Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Muppet Treasure Island, Part 1: A Call to Adventure

After the success of The Muppet Christmas Carol, Walt Disney Pictures produced another adaptation of a classic piece of British literature with the Muppets playing minor roles.  Production wise, this film would be exactly the same as it's predecessor.  Yet, despite (or because of) the similarities, the next film would be even more successful than the last three Muppet films.

This one's about pirates.

Treasure Island, like A Christmas Carol has been through dozens of film adaptations.  While the story may not be as memorable as the Dickens tale, Robert Louis Stevenson's novel established many iconic characters and elements that we associate with pirate tales.  Buried treasure, "X marks the spot," island paradises and eye-patch-wearing, peg-legged, parrot-totting pirates can all be found in this epic narrative.  Muppet Treasure Island is aware of this, and so it begins with a shanty called, "Shiver Me Timbers" glorifying the pirate life as the titular treasure is being buried.


But the focus of the novel is the young Jim Hawkins, who heads off on an adventure, leaving his life of squalor and poverty behind.  He is introduced working in an inn alongside Gonzo and Rizzo, who a basically fulfilling the same roles as they did in The Muppet Christmas Carol.  They are just being themselves, commenting on the situations they find themselves in.  But hey, that was one of the best parts of the previous movie, and they continue to be funny here, so who's complaining?

Billy Connolly is, apparently.

That's Billy Bones, one of the inn's permanent residents who amuses other patrons with his fanciful tales of life on the high seas.  Everyone considers him to be a crazy coot, and no one takes him seriously, except for Jim.  Having lost his father, who was also a seafarer, Jim dreams of having his own adventures on the ocean, and, with his girly voice, he and his pals sing of "Something Better."


After closing up the inn for the night, a late visitor comes barging in, demanding to see Billy Bones.  This is Blind Pew, an intimidating figure in the original book who is now a Muppet buffoon.  Still, he manages to be humorous and creepy at the same time.  I'm not sure why they didn't have Uncle Deadly play this role since they look extremely similar and are both portrayed by Jerry Nelson.  A missed opportunity, I say.

Maybe he's his long-lost twin?

Anyway, Blind Pew was a former member of Billy Bones' pirate crew, and he has come to deliver a sinister message: the Black Spot.


The simple spot signifies that the rest of the pirates are going to hunt Billy down if he doesn't turn over the treasure map he kept to himself all these years.  Bones instantly dies of fright, but then wakes up a bit to explain some of the situation and give Jim the map, only to die again (obviously this is different in the book, but, hey, it's a funny kids movie, let it go).

The pirates raid the inn and Jim narrowly escapes as the building burns down.  He decides that this is his chance to go on an adventure (since he has nothing to go back to) and heads into town to find someone willing to finance his voyage.  He ends up at the house of the rich Squire Trelawney who in the novel is completely normal and interested in the history of the map and it's treasure.  Here, it's Fozzie Bear and he talks to a man who lives in his finger named "Mr. Bimbo."

REDRUM!

This was Jerry Juhl's decision to add this trait, and initially, Frank Oz was turned off to the idea, since it didn't make sense for either Trelawney or Fozzie to exhibit this level of lunacy.  Yet, Frank grew to love this aspect.  And you know what?  It actually works for the movie.  It adds a whole new level to Fozzie's psyche and it's pretty interesting to see this play out.

Along with his companion Dr. Livesy (played by Bunsen) and Beaker (played by Beaker), Trelawney agrees to lend Hawkins his ship, and he arranges a crew to set sail on the Hispaniola.  And it is the most magnificent thing young Hawkins has ever seen.

 This movie is going to be EPIC.

Tomorrow, we meet the crew of the Hispaniola and learn why every move needs Tim Curry/Sam the Eagle.

Monday, July 30, 2012

But Wait, There's More!

Everything starts out small.  A thought blossoms into an idea, which takes shape, becomes physical, and then is made into something grand.  Many of the world's greatest creators didn't know they would change history.  When Walt Disney drew Mickey Mouse for the first time, he wasn't imagining theme parks, multi-million dollar production studios, and one of the world's largest businesses.  He just wanted to pay the bills and entertain some folks while he was at it.  Jim Henson was a man of many ideas, and had it not been for the popularity of the Muppets, there is no telling what he would have been known for, or whether he would have changed the industry in any significant way.

