Since the earliest days of Sesame Street, Jim Henson and associates have maintained a tradition of playing with media conventions. Television, film, and theatre are delightfully rich subjects for satire, and everything from the tongue-in-cheek Sesame Street News, to the backstage antics central to the Muppet Show expose and exaggerate the ridiculousness of the entertainment world. In this film—the third Muppet feature, after The Muppet Movie and The Great Muppet Caper—Henson and Frank Oz resurrect and re-dress the old story of starry-eyed hopefuls on their way to Broadway, complete with hot-shot producers, earnest and starving performers, and malevolent critics.
Devotees of the Muppet movies, or the old television show, may already know this film, but the Muppets are such a cultural feature, most people will be familiar with the characters on some level—and that’s really the fun. The glorious and uncanny part of the whole Muppet phenomenon is how the late Jim Henson took bits of cloth and foam and turned them into personalities as alive to us as any celebrity. The characters are distinct, defined, and somehow independent of their film products (unlike other fictitious characters, who only have life within their particular story). In this film especially, Henson and director Frank Oz really play with that notion of established character and identity, and our expectations as an audience. For example, we see Kermit for the first time moving outside his normal, straight-man characterization—and his scene as a Hollywood-type pretender trying to pass a script along to a big-name producer is about the funniest bit of Muppetry there is (“I love your hair, don’t ever change it!”).
So, how does it work? Why are puppets so universally engaging, and how have these (and other Henson/Oz creations, like the Sesame Street crew or memorable Star Wars characters) become so hugely known and popular? Or more generally, how are characters created at all? What is the magic combination of voice, movement, style, and background that produces real personality? It seems to this reviewer no loss of magic to see, in this case, into the bag of tricks, and one fun source is the special features material included on the DVD. In a straight-ahead interview, Henson talks about the characters and the process of bringing them to life, both the mystical transformation that takes place and the laughable logistics of the whole show. It may even be recommendable to watch the interview before the feature, so children can look for the moments Henson mentions and know how it’s all done. The truth is that the magic of creation requires more than a little labor and ingenuity—but is no less wonderful for the fact.