I first heard about The Muppet Man last December when it received a great deal of publicity due to its appearance at the top of the fabled “Black List.” The list, which has become something of a big deal, is an annual ranking of that year’s best unproduced scripts circulating around Hollywood. Making the list is now a badge of honor for screenwriters, and sometimes leads to high-profile pickups for scripts that are spotlighted.
The Muppet Man made news not only for its growing buzz as a screenplay, but for its content; it’s an unconventional biopic of Muppet creator Jim Henson, interspersing scenes from Henson’s life with vignettes from the Muppet world. Even stranger, it was written on spec by unknown young screenwriter Christopher Weekes without permission from the Henson family – pretty much guaranteeing that it would never be filmed unless it miraculously received the Hensons’ approval.
Oddly enough, the Henson company purchased rights to the script, but development remains at a standstill due to those ol’ “creative differences.” The problem is that Weekes wrote this biographical film without any knowledge whatsoever about Henson or his life save for what he could glean from Wikipedia and similar sources. It’s a biography rooted in speculation, so perhaps unsurprisingly the Henson family is reluctant to film a script that depicts their patriarch’s marriage and last days from such an uninformed perspective. According to the L.A. Times, the Hensons want to lighten the tone of the film and make it a more conventional Muppet tale. For now, the script remains unproduced.
It’s always risky to judge a film solely by the script; there can be a big difference between what’s on the page and what’s on the screen, and reading a script is simply a much different experience. I feel safe talking about The Muppet Man, though, because not only will it probably never actually be filmed, but it’s also so laden with cliche that no amount of visual whiz-bangery could enliven the more leaden elements of the screenplay.
I find myself despairing for Hollywood if The Muppet Man truly represents the best unproduced screenplay in town. At its core, it’s a very rote by-the-numbers biopic that’s straight out of “Misunderstood Creative Type” 101; you’ve already seen most of it a thousand times before. While there are elements of the story that provide a momentary spark or indicate interesting directions in which the film could go, these threads are quickly ignored or abandoned. In effect, the script reads like a checklist of Henson’s accomplishments and any interesting examination or introspection about the man is eschewed in favor of moving along to check another item off the list.
I’m an enormous fan of Henson and the Muppets, but I never knew anything about his private life or the creative process behind the development of the Muppet films and shows. This script certainly doesn’t shed much light on the man or his creations, a situation made worse when you realize that what vignettes that are shown are probably completely fabricated.
The script – the draft I read was dated August of 2008 – interweaves three basic storylines. The first follows Henson through the days before his death in 1990. These scenes serve to link a series of flashbacks that begin with Henson’s high school days in the 1950s and carry through to his successes as he builds his company in the 60s and 70s. A third storyline bookends the film, and takes place within the surreal Muppet world of “Moo York City.”
These Muppet sequences are, perhaps unsurprisingly, receiving the most attention for their “edgy” overtones. They follow a grizzled, middle-aged Kermit the Frog as he attempts to cope with Miss Piggy’s marriage to another. The sight-gag heavy world of Moo York is strongly reminiscent of Toontown from Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, and we come to learn that Kermit and Piggy’s alienation is intended to mirror the real-world separation of Henson and his wife Jane.
But while these scenes might get the most press, the majority of the film is spent in the “real” world. The scenes from 1990 follow Henson as he becomes progressively more ill, rebuffing the constant efforts of his colleagues and family to have him see a doctor. We follow Henson from New York to Los Angeles, where he does an appearance on The Arsenio Hall Show; his return to New York and subsequent trip to North Carolina, where Henson and his daughter Lisa visit his parents, follow an increasingly predictable pattern. Henson staggers around coughing, looking progressively more pale and drawn, and sleeps a lot. It’s about as entertaining as it sounds, too. Everyone he comes in contact with urges him to do two things – see a doctor, and call his wife. Despite the constant repetition of these exhortations, Henson does neither until it’s too late.
In fact, the gist of the film seems to be that everything would have just been OK had Henson called his wife. The flashbacks are filled with instances of people telling him to call Jane, which he never seems to do. Their marriage never seems to have any clear-cut conflict; he doesn’t fool around, he’s a good father, and his work demands aren’t portrayed as any more unreasonable than any other filmmaker. Yet throughout their marriage, Jane is by turns supportive and a flight risk; she cries – a lot – and tends to walk out on Henson with little provocation.
The bulk of the film takes place in flashbacks, which is unfortunate as those are the script’s weakest points. Young Henson is an affable oddball with a straightlaced father who just doesn’t understand Henson’s puppetry shenanigans. The whole setup is well-worn, to say the least – Henson gets pressured into dating a girl, takes out the pretty blonde who is initially put off by his social awkwardness, and he forces her to go see a monster movie while remaining completely unaware of her indifference. Later, when Henson meets his future wife at college, she’s dating – wait for it – a handsome jock! Even the means by which the flashbacks are introduced is creakily familiar; a character in the present day says something unexpected, Henson is shocked, and – surprise – we find out that the person who was speaking is now someone completely different, and we’re now in a flashback.
