Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Jim Henson left us 20 years ago, but ....

... are the Muppets coming back? All the signs say they are. And that's something wonderful to ponder this week of all weeks. It was 20 years ago on May 16 that Jim Henson passed away suddenly from respiratory illness.

It was the celebrity death that staggered me the most. Yes, even more so than John Lennon's or George Harrison's. Much as I may not have wanted to admit it, George's death from cancer was sadly inevitable. And John Lennon's death, though surprising, didn't floor me in 1980 - for better or worse, that was what truly launched my Beatlemania.

Jim Henson's passing, on the other hand, stunned everyone. Not only was it a bolt from the blue, but it felt like a piece of my childhood had fallen away. I was crestfallen. When Fred Rogers died several years later, one tribute used a powerful pair of sentences: "Some people should simply not be allowed to die. Fred Rogers is one of them." I thought that would have applied equally well to Jim Henson.

And while few seriously believed the Muppets would die with Henson, for awhile, the decline in quality after his death was alarming. Consider this recap of all the Muppet theatrical films pre- and post-Henson. (This list does not take into account the two fun Sesame Street movies, or side projects like The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth.)

The Muppet Movie: The first, and by far the best of the Muppet pictures. It earns a place in immortality on the strength of "Rainbow Connection " alone. GRADE: A+

The Great Muppet Caper: It's not really a sequel to The Muppet Movie, but it felt like one, in that the second time just wasn't as funny or as inspired as the first. GRADE: B

The Muppets Take Manhattan: A rebound - not quite up to Muppet Movie, but still greatly entertaining. That doesn't seem so surprising now, considering it was Frank Oz's solo directing debut, and he went on to have an impressive directorial career. GRADE: A-

The Muppet Christmas Carol: This was the first movie made after Jim's death, and it seemed the Muppets were still in great shape. This is my second-favorite Muppet movie, aided greatly by Michael Caine's Oscar-quality (no, really) work as Scrooge. GRADE: A

Muppet Treasure Island: The decline begins. It was fun overall, and Tim Curry made an ideal long John Silver, but the movie simply wasn't that amusing. Fozzie in particular is wasted. GRADE: B

Muppets from Space: An inspired idea (is Gonzo really an alien) gets fairly lackluster treatment. It's watchable enough, but there's one comedic misfire after another. The Muppets performing against the Commodores' original recording of "Brick House" felt wrong, and I remain mystified as to why they failed to crack the obvious Pigs in Space joke. The DVD commentary is much funnier than the film itself. GRADE: C+

Some TV specials followed, some better than others, but the absolute nadir of the Muppets was their profoundly misguided Wizard of Oz, filled with dull tunes and lame jokes that not even Fozzie would crack  on his worst day. The state of the Muppets looked quite dire.

And then, slowly but surely, the Muppets began making a comeback through a series of very clever and funny web videos, culminating in the mega-popular take on "Bohemian Rhapsody."

And later this year, a new theatrical film is slated to go into production. Cheekily called The Greatest Muppet Movie Ever (and I hope that title sticks) it's being written by Jason Segel and Nicholas Stoller, who co-wrote Forgetting Sarah Marshall. That may sound surprising, but it makes complete sense if you recall that movie ends with a puppet show.

My favorite quote of Hensons's was always this: "When I was young, my ambition was to be one of the people who made a difference in this world. My hope still is to leave the world a little bit better for my having been here."

I feel more confident than I have in a long time that the Muppets will once again hold true to that.

1 comment:

kEnny said...

As a child, I was (and still am) very inspired by the Muppets. My brother and I still enjoy entertaining others with puppets. I can't say enough about the magic Jim and company have brought into my life. Go Muppets!!