It's hard to tell where the exact genesis of Henson's popularity came from.  With his Sam and Friends sketches and his commercials to Rowlf's appearance on The Jimmy Dean Show, every part of the Muppets rise to fame seemed like a natural progression from that which proceeded it.

But if I had to choose one creation that defined the Muppets, one act that presented everything the Muppets were and everything they were to become, I would have to go with "Inchworm."

This is going to be HUGE!

The Muppets here just beginning to make a name for themselves as an entity.  Some were familiar with their ads and mascots, others were fans of Rowlf, but the Muppets needed a wider audience.  They began making variety show appearances, starting with The Tonight Show and when the host Jack Paar left to form his own program, the Muppets were invited as frequent guests.

It was one night in 1964 that Henson decided to resurrect an old Sam and Friends skit, so that more people could see it.  It was clear that this night would be special, for this was the night that Henson and his gang left their permanent mark in the NBC studios.  People may have thought they knew the Muppets, but they ain't seen nothing yet.

The sketch begins very simply.  Kermit sits by himself, humming the tune "Glow Worm" as an inchworm comes alongside him, getting his attention.  Being the amphibious predator, he quickly gobbles the worm with pride.  Soon, a second worm meets a similar fate.  And, as we know, comedy comes in threes.


Feeling particularly malicious, Kermit hastily devours the third worm, yet finds that it is stuck in the ground.  He pulls and yanks, only as the worm doubles and triples in size.  Eventually, he manages to drag the whole creature out, finding that the worm is not a worm at all.

And the predator becomes the prey.

The worm-nosed beast (Big V) swallows Kermit whole and the audience goes wild.  Going from an extremely small to an extremely large puppet in mere seconds is visually and conceptually impressive.  In a minute and a half, we have been taken on a silent journey that constantly changes our perception on our hero.  First, we see Kermit, who was often the victim of these sketches.  Sitting there peacefully, we grow to like him.  When he eats his first worm, we are startled and amused, but when he eats the second worm, he becomes our villain.  He is no longer a simple frog-like thing.  He has become the instigator of pain.  When he gets his comeuppance, we are amused once again.

This monster is, in a way, the destiny of the Muppets.  What seemed like a small, quirky little venture, quickly snowballed into a large, uncontrollable beast that threatened to consume everything in it's path. As we know, the Muppet company proved to be too overwhelming for Henson to handle, and the stress it caused may have contributed to his early passing.  Sure, it provided many great services and entertainments to the world, and was filled with hope and fun.  But when things get to large to handle, there is going to be a fallout.

Still, Henson never stopped thinking of new ideas.  Even in his later days, he wasn't running out of steam.  He did not want to leave the Muppets behind so he could retire early.  He wanted to move on and explore a whole new world of innovations and techniques.  With Henson, the only way to move forward was to bite off more than you can chew.  He aimed high, succeeded, then aimed higher.  And that's why the Muppets continue to prevail to this day.  Henson wrestled with the monster he created so that there would be hope and inspiration for generations to come.  Without his passion for improvement, the Muppets would have faded away to be a mere footnote in the history of the world.

So, while Jim may be gone, his legacy lives on.  And it continues to grow without an end in sight.

Henson, pictured with us, the Consumer.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Southern Creature Comforts

The last Tale from Muppetland featured a different kind of fairy tale.  Having dealt enough with princesses and kings and witches, Henson turned to the Grimm tale The Town Musicians of Bremen.  However, while the original referenced the German city of Bremen, Henson moved the tale down south, to the bayous of Louisiana.  And, aside from the setting change and the jazz music, The Muppet Musicians of Bremen was a straightforward adaptation of the original story.

Everything about this image is straightforward.

For the uninitiated, the original story is about four old, worn-out farm animals (a donkey, rooster, dog, and cat) whose masters kick them out for being off little use to them.  They come across a bunch of musical instruments and they decide to travel to Bremen in order to become famous musicians.  Along the way, they stop at a house that is filled with robbers and all around bad guys.  They try to play their music for them so that they may have some food and shelter.  The robbers, thinking the noises are witches or ghosts or whatever, flee the scene, and the animals inhabit the house.

And the moral of the story is...monsters aren't real, only tuba playing donkeys are?

Anyway, the Muppet version follows the same path, except to fill out the hour, each animal is given some backstory to make us care about them more.  Apparently, their evil masters are also the robbers in the house, so we've got our heros and villains.  Since the story is practically unchanged, what makes this special so...special?  The puppets.

