The Muppets may be puppets, but The Belcourt's new screening series shows they're as real as any bickering Hollywood B-listers 

Deeply Felt

Deeply Felt

I have a friend whose 7-year-old daughter hates the Muppets. I mean, ol’ girl can’t stand ‘em.

Every time I bring up the late Jim Henson’s prized creations, she recoils in agony. This makes absolutely no sense to me. One of the winning strengths of this crew of puppet personalities is that they’re disarmingly lovable. Even when they’re at their most schticky and/or schmaltzy, these talking pieces of felt can still win you over with their innate charm, whether you’re a kid or an adult. Hell, I’m pushing 40, and I still get giddy whenever I see these things in action.

The Muppets have always been more clever and sophisticated than they let on. In that respect, Kermit, Miss Piggy, Fozzie et al. remind me of the half-assed D-listers who populated the SCTV Network — a bunch of self-conscious, marginally talented, wannabe celebs who hope that the spotlight doesn’t shine so bright on them, lest people end up seeing right through them. You could say Henson and his dedicated crew of puppeteers (which included longtime collaborator and future filmmaker Frank Oz) mocked the insecurity, pettiness and ego-tripping that comes with being a celebrity way before savvy celebrities started doing it themselves. (Honestly, didn’t The Muppet Show lay down the backstabbing backstage groundwork The Larry Sanders Show would later be critically hailed for?)

Henson and Co.’s flair for surrealism and satire found a proper platform when the Muppets hit the big screen. The Belcourt understands this, which explains in part why the theater is hosting Saturday-morning screenings of four Muppets movies this month. (There's also the motivator that Muppets Most Wanted made a bunch of money at the box office earlier this year, proving that Muppets will always be popular — and profitable.)

From the fourth-wall-breaking asides to the myriad meta detours in the script (which literally pops up every so often in their 1979 debut The Muppet Movie, screening 10 a.m. Saturday), the Muppets never stopped reminding audiences that they were watching a movie. By watching the movie, you participate in the highly entertaining anarchy.

Ironically, as much as these characters showcased the fakery that comes with making movies, Henson and his crew refused to make their repertory out to be one-note caricatures. They might be puppets, but dammit, they had layers! There’s a scene in the 1981 follow-up The Great Muppet Caper (June 21), where perpetually on-again/off-again couple Kermit and Miss Piggy bicker over something. Kermit breaks character to remind Miss Piggy that she’s overacting. More bickering ensues (Piggy: “I have a career of my own!” Kermit: “I know all about your career, pig!”) until Piggy turns her back to the camera and starts sobbing. “I’m doing my best,” she tells a consoling Kermit. It’s quite the multi-dimensional moment for two characters who literally do not exist until someone shoves a hand up their backside. BTW, if you don’t get misty-eyed a bit when the pair walk down the aisle at the end of 1984’s The Muppets Take Manhattan (June 14), you’re more inanimate than they are.

It’s not surprising that these Muppets often give better, more realized performances than the guest stars who pepper these flicks, often hamming it up more than Miss Piggy ever would. Even Jason Segel, who co-wrote and co-starred in the 2011 reboot The Muppets (June 28), seemed to be slumming because he knew they’d blown him out of the water. And that’s what makes the Muppets continually relevant and eternally enjoyable: They may be fake to some, but they always keep it real.

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