Thursday, November 17, 2011

Imitation, Innovation, Imagination

It has been said that nothing can be original anymore.  As a species we have produced so much that we have begun to repeat ourselves multiple times over.  This belief is very popular in the criticism of pop culture as a whole.  The majority of mainstream films are either sequels, remakes, or adaptations of an existing work.  On television, the shows that survive are those that are most similar to what preceded them (in both scripted and non-scripted formats).  Pop music is filled with remixes and samples, repeating age old themes that have been sung about many, many times before.

While all of this may be true, what perplexes me is why we consider unoriginality to be a negative affliction on creativity.  When you think about it, no creation, no thought can be truly original.

Every idea is the result of an inspiration.  Great inventors sought to solve problems that afflicted us.  Early painters recorded life as they saw it.  The very first written stories were based off of oral traditions that had been passed down from generation to generation.  If you look at any creation, you can trace it's genealogy based on the factors that influenced its conception.  Just as matter and energy cannot be created from nothing, neither can ideas.

As we grow older, we receive more information for our brain to process.  By establishing connections between concepts that had not previously been connected, we can create items that seem new and original.  But this is a process that takes time.  While children possess the ability to immerse themselves in imaginative wonder, the products of their playtime are about as unoriginal as one can get.

The writers of Muppet Babies understood this aspect about pre-school aged children.  In watching children play make believe, they really are just imitating what they have experienced before.  Playing "house" involves mimicking parents while playing "doctor" or "cops and robbers" illustrates their limited understanding of these professions.  But for more abstract and fantastical games, children just straight up copy the stories of pop culture.  For people my age, a common playground activity was playing "Power Rangers" or "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles."  The game always followed the same pattern.  Kids would fight over who got to be their favorite hero and one kid would always object to being cast as the villain.  They knew from repeated observations that the villain always loses.  As a result, everyday objects like trees and bushes would have to play the bad guys.

The same event would happen with popular movies.  Once it was settled who would be playing the lead character (there was always going to be at least three Aladdins), the story would play out as best as the children could remember it.  Little effort was spent towards creating something new.  Toddlers could only repeat and regurgitate what was given to them.

While Muppet Babies often followed this pattern for its episodes, the best example of this style of play was "Gonzo's Video Show."  The babies are allowed to play with a video camera and they decide to make a movie.  After much deliberation, it is decided that they should pick a movie that has a lot of parts already: Star Wars!

The relationship between the Muppet and Star Wars franchises is almost symbiotic.

Very little is altered from the original story, to the best of the kids' abilities.  Skeeter and Scooter play C-3P0 and R2D2 respectively.  But when Scooter talks to his sister, she reprimands him for not speaking in beeps and boops.  Later on, Piggy recreates Princess Leia's distress signal, yet addresses it to Luke Skywalker (since Kermit is playing that role).  She is reminded that the movie doesn't go like that and she objects saying this is how she wants the movie to go.

While the babies of the show usually behave like miniature adults, they truly capture what it is like to be a child at playtime.  They try their best to stick to the rules as mandated by familiarity.

Another staple of Muppet Babies that everyone remembers is the incorporation of live-action footage with the cartoons.  Sometimes there were just still photographs or stock footage.  Other times it was clips from old films and television shows in the public domain.  But for this episode, clips from Star Wars are actually used, interspersed with the movie that the children make.  (It is this technique that has prevented Muppet Babies from ever receiving a full series DVD release.  With about 5-10 clips from various sources used in each of the 100+ episodes, figuring out copyright issues would be a nightmare!)

Sure, just stick in scenes from the biggest blockbuster of all time.  The future won't mind.

While this hurts reproductions of the show as a whole, the live footage was necessary to complete the world that the Muppet Babies lived in.  Their imaginations were so powerful that they were able to immerse themselves in whatever world they conjured up.  And if that world happened to be identical to one from a movie, then that's what it is.

There comes a point in every person's life when they lose their imagination completely.  They may still be creative and have the power to envision complex universes, but they know in their hearts that what they are imagining is not true.  Children have not reached that stage yet.  Magic is still possible.

Here is the difference between an adult's imagination and a child's imagination.  As much fun as an adult has and as much as they can get caught up in the moment, they can drop it instantly when real life intervenes.  The child can't.  Reality and imagination are one and the same.

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