Check out the villains:

Sweet dreams!

In case you can't tell, those are full-bodied puppets.  Rather than go with humans, as in the previous specials, Henson decided to try something new for the villains.  This is unlike the Taminella/Goshposh technique, where the puppet was controlled like any other puppet and the puppeteer hunched over, creating an obese character.  Here, the heads of the puppets were actually on the heads of the puppeteers!

So, how did they get them to talk and move?  Well, it's actually all done through clever camera edits.  The mouths would flap in long shots, but in close ups, the puppeteer would control the face with their hand.  Still, it's not very obvious when watching the show.  In fact, the effect was so convincing that Henson received praises from a makeup artist who thought that he had discovered a new type of face makeup that could incorporate puppetry!

Because that's the most logical explanation.

The heroes of the story were not simple puppets either.  Each one of them incorporated elements of marionettes along with the traditional hand puppet (possibly originating the rumor that "Muppet" means "Marionette + Puppet").  Leroy the Donkey in particular is very large, and at times it's hard to tell exactly how he is being controlled.

Yeah, that picture above isn't just a promo image.  We actually see the whole thing walk.

The decision to move the story to the American south helps lend a unique flavor to the special.  Henson was born in Mississippi, so he was returning to his roots (much as he liked to do whenever Kermit went back to his southern swamp).  But there seems to be more at play here.  The relationship between the animals and the humans in the story seems very similar to the relationship between slaves and slave-owners in the American south.  The language of the characters and dialogue that they have seem to reinforce this theme.  The music they create is influenced by that of early African-American culture (jazz, folk songs, and even the Rooster has a blues number).  If you close your eyes and just listen to the story, the similarities between the two cultures (fictional and non-fictional) is uncanny.

Racial commentary and civil rights history in a Muppet special?!

I've not found any other literature supporting this theory, especially not from Henson or his sources, but I couldn't help but think that that was at the back of the creators' minds as they were making this special in 1972.  Had the story remained set in Germany, there wouldn't have been any connection.  But Henson's a smart man, and he chose to set it in Louisiana for a reason.

Whatever the case may be, this is still a great special, from a technical and stylistic standpoint.  It manages to set itself apart from all other Muppet productions with its distinct music and dialect, and it managed to stay faithful to the original material, while at the same time being a unique property.  This was also the first Muppet production to use rats and chickens, Muppet species staples, so you know it has great importance in Muppet history.  A great end to the short-lived Tales from Muppetland.

Friday, July 27, 2012

A Different Kind of Prince

Following the success of Hey Cinderella! and the popular new series Sesame Street, Henson returned to the land of fairy tales to present The Frog Prince.

With Kermit!  But not starring Kermit.

Hoping to turn the fairy tales into recurring specials, this was branded as part of the Tales from Muppetland series, which would retroactively include Hey Cinderella! But, unlike the prior special which had to cut a lot of material to condense it to an hour, this special had to add a lot to meet the required length.

The original tale can be easily told in a sentence: a prince who was turned into a frog by a witch can only be changed back by the kiss of a princess.  Well, actually the original original tale involved bashing the frog against a wall to cure him.  Good ol' Brothers Grimm.  But the point is that the story is quite short and needs a lot of padding.

First we meet the frogs of the pond, consisting of Kermit and his pals, each named after one of the Knights of the Round Table.  That would have been an interesting angle to take with the story, having many men turned into frogs.  But no, the names are just a coincidence.

That should be "Gareth," not "Garth."  This isn't Wayne's World.

Little Robin hops up and begins explaining that he is actually Sir Robin the Brave, a prince.  The frogs don't believe him, so he tells the tale of how an evil witch transformed him into a frog for no real reason.  This tale is told in flashback, and we see the human form of Robin, who...is nothing like Robin the Frog.  Frog Robin is just as we picture him, meek, timid, and young.  Human Robin is bold, righteous, and mature.  You'd think they would try to match the personalities a bit.  Or the voices.

Maybe becoming a frog makes you more timid and gives you Jerry Nelson's voice.

The witch is none other than our good friend Taminella Grinderfall, and her puppet has become a lot larger, becoming a not-quite-so-full bodied puppet, similar to King Goshposh.  And speaking of the king, he returns as well, with his servant Featherstone.  However, now he is called King Rupert the Second, possibly so we don't get confused as to why he now has a daughter as opposed to a son like in the last special.

