GOOD NEWS on the culture front: Yes, the latest “Twilight’’ film topped the box office last weekend, but a lot of Generation Xers dragged their kids to “The Muppet Movie’’ instead. This new installment of the franchise has captured parental buzz, less for its ample hipster credentials - its screenwriters spring from the Judd Apatow school, its director from HBO’s “Flight of the Conchords’’ - than for its unabashedly analog roots.
This is partly a matter of deftly marketed nostalgia: Now that a generation raised on consumer culture is immersed in parenting, everyone is trying to cash in. This holiday season, Toys “R’’ Us is re-airing vintage 1980s ads. Nickelodeon is thinking of airing “Brady Bunch’’ reruns at night, with pop-up thought bubbles that tell us what Carol was really thinking. At the movies, I’ve sat through computer-updated versions of “The Smurfs’’ and “Alvin and the Chipmunks,’’ all of which seemed calculated, unnecessary, and largely unfunny.
“The Muppet Movie’’ feels different: not a reboot for modern sensibilities and wallets, but an effort to recapture something lost. At the multiplex last weekend, it was the parents who were laughing the loudest, bouncing up and down blissfully at the sight of that old “Muppet Show’’ set. The world of the Muppets is as crudely low-tech as ever; Kermit the Frog’s head presumably still has a hand inside it. But even to jaded GenXers, his personality feels real.
Who would have thought a generation steeped in irony would so headily embrace a troupe of puppets? In recent years, puppets have mostly been a punch line, used to channel a particular brand of world-weary cynicism, a la “Crank Yankers’’ and “Avenue Q.’’ For kids, they’ve become something of a lost art: Even “Sesame Street’’ now has a regular segment with Abby Cadabby in CGI, and even Jim Henson’s old company now touts its own computer-graphics technology, called the Henson Digital Puppetry Studio. Its products include “Sid the Science Kid,’’ a preschool TV show that’s well-meaning and practically unwatchable: The characters move like avatars in video games, as they dutifully learn facts about soil and leaves.
The Muppets were never world-weary, and they were never pedantic. They were about intergenerational humor, distinct characters, and a sweet view of human nature that matched Jim Henson’s odd, nasally voice. (They were even about winking self-awareness, which translates well to modern Hollywood.)
Most pointedly, the Muppets capture something special about childhood: the way constraints work as tools for creativity. Kermit has static, plastic eyes; they’re the opposite of expressive. But in the hands of a skilled puppeteer, he can flail his arms hilariously, or twist his mouth into touching permutations of surprise and regret. The screenwriters of “The Muppet Movie’’ have talked about early run-throughs of the script: Before long, they said, the puppeteers reading the lines seemed to melt away. The Muppets simply lived.
The most satisfying kind of fantasy, it turns out, requires just as much commitment from its audience as from its creators. That’s something CGI often loses in translation. The relatively crude ’90s-era episodes of “Thomas the Tank Engine’’ perfectly capture the joy of model trains: the way a child can create a vibrant world with his own toys, just by imagining a good story. In the more recent “Thomas’’ episodes, low-cost computer animation makes the trains’ faces move. The show does all the imagining for us.
Perhaps that’s why parents in their 30s and 40s seem so intent on passing “The Muppets’’ to the next generation: We fear that our kids, steeped in gorgeously realized graphics, won’t recognize what has been lost. I watched my 7-year-old daughter anxiously throughout “The Muppet Movie,’’ terrified that she’d prefer the Chipmunks instead. Not surprisingly, the ’80s references flew over her head. She didn’t feel that lump in her throat when Kermit sang “The Rainbow Connection.’’
But she loved the movie, and spent the rest of the weekend talking about her favorite character, Walter. He’s a Muppet who was invented purely for this film: a small, uncertain guy, trying to figure out where he belongs in the world, finally discovering his true talent. For a kid who doesn’t know about nostalgia yet, that’s about as real as it gets.