"Sorry I haven’t been in touch," says Kermit the Frog in The Muppets, as he reunites with a down-on-his-luck Fozzie Bear. In the new film based on Jim Henson’s classic felt puppets, Fozzie has been working and living with a knockoff "Moopets" show in a crack den in Reno. Well, technically it’s a cheap motel and wedding chapel, and he doesn’t actually live there. Instead, Fozzie camps out in the back alley, while Kermit lives in a giant mansion surrounded by an electric fence in Bel Air.
"That’s okay," says Fozzie, whom we must assume has just shot up some really wonderful dope before doing the scene. Otherwise, Kermit wouldn’t have to stage an awkward Leif Garrett-like reunion routine in order to convince his former best friend that, despite living like a green felt version of The Fountainhead’s Howard Roark, the poor, big-hearted bear should help out the wealthy, emotionally unavailable frog.
By all accounts, The Muppets is a delightful film. Self-referential humor and pop culture references in kids’ movies have become staples in this Pixar-dominated movie industry, and the computer-animated characters owe much to the felt-and-cardboard players of Jim Henson’s puppet troupe, who all starred in an SNL for kids in the late ‘70s. But yesterday, a more sinister theory surfaced. The talking heads over at Fox Business posited that The Muppets is actually a work of anti-capitalist propaganda, sent to brainwash young, malleable minds.
We learn early in the new film that the Muppets have fallen on hard times. They’re washed up, disbanded, and no one under the age of thirty knows who they are. The Muppets are a relic of another time, meaning that evil corporate bad guy Tex Richman (Chris Cooper) feels vindicated in swooping in to tear down the old Muppet Theater in Los Angeles to … drill for oil? (In L.A.? OK, sure.)
Unless the Muppets can raise ten million dollars in two days, Tex Richman will also own the trademark to their very identities! It’s time to cue the music, it’s time to light the lights, and it’s time raise the money with a live show!
But if the Muppets needed to raise $10 million, why didn’t Kermit sell his Bel Air mansion that he’s been living in while ignoring the cries for help from the downward-spiraling Fozzie? Why didn’t Miss Piggy—an editrix at Vogue Paris—think of chipping in? Gonzo’s new career has him as the CEO of his own plumbing supply business, which seemed to be rather recession-proof, as he’s shown being carried on planks of wood by human underlings who obey his every Mr. Burns-ish command.
And Scooter? Scooter works at Google. I mean, my God. When the characters ask themselves how to get the word out about their charity telethon, it’s amazing no one thought of calling Mark Zuckerberg for a cameo.
The message to kids could not be any louder even if Animal (who is in an L.A. rehab facility for anger management, by the way) screamed it: the Muppets at the top of the heap are rich. They have to be rich, because the image of a Kermit or Miss Piggy licking food stamps in that Reno crack den is just too traumatic, even for a gag. And when they’re in trouble, their salvation is more money, and the challenge, naturally, is raising it. So yes, the answer to saving the Muppets is a Jerry Lewis-esque telethon. Could it be any worse? The inevitable sequel might as well feature the gang reuniting yet again to raise funds for Sam the Eagle’s Congressional campaign. It could star Alan Alda as a Koch Brother!
Yet at the same time, The Muppets reflects America’s current aversion to class issues. Kermit is filthy rich, but he’s also an iconic underdog! He, like Warren Buffett, still eats in diners. Perhaps it wouldn’t be so infuriating if the Muppets didn’t still act like they were the 99%. They beg Tex Richman for their studio back and turn their Muppet faces into felt frowns when they are (unsurprisingly) rejected with a (surprising, and somewhat nonsensical) rap about how great it is to have money. What the movie seems to miss is that Richman is preaching to the choir.
And this is the confusion at the heart of The Muppets. The sweet (but catchy!) new songs like "Life’s a Happy Song" and "Me Party!" almost seem like wormy cynicism masquerading as cuteness. Because in the end, we’re supposed to believe the Muppets have realized that arbitrary monetary stakes are meaningless ("Turns out we don’t need that ten million, our theater, or our brand names after all!"). And if you sit on five million dollars in property assets or live like Emmanuelle Alt in Paris, it probably is.
But for Fozzie Bear, Animal, Rowlf, and the rest of us watching this movie, $10 million is a lot of money. The loss of a home (well, theater) and future employment is nothing to sing about. Fozzie Bear is just getting by, which made sense when The Muppet Show was in its heyday, when every night their dingy and cluttered backstage seemed one building inspection away from being closed by the city for safety reasons. It makes less sense to root for the Muppet "gang" when their economic disparity gap makes it unbelievable that they’d even be in the same room together (unless it was to stage an occupation on Kermit’s front lawn).
What we take away from The Muppets isn’t that the lovers and dreamers can conquer the slimy corporate greed that exists in the real world. It’s that the lovers and dreamers can delude themselves into thinking that money doesn’t matter—just as long as they have it.