Also, he wears yellow now.

His princess daughter Melora has also been cursed by the witch, causing her to speak improperly by switching the letters at the beginnings of words, making it impossible for her father to understand her.  See, Taminella has convinced the king that she is his long-lost sister and Melora knows she is a fraud.  Robin, however, is able to understand her (because it's not that hard to figure out) and rescues her gold ball when it falls into the frog pond (as in the original story).  Now, here would normally be the part where the situation is explained and the princess kisses the frog and everyone lives happily ever after.

But no, we have 40 minutes left.  So we've got to stall.

Princess Melora brings Robin home and after they schmooze for a while, she prepares to kiss him, but Taminella ruins the mood and prevents the kiss from occurring.  She invites them to dinner where Kermit gets drunk and Kermit gets drunk in a children's show and that's just so weird to think about that I cannot move on from this plot point.

Everyone else stuffs their faces with popovers.

Eventually, Taminella throws Robin in her dungeon to be eaten by her ogre Sweetums.  As we know, Sweetums will later become Robin's best friend, but for now, he is pure antagonist.  Robin lulls him to sleep with a condescending lullaby and an intoxicated Kermit tries to get him to unlock the cage by posing as Taminella.  Unfortunately, Sweetums snaps to and flies into a chaotic rage, destroying the entire set.  It's quite exciting.

Friendship will have to wait.

The frogs escape, summon the other frogs to help them attack the witch, and all right before the witch is about to be crowned queen.  And then finally, after a good half-an-hour, Robin realizes that when Melora said to "bake the hall in the brain's candle," she meant to "break the ball in the cane's handle" to remove the witch's power.  Why she couldn't do this herself, I'll never know.

When Taminella's magic cane breaks, all the spells but one are reversed and she transforms into a bird, flying away from the special, never to be seen again in any Muppet production ever.  I'll miss her.

Finally, the princess kisses Robin and everything turns out hunky dory.  Robin reverts back to his human form, along with his bland personality, which makes me wonder who she really loved...Robin the Frog or Robin the Human?

I would have stuck with the frog.

Apparently Robin made a decent human, though, because nine months later we are treated to the young Prince Kermit, named after a certain frog with a drinking problem.

Yay, a baby!

Compared to the prior special, this one falls a little flat.  The avoidance of resolutions that would make the plot a lot simpler found during the ending of Hey Cinderella runs rampant all throughout this special.  There is no reason everything should take as long as it did and it could have been fixed with some different character interactions.  Involving the original frogs more could have helped, and making Taminella more like her Tinkerdee character would have made things a lot more entertaining.  There, it was funny when she stood in the way of the heroes.  Here, it's just grating.

Still, this was the special that gave us Robin who, in his frog form, is a very compelling character.  The Sweetums dungeon scene is probably the best in the whole episode, and it's clear why the duo remained permanent members of the Muppet cast to this very day.

Henson will have one more shot at combining Muppets with fairy tales, so hopefully things will pick up as we look at the next Tale from Muppetland.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

A Different Kind of Princess

After Tales of the Tinkerdee failed to find a producer, Henson and his team turned to a more traditional fairy tale setting.  Their next television project came in 1964, where they attempted to turn Snow White into a long-running series.  Similar to movie serials or soap operas, each episode would end on a cliffhanger, encouraging youngsters to tune in next week.  Along the way, Snow White was dropped and Cinderella was made to be the main star.  However, this too failed as no one was really up for a fairy tale that stretched out on a weekly basis.

However, the scraps from that project were reassembled in 1968 to become the first stand-alone Muppet special: Hey Cinderella!

Every title is better when it begins with a "Hey!"

The Henson-directed, hour-long special told the basic tale of Cinderella with some added twists and Muppets.  King Goshposh returned as the father to Prince Arthur Charming.  Unlike the original story, Prince Charming actually gets fleshed out and has a personality.  With his father having decided that it's time he found a princess to marry, Arthur laments his fate, for every princess he had ever met was a stuck-up snob for knowing royalty.  The king decides to throw a masquerade party so that Arthur may meet a princess in disguise to see their true character and hopefully fall in love.

Thank goodness he didn't inherit his father's felt complexion.

Arthur, still weary of the prospect of marrying a princess, blows off some steam in the royal gardens and chats with his good friend, Kermit the Frog (who is officially a frog for the first time on screen).  Kermit lends him some advice, but mostly wallows in self-pity at the fact that he is treated like a lower class citizen for being a frog.

