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Out With the New: What’s Wrong With A Little Reimagining…?

I have to admit, I’m looking forward to The Muppets. That makes it all the more unfair that I’ll have to wait until 2012 to see it in a cinema – something that breaks my heart just a little bit. However, I’ve been fascinated by some of the discussions generated by the film, particularly with classic “muppet” staff coming out of the woodwork to comment on what they’ve seen of the rebooted muppets so far. Frank Oz has even offered some pretty harsh commentary:

“I wasn’t happy with the script,” he said about his decision to turn down the film. “I don’t think they respected the characters. But I don’t want to go on about it like a sourpuss and hurt the movie.”

There’s been quite a bit of focus around Fozzie the Bear’s “fart shoes” featured in one trailer:

“We wouldn’t do that; it’s too cheap. It may not seem like much in this world of [Judd] Apatow humor, but the characters don’t go to that place,” said one Muppets veteran. Another laments, “They’re looking at the script on a joke-by-joke basis, rather than as a construction of character and story.” Another is even concerned about stepping outside the established mythology saying that the upcoming film “creates a false history that the characters were forced to act out for the sake of this movie.”

I can certainly understand the feeling. However, part of me wonders if we are too concerned with preserving the “integrity”of classic franchises and stories, and if trying to limit the risks taken with them might ultimately be counterproductive.

Driving the franchise to ruin?

Trust me, I’m a nerd. I am about as geek as it is possible for a film fan to get. I concede that, and one quick look around the website should offer all the conclusive proof that anybody needs of that particular assertion. I get nervous whenever anybody handles anything that I care remotely about. I am very nervous, for example, about the idea of the upcoming Blade Runner sequels. Still, acknowledge that they’re going to happen, and I will probably check them out with an open mind, even if experience urges me to be cautious.

As with any fan of the original Star Wars trilogy, I know what a disappointment it can be when a bunch of films are produced spinning off from movies that you really loved, and that sometimes the disappointment from seeing familiar characters and settings mishandled can actually undermine your affection for the source material. As a fan of everything Geoff Johns has done since Green Lantern: Rebirth, I was stung by just how perfectly Green Lantern managed to screw up a big-screen adaptation. And, yet, while I can understand them, I can’t find myself agreeing entirely with the ideas proposed by the former Muppet staff members.

Sometimes adaptations can get ugly...

The veterans might be upset with the direction that director James Bobin and writer Jason Segal have taken the puppets, arguing that it betrays the original vision of the characters. Being entirely honest, I’m not convinced that it’s true – I don’t think that taping some whoopie cushions to your feet is quite “Judd Atapow” territory, and I think that characters like Gonzo do far more offensive (yet still relatively tame) things quite often. I remember one episode of Muppets Tonight that involved putting Martin Short in a fatsuit for the punchline, “Now he’s Martin Short and Fat!”

Still, even if it is a little bit out of character, I can’t understand what’s wrong with that. I understand that these might not be the versions of particular characters that everybody is happy with, but the presence of a new take on the characters doesn’t invalidate all the old ones. The new movie, unlike George Lucas’ efforts, doesn’t rewrite your DVD of The Muppets Take Manhattan. Just as Tim Burton’s misfire attempt at Planet of the Apes did not immediately wipe Charlton Heston’s original from the face of the planet, this attempt won’t destroy everything about the characters that fans loved.

"NOOOOOO!"

It’s also worth remarking that these changes could easily win the Muppets over another generation of fans, and there’s nothing wrong with that. If the changes are too much for some older fans, they still have their DVDs and their boxsets and their albums, but it also means that a new younger generation also gets “their” take on the Muppets, and I don’t think it’s fair to begrudge them that. I think there’s a sense of elitism when it comes to fandom of particular franchises, the belief that being a fan for longer grants somebody a greater “ownership” of a particular property – personally, I find that sense of fan “entitlement” almost toxic, and I’d argue that fans never really have any “ownership” of their favoured subject matter. Just because I don’t like one take on a classic character doesn’t mean that everybody else shares my distaste, and I find something heartening in the idea that these concepts are able to leap from generation to generation.

