“The sequel’s never as good,” one character announces at the beginning of Muppets Most Wanted, this year’s follow-up to the successful reboot of the universe in which regular humans and fuzzy puppets with a flair for theater co-exist and sing each other songs.* The comment is typical of the Muppet world: self-denigrating, aware of its own artifice, heading off criticism by getting there first. After all, what other show features two prominent characters like Statler and Waldorf, who are devoted entirely to telling the main cast how bad they are?
This is a central part of the Muppet charm. The Muppets have always yearned to be glamorous—Miss Piggy is the ur-text—while never quite getting there. In doing so, they represent a particular show-biz type: the schlocky entertainer, the one whose act is always five years behind the times (really, Fozzie? Fart shoes?), but they keep plugging away, winning you over with their willingness to sacrifice all for their fellow performers. The Muppets were always more than co-workers—they were family. That’s why 2011’s The Muppets worked so beautifully. With one nod in the direction of Hollywood glamour (mostly tarnished), and one toward Midwestern notions of kinship, it united the goofy aspirations and loving heart of the Muppet company. We didn’t realize how much we missed them.
Alas, about the sequel, they were correct. It felt less, in some basic way, even with several charming sequences and Tina Fey finding her inner Russian. Afterward, I dashed a note off to the world via Facebook: The difference between the current Muppet movie and the previous one is the difference between plot and story.
Turns out, I had it botched. How goofy Muppet of me! Gonzo about to perform the ladder trick. Well-meaning and about to fall from a great height. The E.M. Forster line, from Aspects of the Novel, in fact, goes like this:
“The king died and then the queen died” is a story.
“The king died and then the queen died of grief” is a plot.
For Forster, building on Aristotle, story is the bare record of events. Plot is a bigger term. It includes a certain element of mystery, an animating element. “If it is in a story we say: ‘And then?’” Forster tell us. “If it is in a plot we ask: ‘Why?’” Plot injects a sense of causality and force. Things become complicated, emotional, difficult to understand in the best possible way. (In the same paragraph, by the way, Forster also writes, “A plot cannot be told to a gaping audience of cave-men or…to their modern descendant, the movie-public.” Well, we’ll show him!)
One thing we call plot; Another thing we call story. It doesn’t matter all that much, really. These are just word choices. The genius of Forster’s famous observation actually resides at the very end, with the manner of the queen’s death. She died of grief.
Don’t we all. I wrote recently about the core role of desire in constructing a plot, but now I think that’s maybe only half the story. Per Newton’s laws of physics, grief is the equal and opposite force from desire. Throw a ball against the floor. The ball is our desire, rising back up again. Grief is the thing we slam against.
The core problem with Muppets Most Wanted is that it contains no grief. In the new movie, the Muppets are back, with the world no longer needing to mourn their absence. Miss Piggy, too, has returned, filling that pork-shaped hole in Kermit’s chest. Yes, things are happening—shows are being staged and crimes are being solved—but it all just feels like objects in motion staying in motion. Kermit gets shipped off to a gulag, but, notably, he doesn’t seem all that sad about it. (The ongoing complexities of a frog-pig relationship.)
Compare this with the previous film, which for all its wit and pleasure is built on a platform of grief: Walter’s grief. Walter, you may recall, is a short, properly-dressed Muppet with a very tall older brother in the form of Jason Segal. Despite an almost-impossibly cheery home setting, a sense of grief and loss surrounds Walter’s life: the recognition of the tiny space he occupies in the world, the impending loss of his brother to marriage, and most of all, the disappearance of the Muppets, the only other beings—seen in flickering television images—who are fully like him. When he takes his long-awaited trip to Los Angeles, he is confronted with more loss, in the form of the shuttered Muppets theater, in Kermit’s dark, lonely home (with the scattered Muppets in framed portraits on the wall, like memorials), in Kermit’s rolodex of stars who are dead or forgotten.
That’s where Walter comes in, to give them all a reason to redeem that grief. And that’s the space in which the Muppets are best suited. Their charm has always been less about their talents as entertainers than it is about their devotion to the idea that the show must go on. No matter how deep the loss, how small the audience, how bad the routine, they support each other. Together they start the music. Together they light the lights.
Walter goes west out of grief. But he does not die. Muppet-like, he lives.
* The quotation above is correct in sense but may be slightly off in wording. I had planned to take copious notes during the film, but I had to refill my son’s popcorn, and gummi bears needed to be opened.