He's got his frog collar and everything.

Suddenly, straying from the original story even more, Cinderella comes to the garden and meets the prince well before the ball.  Since the prince is dressed in his gardening clothes, she doesn't recognize him for being royalty and the two form a fast bond.  Arthur appreciates her for being down to earth, unlike any snobby princess.  He realizes that he must invite her to the ball so that he may be allowed to choose her as his bride.  After convincing his father to extend the invitations to the whole kingdom, he arranges with Cinderella to each wear a geranium from the garden so that they may spot each other at the ball.  Unfortunately, the king decides to give each citizen a geranium as his gift to them for attending his party.

Geraniums for all!

Cinderella's wicked stepmother and Muppet stepsisters receive their invitations to the ball, and tell Cinderella that she would be unable to come if she doesn't have a proper dress, shoes, or a carriage to arrive in.  However, due to their wording, they never explicitly forbid her from attending the ball.

And sometimes I forget which one is not a Muppet.

After they leave, Cinderella frets in despair as she'll never get to meet the prince, or see her new friend Arthur either.  As luck would have it, her Fairy Godmother appears, after having spent the first half of the special performing shoddy magic tricks at a comedy club.

"What's the deal with magic carpet food?"

See, this Fairy Godmother has great trouble performing magic.  Fortunately for the story to progress, she manages to conjure a pretty dress, some glass slippers, and finally turns her pumpkin into a carriage.

Also, Splurge is involved.  Some things are best left for you to discover on your own.

Giant, purple things.

Cinderella makes her way to the ball with Kermit as her coachman (frogs weren't invited, you see).  And tries to track down Arthur the gardener.  Prince Arthur also tries to find Cinderella, and, knowing that she is a commoner, expects her to be wearing a, to put it mildly, "non-fancy" dress.  The two run into each other anyway, but are unable to recognize each other.  The prince introduces himself as the prince and assumes that Cinderella is a princess.  They dance together anyway, making the best of a bad situation.

We hope you have a huge suspension of disbelief in order for this plot to work.

At midnight, just before the masks are to be taken off, Cinderella leaves so that her magic outfit doesn't vanish.  She leaves behind a glass slipper, and Arthur, chasing after her to catch her name, steps on the slipper and crushes it!

What a twist!

Well, now, anything can happen.  Sure, some liberties had been taken with the story before, but now a major plot point has literally been pulverized!  What follows is what makes this a more politically correct version of the story.  The king, having decided that the mystery princess from the ball should wed his son, sends out a message, seeking her out so that they may be married.  Cinderella, realizes that she is the one everyone is looking for, but she doesn't want to marry the Prince even if she did have a nice time with him.  It wouldn't be fair to Arthur the gardener.

How's that for a modern take on the classic tale?

Months pass and eventually, the king realizes that the princess must be hiding.  He sends Arthur to look for her at Cinderella's house (since that'd been the last place one would expect to find a princess).  There, the Prince and Cinderella finally meet and she learns the truth that he was the gardener all along.  She tries to prove that she was the princess, but all she has left is the other glass slipper and her dog Rufus buried it.

Oh yeah, Rufus is in this.  Remember?  From The Land of Tinkerdee and The Muppet Valentine's Show?

Eventually, the Fairy Godmother shows up to set things straight and...sends Cinderella off to Kansas.  After multiple failed attempts to bring her back (and summoning every other character into the house), Cinderella finally reappears in her famous dress.

And they all lived happily ever after.

The special did a great job of combining that Muppet humor with a classic story.  The characters were well-developed, more so than the Disney version that would have been fresh on people's minds at the time.  In watching the special, I legitimately forgot that half of the cast were Muppets because their interactions with the human characters are so seamless.  For an audience seeing this in 1969 for the first time (before Sesame Street), this would have been their big introduction to the Muppet world.  Although the Muppets mostly played supporting roles, their influence was all over the show.  The popularity of this special would warrant a couple more returns to "Muppetland" as more fairy tales were brought to life with their own Henson flavor.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Tinkerdee: The Lost Land of Henson

When looking at behind-the-scenes information on your favorite works of entertainment, it's always interesting to see the "what-could-have-beens."  Due to certain changes or decisions, iconic moments are made.  Anything can end up on the cutting room floor, both good and bad.  Going through Henson's history reveals a lot of projects that could have defined his career had they made it past the planning stages.  Today's feature was Henson's first attempt at a 30-minute television show.  And had it been prosperous, the most famous Muppet wouldn't have been Kermit the Frog, or even Rowlf the Dog.

