Hip to Be Square
The Muppets, despite not having a current television vehicle of their own (Sesame Street is owned by Children’s Television Workshop), have experienced an increased visibility lately. I suppose this is designed to coincide with a 25th Anniversary of some kind.
Some of these endeavors are delightful, like NBC’s Muppet holiday movie that aired last December, and some are in appallingly poor taste, like those Denny’s commercials with Miss Piggy hocking bacon. But in general, it’s good to see the Muppets around, especially in today’s family-entertainment world, so dominated by CGI anything and live-action cartoons, sometimes both at once. The simplicity of the Muppets, by comparison, is more beautiful than ever, as is the humanistic slapstick they practice. The art of the late Jim Henson is based on gentle misfits who can never really be “cool.”
Such inability can be respectable. See if you can follow this: the Muppets are so square, they’re cool, and so cool, they can make other squares seem cool by association. Case in point: John Denver. Yes, before they rocked along with reigning squares Weezer in “Keep Fishin’,” one of 2002’s best music videos, the Muppets hung out with folk-lite icon Denver. Besides cutting a Christmas album, they vacationed together in John Denver and the Muppets: Rocky Mountain Holiday, now available on DVD from Columbia.
The mood of this 1982 special is gentler than usual, even for Muppets: no one is humiliated or blown up. You might think that the mellow presence of John Denver would make a group like the Muppets seem a little rowdier, but even Animal is pretty tame here. Of the over one dozen songs performed, only about half are real production numbers; most often, we’re looking at Denver and the Muppets sitting around a fire, just singing (occasionally, the scene cuts to stock-ish footage, without any Muppets). Some of the tunes are catchy enough to survive a static performance, like “Grandma’s Feather Bed”; others sound and look like filler, particularly as the special winds down. There’s not even a bouncing ball to follow.
The late Denver’s interactions with the Muppets are comfortable, though not quite as tender as a young Paul Simon on a volume in the Best of the Muppet Show DVD series. This special is less inventive than a typical Muppet Show episode, though it still provides us with the invaluable sight of Denver being chased by a giant man-eating chicken. Another nice touch: Statler and Waldorf, the old men Muppets forever heckling The Muppet Show, tag along into the woods, set up camp a few feet away, and continue to crack jokes at the others’ expense. Henson’s characters are nothing if not endearingly consistent.
Other material on the show recalls The Muppet Show: one of the most spirited numbers is “She’ll Be Comin’ Round the Mountain,” rewritten to suit Miss Piggy, who remains the most tolerable diva ever (if only Streisand or Celine Dion knew karate). The Muppets have true star quality: They’re fun to watch even in a slow-moving vehicle.
On a more poignant note, hearing the late Henson perform as Kermit again, so warm and enthusiastic, yet so perilously close to flippering out, is a joy unto itself. This may be the DVD’s clearest, oddest purpose: A record of two souls no longer with us.
The disc is brief (45 minutes) and bare-bones. Even the scattered Best of the Muppet Show discs feature three episodes and a handful of extras. It would’ve been nice to see this special packaged with the Christmas outing, for example. For a Muppet fan, it’s a pleasant addition to the DVD shelf (along with those nearly half-dozen iterations of The Dark Crystal), but it’s more collector’s fodder than repeatedly watchable. Denver is sweet and game, but I can’t help but think that the Muppets could have spent a more productive vacation with someone more in tune with their sweet absurdism, in an environment less prone to reflection. Imagine: Steve Martin and the Muppets: Motel in Jersey.