I think that injecting new life into a long-running property is occasionally a good idea. Running with the same formula doesn’t work forever, and finding a way to improve on that means being willing to play with the established elements. Imagine how risky Casino Royale seemed after four decades of the same James Bond template, and yet it was an entry that could be counted among the very best in the series. J.J. Abrams rewrote quite a few rules in getting his version of Star Trekto the big screen, but I think it paid off.

A Royale-ly Successful Reimagining?

I’m not arguing for change for the sake of change, but I am suggesting that even classic characters and scenarios do need to adjust for modern tastes. I think Batman is perhaps the best example, a character who has shifted through countless personas and identities, each reinvention having its own place in history, and none that are any more or any less valid than all the rest. The leap between any random two iterations of the characters would seem quite jarring, but that doesn’t invalidate any of the approaches. I don’t think the fact that Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight is a larger pop culture phenomenon invalidates Tim Burton’s gothic Batman Returns, but I think both versions of the character are equally valid.

This doesn’t discount the possibility that some revisions won’t work. Sometimes writers and directors can push characters so far in a certain direction that it’s just impossible to accept them, and the public responds in kind. Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines and Terminator: Salvation represent two very different attempts to revive a franchise searching for direction in the wake of James Cameron’s departure, and I don’t think either of them really worked. However, while I do have any number of criticism about how these approaches did or did not work, I respect the studios for trying two different approaches, instead of simply offering what might be dismissed as “more of the same.”

Time to terminate this franchise?

Despite how we may feel about them, the Muppets aren’t real. They are fictional constructs, puppets given life through the love and care of a large professional staff and an energetic young audience. It seems like hyperbole to discuss “a false history that the characters were forced to act out for the sake of this movie”, if only because the characters exist only as figments of the collective imagination. Sure, your version of Fozzie might not wear fart-shoes, but mine might – none is any more or less valid as an imaginary “take” on a character, but the producers and writers ultimately get to put “their” version up on-screen for us to accept or reject as we choose.

It’s similar to the minor controversy that arose when Jim Phelps turned out to be a dirty agent in Brian dePalma’s adaptation of Mission: Impossible. A lot of fans seemed to take it as a personal insult that a classic character should be written as a soulless traitor, but I think it added a sense of uncertainty that you seldom see in big-screen adaptations of television properties. It demonstrated that you couldn’t take anything for granted in this version of the story, and I think it made the film better than it would have been otherwise.

Hangin' by a thread?

It is perfectly reasonable for people to discuss how the latest version of a particular character on-screen does or does not match their own version of that character, and I think that we can gain a lot by comparing and contrasting how we see a particular character with how a team responsible for a rewrite or a reboot sees them – it can be quite revealing, for example, to see how many people believe a character’s ethnicity is a core part of their identity, as compared to those who see it as something with relatively minor impact. So I respect the views of the veterans, and I can understand their concerns.

However, trying to update anything involves a great deal of risk. The last Muppet film was Muppets from Space, and there’s no denying that the concept had grown quite a bit stale at that point in time. If the choice is between an approach that involves the type of energy we’ve been seeing in the publicity campaigns for the new Muppets movie, or the tired and lame rehashing of an outdated formula that we saw in Muppets from Space, give me the new and energetic approach any day.

Grumpy old fans...

Tinkering with classic concepts won’t always work, and I concede that. Sometimes the changes that worry us turn out to be serious mistakes. However, sometimes they turn out to be just what a particular franchise happened to need at that moment in time. I doubt that Fozzie wearing whoopie-cushions on his feet represents a shocking attack on the integrity of the muppets, but I’m willing to give it a chance.

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2 Responses

  1. I think the issue with The Muppets is one of the old guard versus the new, to be honest. While Frank Oz and his crew were edgy in their heyday, even I will quickly admit that the Muppets grew kind of stale in decades past because they didn’t adapt to changing times. Oz might claim that Segel isn’t respecting the characters, but what’s more accurate is that Segel is making a Muppet movie in 2011 and not the 1970s. What the Muppets do today will inevitably differ from what they would have done thirty years ago.

    • Yep, I think that’s it, in a nutshell. I’ve always thought that it takes more courage to change with the times than to keep doing the same thing. Nobody wants another Muppets in Space.

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