muppet?

In intrinsic reality, we all know what they are: puppets, animated and voiced by human performers. Bur this definition is unavailable in The Muppets, so we have to move on to the movie's in-universe definition: A muppet is a special sort of sentient being, an analog of a flesh-and-blood being (frog, pig, chicken, etc.) or an abstract "monster" (Animal, Gonzo, etc.).

But how are they "special?" This can be uncovered by flipping over the definition again. Substitute "celebrated entertainer" for "muppet" in the subtext and it all makes sense. The muppets, once-celebrated entertainers who have fallen into obscurity or non-showbiz professions, are shown to be incomplete unless they are entertainers and being celebrated for doing so.

The major story arc for all these characters is their collective effort to put on one last show to save their old, abandoned studio from development. But if you think about it, this effort makes no sense. In the first act we see that ALL the muppets have moved on-- they have abandoned their old studio themselves, as their audience vanished over time. The only way this can be made logical is as they re-discover that their only definition is as entertainers, and cannot fully exist any other way.

This definition applies to novice-muppet Walter as well. He cannot really become a member of the muppet troupe until he finds his unique talent-- which he eventually, and surprisingly, does. The point is hammered home again: it's not enough to be made of felt and have little stick arms. Walter has to have a solid, show-stopping act. He becomes a celebrated entertainer.

The Muppet franchise has not always been part of the Disney universe: They were acquired in 2004 and The Muppets Studio LLC is a wholly owned subsidiary. A lot of Disney's offerings (especially at cable-TV level) have a strange self-referential obsession with showbiz (High School Musical, "Hannah Montana," etc.). The original 1970s "Muppet Show" has always been a show about a show, but the franchise's new run through the Disney echo filter has transformed it into a perfect ouroboros: A movie about a movie about a show about a show, featuring muppet performers who yearn to be muppet performers.

1 comment:

  1. A: Thanks for this, because I may be able to convince my girlfriend to see this now. We opted for the latest Twilight movie over the weekend, and it coulda used a couple of muppets.

    B. Damn you for using bildungsroman, a word I had to look up. I HATE HAVING TO LOOK WORDS UP.