It would have been the witch, Taminella Grinderfall.

The lovable anti-hero.

In 1962, Henson wanted to move away from commercials and 5-minute skits.  He had always wanted is very own show, and, with his writing partner Jerry Juhl, he created Tales of the Tinkerdee.

The show was to be a standard puppet show by way of Rocky and Bullwinkle or the Marx Brothers.  Despite being set in a typical fairy tale setting, the dialogue would be fast and witty, the plots would be complicated and farcical, and every episode would be complete madness.  The only familiar character returning to the show was Kermit, who served the role of wandering minstrel and narrator.

He also sang every single line, which wasn't as annoying as it sounds.

The rest of the cast was your standard fable fare: a king, his royal advisor, the fair princess, a witch, and her ogre henchman.  The two-dimensional castle and forest sets seem to have been pulled straight from a picture book.  But this is where the fantastical similarities stopped.  Everything else was pure comedy.  And it was hilarious.  The full pilot can be viewed on YouTube here.

Watch it now.

Welcome back.

The story seems to have been based on the backstory for Sleeping Beauty, where the local witch is upset at not being invited to the princess's birthday party.  However, in this tale, the witch Taminella spends the entire time with her castle heist in order to steal the gifts.  And even though the witch is technically our villain, we can't help but root for her because she is such an interesting and funny character.  Henson and Juhl have purposefully made King Goshposh an idiot, Princess Gwendolina a ditz, and the Prime Minister a weakling, so we want to see Taminella succeed as much as possible.

They also made the Prime Minister look like a squashed Scooter.  And gave him Droopy Dog's voice.

Taminella seems to have been the mother of today's popular despicable characters.  Characters like South Park's Eric Cartman or the horrid cast of It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia are well-received because their disregard for morality allows them to a) get away with a lot more humor and b) be enjoyable whether they win or lose.  We don't care whether the birthday party is ruined.  We just want to see the antics of Taminella and her ogre Charlie.

Don't know whose legs those are, but that "Ooooch!" is a great catchphrase.

And what hijinks they get into!  For a "simple" fairy tale, things get complicated quickly as Taminella must keep track of multiple disguises, spells, and the locations of every character.  The fact that so much humor can be extracted from a simple closet door proves that some real comedic talent was that the wheels of this project.  Eventually the plot became secondary to the show and you just want to see how farfetched the situation can get with everyone running around, foiling each other's plans.

The black-and-white film adds another layer of confusion.  Are we looking at the princess in her statue form?

Due to the overly complicated plot and lack of foreseeable longevity, the series was never picked up.  A second attempt was made, called The Land of Tinkerdee.  This included a human host, a dog named Rufus, and a much barer setting.  This was more like your standard puppet show and...it was definitely lacking in the original's charm.  King Goshposh returned, but there wasn't any whimsy.


Without Taminella, the new show fell flat.  Ultimately, Rowlf was picked up to be the co-star of The Jimmy Dean Show, which kept Henson busy for a while.  But in some alternate universe, Taminella became the main Muppet star that she should have been.  We'll continue to look at the Muppet fairy tale specials that were the extension of this land of Tinkerdee this wekk.  Kermit, Goshposh, and Taminella would all come back, playing more traditional roles.  Taminella especially will become a cruel villain, rather than a lovable troublemaker.  This would not bode well for her popularity.


And she made such a good Santa Claus, too.

Friday, July 20, 2012

The Moonworm

43 years ago today, man first walked on the moon.  Four months later, Sesame Street premiered.  1969 was a big year.  It's a shame that Sesame Street barely missed witnessing one of the most important historical events of the century.  So, in 1998, the show decided to stage its own version of the moon landing so that it's characters may experience the splendor that was man walking on the moon.

We've already seen one character achieve lunar orbit, and we've learned that the moon is no place to live, but that wasn't enough.  The second half of Season 29 was devoted to one character's trip to the moon.  Even though the original Apollo 11 took 8 days total, this character was so small that the voyage took 5 months.  Yes, one lowly worm managed to travel almost 239,000 miles away from the Earth, going where no worm has gone before.

In a tiny, tiny spacesuit.

