Oh Muppets, where are’t thou (UPDATED)

TheMuppetsGroupshot2011

Yesterday, Deadline: Hollywood announced that Bob Kushell, co-creator and showrunner for The Muppets, would be leaving the fledgling show while Bill Prady and a new showrunner (possibly Kristin Newman) would work on retooling the ABC series that has garnered vast quantities of media and social media coverage.

As the Deadline article suggested:

“But after a highly-rated premiere, ratings dropped. The Muppets has done an OK job opening Tuesday night for ABC at 8 PM, with its numbers on par with lead-out Fresh Off The Boat, but because of its marquee title, The Muppets has been held to a different standard, so its performance has been  considered somewhat disappointing, and there has been a concern about its creative direction.”

I am part of that ratings drop, for reasons I will discuss shortly, but I have several friends and associates within the puppetry community who have struggled mightily to stem the tide, lauding the show’s freshness and energy and chastising its critics. I feel bad that I have let these people down, but I feel it is for good reason.

Briefly stated: The Muppets (the TV series) is a pale, anemic shadow of the Muppets (the icons).

My biggest concern about The Muppets is that the Muppets aren’t leading the way…they are following someone else’s formula. This feels like total anathema to all of what Jim Henson was.

The current incarnation is little more than The Office but with felt-fleshed characters. Look no further than the show’s logo which is presented in the same manner as that of The Office and with an almost identical typeface. And the setting within a late-night talk show makes it a pale imitation of The Larry Sanders Show.

the Muppice

Although parody has long been a staple of the Henson way—consider “Veterinarian’s Hospital” and “Pigs In Space”—The Muppets is not a parody but rather is being sold as original. And ironically, while the new content is supposedly more adult, I would offer that it is not nearly as edgy as it used to be. The humour isn’t nearly as sophisticated as it was in times past. (I appreciate that it is now property of Disney.)

Case in point: References by members of Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem to illicit drugs and rehab have become much more overt in the new series whereas they were only really implied previously. It is as though the showrunners don’t have faith in the audience “getting” the jokes.

“Oh, my God! Did Floyd say rehab? That’s edgy.” No. No, it’s not.

But back to the leadership discussion.

Henson and his gang were innovators. They took an ancient format—the puppet show—and brought it to heights never before imagined. They didn’t pander to their audience but rather challenged them to follow along or be left behind.

Fraggle-crystal

Sometimes that became wildly popular: The Muppet Show, Fraggle Rock.

Sometimes it never found a wide audience: The Dark Crystal, Muppets Tonight.

[NOTE: Dear purists, I know that Muppets are Muppets and the others are not…I am trying to make a point about innovation here, so please bear with me.]

And, as I understand it, even the now idolized The Muppet Show almost never existed for lack of interest by American networks that couldn’t see the vision and felt variety shows were on their way out—in 1976, only The Carol Burnett Show remained, Sonny & Cher and Tony Orlando & Dawn having ended a year earlier. That’s why the show was created in the U.K. under the financial benevolence of Lew Grade.

From a mechanical perspective, the artists working on The Muppets are doing an admirable job. These are incredibly skilled men and women performing a technically challenging art form that combines the illusory world of puppets and the frailties of human flesh.

But all that skill and effort is for naught without a heart and soul. And these, in my opinion, are what the current show is lacking.

Ironically, when I watch The Muppets, all I see are puppets, characters trying to entertain an audience. I don’t sense the humanity within the puppets, and it was that humanity that made the Muppets so special in the first place.

Perhaps this is just a case of old-man-itis on my part—“when I was a boy…”—but sadly, I am putting down the empty toys that The Muppets represent and mourn the (hopefully temporary) loss of old friends—the Muppets.

I wish everyone the best of luck with the reboot.

PS I love the work of Bob Kushell and Bill Prady, and place no specific criticism on anyone’s shoulders for my concerns about The Muppets. Not saying this is the case here, but sometimes talent and creativity is not enough to overcome a bad match between artist and vehicle.

See also:

Breitbart‘s “The Muppets’ Reboot: What Hollywood gets wrong about family entertainment”

Although I think the writer (Melissa Henson) has made some valid arguments about the writing of The Muppets, I think her overarching belief that this was intended as family viewing is wrong. Although these are beloved characters from film and television, this show was very much centred on an adult audience. To repeat an earlier point, calling this family entertainment would be to ascribe the same to The Office.

Peter Pan arrested for murder

Prison pan

NEVERLAND – News is filtering in that famed fly-boy Peter Pan has been arrested by the Neverland Police Department. While details are sketchy, inside sources say the green-tightsed man-child was charged with the stabbing death of Captain Hook’s right-hand man.

This is the second such set of charges laid on the former leader of the Lost Boys, who was questioned in the death of maniacal monodexter Captain James Hook. When the local District Attorney was attacked by a dust mote and unexpectedly turned into a sea slug, the original charge of manslaughter was dropped.

Sources suggest the sword-wielding pixie possessor was distraught over rumours that his life-long girlfriend Wendy Darling was seeing another man. Upon confronting her with his suspicions, she reportedly denied the allegations but did admit she was interested in terminating their relationship.

Still emotionally connected, however, she tried to let her green-eyed felt-clad paramour down gently, suggesting her desire was in no way related to his prior behaviour.

