The Gospel According to Jim Henson
Seems like a lot of franchises have been getting reboots in recent years. Add the Muppets to the list, with a new film releasing this week. After a number of years in the wilderness/swamp, Kermit and Co. are back on the big screen—opening in theaters everywhere on Wednesday—brought to you by the promising team of screenwriter-actor Jason Segal and director James Bobin. Some of us find this prospect stupendously exciting, while others, no doubt, will shrug in indifference, writing it off as the latest example of Hollywood's increasingly lazy insistence on shilling nostalgia.
So why the Muppets and why now? Aren't they irrelevant cultural relics? Never mind the fact that they represent the vanguard of "family entertainment"—child-friendly entertainment that neither excludes nor talks down to adults, nor resorts to lewd cynicism. In other words, intelligently wholesome media. Never mind their loveable makeshift quality, the refreshing scruffiness amidst the increasingly pristine world of kid pop culture, or the way they conjure such life and energy without help from the virtual world. Never mind the obvious imagination at the center of it all. We would do Jim Henson's creations a serious disservice to align them with "culture war" concerns. Yet there is a moral vision at the heart of the Muppets that transcends those lines, and it is one that Christians, for the most part, can affirm.
Henson was, by all accounts, a bit of a saint. Read any biography of the man, and you will walk away almost suspicious of his overwhelming decency and personal integration, his unfailing optimism and boundless energy. What made the biggest impression on those around him was apparently not his astounding creativity, but the passionate and compassionate way he lived his life. In fact, he and contemporary Fred Rogers comprise "the unfallen duo" of American public television. Both saw their work as a spiritual vocation; Rogers was an ordained Presbyterian, of course, while Henson grew up in Christian Science, even teaching Sunday school as a young adult. Unlike Rogers, however, Henson reportedly distanced himself from his church as he grew older, downplaying sectarian concerns for the sake of reaching a wider audience with his somewhat amorphous message of hopes and dreams and rainbow connections. (The urban legend that Henson died because of Christian Science-based refusal to receive medical care is just that: an urban legend.) Vestiges of Mary Baker Eddy do surface occasionally in his work, in the form of a can-do sunniness about the human condition that would be a lot more cloying if it weren't dressed up in so much inspired silliness.
Where silliness shone
Silliness, in fact, is where Henson shone. It kept the feel-/do-good-ism from ever succumbing to the piety of political correctness. Frank Oz, Henson's great collaborator/co-conspirator—literally the Bert to Henson's Ernie—once summed up their approach this way: "Whenever characters become self-important or sentimental in the Muppets, then there's always another character there to blow them up immediately." That is, despite going on record about "people [being] basically good," the Muppet characters were wonderfully and truthfully drawn. Their bickering, broken collective was united by a shared ridiculousness: Fozzie was hopelessly insecure, Piggy an egomaniac, Kermit was long-suffering, Gonzo a self-described "weirdo," Animal was, well, Animal, the list goes on. In the Muppets, the weaknesses tell the stories, not the strengths, and those weaknesses are frequently a source of humor.