Kermit’s Swamp Years, the new direct-to-video Muppet movie, had its spectacular World Premiere on the Starz channel last night — a major event in Muppet fandom, except that nobody watches the Starz channel, so it’s less major than you might think. I was apparently one of the eight Muppet fans to actually see the World Premiere — it would have been nine, but my cat was sleeping.
So now it’s my responsibility to warn the public of the horror that is to come. Oh, I don’t mean the movie, which is sweet and inoffensive and cute as a button. I mean the arguments.
Cause it’s cute, make no mistake about it. Cute with a capital Q. And that, in Muppet fan circles, spells trouble.
How cute could it be, you ask. Well, Kermit’s twelve, to start with. He has two little frog buddies, and he’s scared of the Big World Outside the Swamp. He talks to a star, and it talks back. I repeat: The star talks back.
That piece of information right there is probably a good litmus test for whether you’ll like Swamp Years or not. If you’re thinking, ack, phooey, talking to stars, how corny, then this movie is not for you. Put down the DVD and back away. But if it flickers across your brain, even for an instant, that that sounds kind of sweet, like maybe the movie has Heart, in a sort of “I did promise somebody, I promised me” kind of way, then you’ve got the green light. Move directly to Go, collect Kermit’s Swamp Years, and enjoy, cause you’ll probably love it.
Personally, I loved it to pieces. I think it’s adorable. I’ve watched it twice in 24 hours, and I could watch it again if I had to. It’s not perfect by a long shot, although I personally gave up on Muppet Perfection around 1985. And there’s a lot in Swamp Years to love.
Here’s my take on the loveable bits. The Muppet characters are all great, every single one of ’em. Young Kermit is basically Kermit with a big head, and we already like him. Croaker is yet another fab Bill Barretta character — a good-humored, tough-talking frog who’s ready for anything. Kermit’s other friend, Goggles, is a nervous wreck through the whole entire movie, but he has so many funny lines, you just gotta love him. Joey Mazzarino finally gets to use his squeaky voice for something other than a little boy character, and who knew? It works. I thought at first that Goggles would drive me nuts, but within a few minutes, I was diggin’ him. And there’s lots of other cool little Muppet characters along the way — especially in the pet shop, where there’s a funny Eastern-European snake, two old-Jewish-man turtles, and a laid-back I’m-okay-you’re-okay frog named Roy. Plus, there’s a really funny running gag with bunnies.
It’s a simple, kid’s-road-movie plot, with Kermit and Croaker setting out into the big world to rescue Goggles, making friends and overcoming obstacles along the way. They confront the villain in a big finale where everybody pitches in, and they’re all friends at the end. There are approximately zero plot surprises along the way, so don’t worry about the story, because — as I’m sure somebody points out somewhere in the movie — the fun is in the journey.
And it’s fun, that’s all there is to it. Everybody who saw the Swamp Years panel at Muppetfest can remember how much everybody involved seemed to be enjoying it — and that really comes across in the movie. The three main Muppet performers are clearly having a hell of a time making a Muppet movie again, and it’s packed with witty little asides and funny moments. I giggled. Frequently. Plus, it passes the test of all good Muppet productions, which is that at the end of it, I wanted Goggles and Croaker dolls.
The biggest flaw in the movie that I could see is that it could use more songs. The one big Muppet production number — a show-stopper in the pet store called “Life As A Pet” — is probably the best, most sustained piece of comedy in the whole show. It does just what a Muppet musical number is supposed to do — it makes you laugh, it makes you dance, it zips around among a huge cast of cute animals with funny voices, plus it advances a plot point. It’s so good, in fact, that it makes me sad that they didn’t do more of them. A good, Howard-Ashman style opening number with Kermit, Croaker and Goggles singing about having fun in the swamp would have sold the beginning, which drags a bit. There’s something of a closing number at the end, but they cut away after one verse — which makes me think that this was planned as a full musical, and they backed off from it because they decided kids wouldn’t like musicals anymore. Stick to your guns, puppet people. Kids like song and dance. There’s plenty of time for them to be ironic and hip when they hit puberty.
The other flaw — and this is the one that’s going to cause problems among the Muppet fans — is the whole Heart thing. Kermit’s Swamp Years wants to have Heart like Cookie Monster wants to have cookies — a little bit just isn’t enough, and neither is a lot. There’s a bunch of really sweet, touching moments, especially the scene in the middle when Kermit first recognizes what his Dream is, which I nominate as one of the most beautiful Muppet moments of all time. But they’re not satisfied tugging gently at your heartstrings. Nope, give Swamp Years half a chance, and it’ll grab your heartstrings with both hands and give ’em a good yank. There’s the whole talking to stars bit, for one thing, there’s the sixteen separate climactic I-believe-in-you moments, and there’s the whole friends stick together gestalt. I have a pretty high tolerance for that kind of thing, but after a while, even I was slapping their hands away and saying, stop tugging on my damn heartstrings, guys. You don’t have to be so Meaningful and Important and eager to please. Just keep being funny, I already like you.
So that’s the issue, the thing that’s going to cause bitter arguments among Muppet fans from now until the Christmas special. The problem is this: there’s a sizeable group of disaffected, hip teenage Muppet fans who spend their entire waking lives defending the Muppets to their pierced and tattooed teenage friends. These are the children of the 80’s, frog bless ’em, the lost generation who came of age during the Muppet Babies era. They survived Skeeter, damn it, and they’ve got the scars to prove it, and there’s no way they’re going to let somebody come along and turn the Muppets — the sophisticated, adult Muppets — into pre-school fare. Never again, they say.
And boy, will those kids hate Swamp Years. They hate it before they’ve even seen it. In fact, if it’ll reduce the sum total of aggravation in the universe, I’d like to warn them — don’t even watch it. Just walk away and wait for Christmas. If you’re only happy when the Muppets are doing NYPD Blue parodies, then forget about Swamp Years.
But fans with children, I think, will love Swamp Years. It’s safe enough for your three-year-olds, it’s got enough butt jokes for your eight-year-olds, and it won’t make you want to chew your own eyeballs out. (Now there’s a quote for the back cover; somebody get Columbia Tristar on the phone!)
Fans who like Bear in the Big Blue House, The Christmas Toy, and — dare I say it? — Elmo’s World, they’ll eat up Kermit’s Swamp Years with a spoon and ask for more.
Yeah, it’s aimed directly at kids, rather than the mostly hypothetical Adult Muppet Audience… but I want eight year olds to get to know Kermit again. I’ll keep the Pulp Fiction parodies and the action figures with tiny little swallow-me accessories for myself, but I also want good-humored, safe Kermit movies in the hands of American children. I want little proto-Muppet fans in the elementary schools of our great nation to stand up on their chairs in the cafeteria, like I did at their age, and shout, Bear and Elmo are for babies! I like Goggles and Croaker — they’re for grown-ups!
It’s not selling out. It’s indoctrination. Go with it for a while.