Slimey was Oscar the Grouch's pet worm and the only creature he would voluntarily be nice towards.  When Slimey first saw the moon, he became to enamored with it that he would stay up all night just watching it.  Oscar decided he would help Slimey achieve is dreams of one day walking on the moon.

Looking through a tiny, tiny telescope.

After going through WASA training, Slimey rose to the head of the group, with his abilities to withstand the pressures that space travel would place on him.  Finally, he left orbit, with a tearful goodbye from Oscar.  And while they hit a few snags along the way...

...such as hitting the "Wrong Way" button with their bowling ball, forcing them to go outside to fix the problem...

...Slimey and his team finally made it to the moon.  Many episodes chronicled this journey, but Tony Bennett was kind enough to summarize the trip in a single song, "Slimey to the Moon."  Womp womp.


After collecting as much space dirt as they could handle, the worms headed back home.  Their module was supposed to land in the Atlantic Ocean, but thanks to the Count summoning a thunderstorm when he began counting down for their return, the spacecraft veered off course, heading straight toward Sesame Street.

Fortunately, they had a bucket full of water handy to catch them, just like the Apollo 11 mission.

Back safe and sound, Slimey greeted his dear friend Oscar, who had been worried about him, yet also proud of him, causing a slew of new emotions he had often avoided.  Slimey presented Oscar with a picture of the Earth from the moon, and Oscar finally saw things in a new perspective.

Such a tiny, tiny Earth.

The original moon landing was the stuff of legends.  The world stopped that day as everyone can remember exactly where they were when it occurred.  For the inhabitants of Sesame Street, they were able to relive that piece of history.  By choosing their tiniest member to be their representative, it proved that size doesn't matter when it comes to fulfilling your dreams.  The universe can make you feel really small.  But that didn't intimidate Slimey.  It empowered him, giving him the courage to achieve the unthinkable.  Never underestimate the little guy.

What a tiny, tiny conqueror.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

No More Superheroes

Superheroes are our modern myths.  At least, they were.  People with superhuman abilities who could do no wrong were once the ideal heroes for modern culture.  They surfaced and gained prominence during World War II, partly because comic books were cheap to make, and partly because they featured simple stories of good triumphing over evil.  Superheroes weren't people we related to.  They were people we wanted to become.

As time progressed, superheroes behaved less like almighty gods and more liked flawed human beings.  It was as if a gigantic tonal shift had occurred.  And this wasn't just present in the comics.  Take The Muppet Show episode featuring Lynda Carter as the guest star.  At the time, she had just completed five years of portraying DC's Wonder Woman on television and she was ready for a break.  Unlike Mark Hamill, who appeared in character as Luke Skywalker, or Christopher Reeve, who denied he was Superman yet displayed Superman's powers in his episode, Carter did not appear as her iconic character throughout the entire episode.  She left that to the pig.

Wonder Woman's going to be on The Muppet Show?!  I hope they don't just put Miss Piggy in the costume!

The subplots of this episode feature each Muppet wanting to be a superhero, while the actual "superhero" just wants to be a regular person. Scooter orders a manual on how to be a superhero and soon everybody is dressed in silly costumes, attempting to lift heavy objects and see through walls. And they fail miserably.

Well, what do you expect from a hand-drawn pamphlet?
  
Meanwhile, Miss Piggy, envious of Kermit's potential attraction to Carter, tries to make Carter jealous by playing Wonder Woman better than her (and looking better in the suit while she's at it). Carter clearly doesn't care about Miss Piggy's antics, and just humors her. This brings us to the centerpiece of the episode, "Wonder Pig," where Miss Piggy fights a giant chicken. This is still The Muppet Show, remember?

 

Backstage, the rest of the cast continues their education and Scooter eventually convinces them to climb up a tall ladder and leap off, ensuring that they will fly if they just believe in themselves.

  
This ends poorly.

This is exactly the kind of behavior that injured many children back in the past. Children who wanted to be their heroes so badly that they would leap off their houses, expecting to soar around the sky. As dangerous as it was, it showed how powerful these fictional superheroes truly were. The reason so many superhero movies get made today is because today's adults were once those foolish children, running around their backyard in a cape. Even though all of Scooter's attempts at gaining superpowers fails, he still managed to warrant an action figure made in this get-up.

Complete with a dangerous ladder and everything!