While we cannot yet confirm the content of their conversation, we believe the confusion began shortly after she started to explain herself with:

“Oh, Peter, it’s not you.”

(think about it for a second)

(still not getting it?)

(oh, all right then)

“It’s me.”

smee sword

Snow White more an off-grey (a review)

Snow_White_and_the_Huntsman_Poster

I find it difficult to appreciate a movie in isolation (its, not mine). At the same time that I strive to enjoy the movie, I also try to break down its various elements, ideally without immediate comparison to everything else I have seen.

Some movies make this easier by being truly unique stories (The Voices, for example), whereas others are either so familiar or so derivative that I find it virtually impossible to see it in isolation. The latter situation was the case for Snow White and the Huntsman, the 2012 take of the very familiar Grimm Brothers fairy tale by director Rupert Sanders.

This is not the Disney version, by a mile, but rather a much darker, more sinister take on the story of a young beauty (Kristen Stewart) condemned to death by her vainglorious step mother (Charlize Theron) who fights for her freedom in the dark woods where she meets all kinds of people and mystical creatures, including dwarves. Together, they reach a castle of renegades and Snow leads them into battle against her step mother.

So, we have the check list covered: evil step mother, check; mirror-mirror, check; bring me her heart, check; dwarves, check; poison apple, check; Prince Charming, sorta check.

Doing my best to isolate this movie from everything else, I give it a moderately passing grade. It is a fairy tale, so the dialogue hits the extremes of leaden cliché to screaming cliché.

There is no subtext to this movie…none, zero, nada, zilch. So don’t go looking for any. It is on-the-nose storytelling, which again, makes sense within the context of a fairy tale, but given that the film targets young adults to adults (much too dark for small children), I would have hoped for more.

The screenwriters offered a brief moment, where the huntsman (Chris Hemsworth) begins to let us into why he is so tortured over the death of his wife. But as soon as the moment starts, it slams shut and we are excluded from understanding the character beyond his alcoholic ramblings and Thor-like simplicity. (PS If I hadn’t seen the movie Rush, I might just think this is who Hemsworth is.)

So, where the dialogue wanes, the visuals have to take over and here, the director earns his keep. Special effects do not overwhelm the story, but instead are woven nicely into live action sequences to augment the reality. There was only one scene where I felt the director fell asleep at the SFX wheel and allowed his art director to run amok.

Dwarves huntsman

And perhaps my favourite part of the visual effects was how they took normal sized British actors and turned them into dwarves. Masterfully done. Imagine Ian McShane, Bob Hoskins, Ray Winstone, Nick Frost, Toby Jones, Eddie Marsan all about a meter tall yet perfectly proportioned, standing next to or fighting alongside Hemsworth. Don’t know how they did it…don’t want to know.

Where I found the movie particularly weak, however, was in the development of Snow White. Rather than be the protagonist of the story, I felt she was the victim of the story, literally being dragged across the countryside to avoid capture. While she clearly wasn’t the “Oh my. Dear me” victim of the Disney version, she was also not the “Girl Power” version that I think the movie promised.

Two snows

When she wasn’t being rescued by one or more men, she was being rescued by a mystical inner force of which she was initially unaware and over which she had no control.

I was willing to let her be the victim over the first part of the story, but I needed her to turn around at the midpoint and attempt to kick some ass.

Now, to open the comparative flood gates, this movie has Tolkein written all over it. You’ll see dwarves walking across hill tops. Floating towns will burn. Dark forests will haunt you. Guys with swords and axes will be moody.

Now I appreciate that this is bound to happen, as there are certain pastiches that run rampant throughout fairy tales and epic sagas. I am speaking here more in terms of cinematography, however. In several parts of the journey sequence and the battle scenes, it looked like the director decided to save a few bucks by splicing in rejected footage left behind by Peter Jackson.

For what is it, Snow White and the Huntsman is not the worst 90 minutes I have ever spent watching a movie. It’s just a damned shame that the running time is 127 minutes.

Music to my ego

Like fish

When you first start exploring any art form, you are typically rapt in the joy of expression, but you are also at your most ego-vulnerable. Thus, it is nice every now and again to receive some positive feedback and it is even better when that feedback comes from someone who represents your art’s industry (rather than your mom).

As many of you know, one of my screenplays was a Second Rounder in the 2013 Austin Film Festival screenplay competition. Part of achieving that status is receiving readers’ notes that explain why you moved forward in the competition and why you stopped. A couple of days ago, I received the notes for my feature Tank’s.

Wow.

Below, I offer some of the positive feedback (I received negative too).

An exhilarating, imaginatively conceived, meticulously crafted, professionally polished animation intended fairy tale, a love story set in the cosmos of fish.”

Obviously the work of a talented, experienced writer who knows animated light comedy, how it works, and how to do it.”

The linear narrative is redeemed, however, by the enthralling depiction of fish as people, their humanly drawn nautical universe, and a buoyant, lighthearted mood pervading the narrative.”

Is the writer competitive here with, say, the creative minds at Pixar? Without question, yes.”

“The storytelling is befitting of the silly/adult humor of Dreamworks while still maintaining the light family-friendly air of a Disney cartoon musical.”

Kind of makes me want to keep writing, you know?

JB

(Images are property of owners and are used here without permission because I am that good)