This is an action figure celebrating the childish fanboy. Everyone wants an action figure of themselves, and here one is, for all intents and purposes. This is us. Or rather, was us.

For the shows finale, Lynda Carter sings "Orange Colored Sky." It is her chance to just be who she wants to be. Not a hero, just Lynda. But that doesn't stop the Muppets from interrupting her song with their futile attempts at being superheroes.

  

In the end, Lynda just can't escape it. She was one of the lucky few who got as close to being a superhero than any of us could ever dream of. She wanted to present her "real" self, but it was too late. She was Wonder Woman, and always would be. And she would have to take the good with the bad.

Embrace the truth!  Accept reality!

Today, our superheroes have been humanized. We no longer see movies with "purely good" heroes. We expect some reality in our fantasy. We need character flaws. It helps us relate to our protagonists, and it gives us something to root for. As I've mentioned before, the Muppets were born to fail. That's why we like them. And that's why we appreciate their behavior in this episode. They want to be the best and cannot achieve it at all. Perfection is an impossibility. We need imperfect heroes to remind us of that.

By being a worse Wonder Woman, she was a better Wonder Woman.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

The Museum of the Mind

As soon as you give something a name, you endow it with limitations.  You start to relate it to similar ideas and topics, and from there you develop categories.  Soon, in order to determine what does or does not belong in the category, you create rules, based on the similarities.  Some things are included, some things are excluded, and everything begins to feel smaller.

We feel comfortable with labels and categories because it keeps us organized.  Our entire education is based on the concept of labels and categories.  We go to museums that focus on single topics, such as Natural History or Space or Technology, and there we can learn more about whatever it is that piques our interest.

One day, our furry, lovable pal Grover took a trip to a museum that changed his life: the Everything in the Whole Wide World Museum.

This is going to take a while.

This strange building has multiple rooms, each with a sign that states what is to be found inside that room.  Grover decides to begin with the "Things You See In the Sky Room," featuring planes, balloons, rockets, and birds.  There are no descriptions about these items, just simple name cards.  He moves on to the next room ("Things You See On the Ground") and we realize, that's it!  Hope you enjoyed that first room with birds and planes because you aren't going to see them again for the rest of the trip.

Well, one more bird appears, I suppose.

Each room follows the same pattern.  Grover opens door after door of "Things That Are [Adjective]" and continues his path.  But things take a turn for the weird(er) when he discovers a carrot in the "Long Thin Things You Can Write With" room.  He realizes that the carrot is out of place and moves it to the lone, barren, "Carrot Room."

Why?  Why is this a room?  Why is there a lone light bulb?

This is the second most important page in the book.  The carrot stands alone.  It isn't in the "Vegetable Room" or the "Things That Are Orange" room.  It's just a bare, windowless room with a pedestal for one solitary carrot.  What makes it scarier is Grover's assurances that "this is where it belongs."  It has no reason to co-exist with other objects.  It gets a room all by itself.

This is labeling at it's worst.  When we decide that things must adhere to their labels because it is "right," things start to get very tricky indeed.  This idea takes hold of Grover as he then starts to search for where other things "belong."  His next task involves moving a heavy boulder out of the "Hall of Very, Very Light Things."

 Oh, Sisyphus.

Why were these items misplaced anyway?  Who is running this establishment?  Clearly, the museum was trying to make a point about relativity.  While the boulder may be heavy to Grover, others may consider it to be very, very light.  Why must things conform to Grover's way of thinking?

It suddenly becomes so clear.  This isn't an actual structure.  We are looking at the inner workings of Grover's mind.  He is the one deciding what belongs in which category.  And, being the addle-brained character he is, he must sort that which gets misplaced.  The human brain works like a computer database.  We store related memories in "compartments" that are tangentially related, which allows us to recall things with great speed.  Although it may be incorrect to label certain ideas in public, our brain must do this in order to make sense of the world.

Even Grover must eventually find a category for himself.  He settles on the "Things That Are Cute and Furry" room because, hey, he's the star attraction in his own mind.

But even Grover knows that it is impossible to think about everything in the whole wide world.  He can sort and compartmentalize all day long and he still has an infinite number of things to process.  So, what does he put in the last "room"?  Why, "Everything Else" of course!

Also known as the exit.

The whole world cannot be confined in a neat, little package, no matter how hard we try.  The universe is too big, new items are created every day, new people are born with their own set of ideas, and at a certain point we just have to stop labeling and start experiencing.