The cliches don’t end there. There are several scenes of Henson performing his early routines for skeptical executives or television crews, only to win them over immediately with his antics. There are cigar-chomping agents and businessmen, all of whom call Henson “kid” and “Jimbo” and speak in absurd showbiz patois. There’s the initial thrill of a first major success, followed immediately by a return home and – wait – are those police lights flashing in front of Henson’s house?
Weekes even uses, repeatedly, the oldest trick in the book for these biopics – the idea of “spontaneously” creating some famous idea/skit/character/song from random stimuli in the environment. The grouchy waiter at a dirty diner Henson visits is named Oscar? I bet we’ll be seeing that name again! Henson’s son is scared of monsters? What if this new character Grover is scared of monsters too? These vignettes might be true for all I know, but they’re all presented in such a gimmicky way that it stretches credibility.
Perhaps these cliches are so much more apparent because the Muppet films, especially The Muppets Take Manhattan, are themselves intentional spoofs of the “let’s put on a show!” tradition of corny old showbiz films. To take those same cigar-chomping cliches and repeat them creates some sort of feedback loop, as the script about Henson seems to rip off Henson’s own spoofs of hoary Hollywood tropes. There’s no deconstruction or synthesis in Weekes’s script, merely emulation.
But aside from the by-the-book personal tragedies and relationship difficulties, Henson’s professional rise is depicted as nothing less than meteoric. Everyone is immediately won over by his work; there are many scenes of studio crews reduced to hysterics and “rolling” with laughter as he performs. Even the Muppeteers themselves aren’t immune; any time we see the Muppets filming, Henson and his staff can barely keep themselves from cracking up at their own material. There are really no hindrances to his success; everything Henson wants to do, he pretty much gets to do. At times this makes him seem flighty, as we really get no reason for why he’ll suddenly want to do serious art or installation pieces, and then decide to go film children’s programming. There’s no insight; again, you just feel as if the screenwriter is ticking off accomplishments from a list without knowing why the decisions were ever made.
When Henson succeeds, though, he really succeeds – I don’t think there’s a single television set in the entire movie that isn’t tuned to one of his shows. At one point Henson looks out the window of his flat to see a number of other apartments, all full of children watching Sesame Street. In 1990, Henson awakes to find a television airing a 24-hour marathon of The Muppet Show. Trust me, if a television station in North Carolina had been airing 24-hour marathons of The Muppet Show in 1990 I would have known about it.
The most successful elements of the film are those where the human and Muppet worlds collide. In the start of the film, one worries that these moments will become irritating. They’re introduced as a series of Henson’s delusions, where a Muppet will come up to him and say something unexpected and – surprise! – he realizes it’s actually a member of his staff or one of his friends. Henson’s continued bewilderment in these moments makes them merely repetitious instead of interesting. Then, instead of using the Muppet interactions as a useful narrative conceit, the script proceeds to mostly forget about them for huge chunks of time.
The Muppets – mostly Kermit – do show up randomly throughout Henson’s life, mainly serving to mirror significant moments in his relationship with Jane. There’s very little interaction between the human and Muppet characters, though; an entire musical number is staged around Henson after he successfully proposes to Jane, yet neither of them notice. The entire concept of Kermit as an avatar for Henson is limited to the Frog sitting at Jim’s side during these moments, while Jane is mirrored by Miss Piggy. This would be ok, and could be quite amusing, if it weren’t always just a bit too on-the-nose. It doesn’t help that most of these montages – and there are a lot of montages in this film – are set to various songs from the Muppet films. What’s more, they’re deliberately staged to mimic those specific scenes from the original films. The end effect of this, at least from reading the screenplay, is to make me want to put down the script and turn on one of the Muppet films. Callbacks and references are one thing, but this is often straight-up mimicry. The more successful Muppet moments are when the worlds blend together in a less referential and more surreal manner, such as when Henson and his wife are shown their new apartment in New York by a couple of Muppet realtors.
The best bits come towards the end of the script, which is probably no surprise since these scenes best match actual events. It’s obvious that Henson’s death would be poignant and affecting, and it seems so much more tragic due to its sheer unnecessary and preventable nature. In fact, I wasn’t at all sure that I wanted to read a script or watch a film that focused on these events. After all, one could make a pretty fascinating biography of Walt Disney, but I wouldn’t want it to be based solely on those last few weeks of him skulking around the studio coughing loudly.
Strange, then, that while the film lingers too much on Henson’s declining days, it finally clicks as he’s nearing the end. The line between worlds finally breaks down, and the idea of Kermit acting as a sort of Jiminy Cricket figure for Henson finally pays off when the Frog appears at Henson’s bedside for an honest conversation between two old campaigners about mortality and their respective loves. After so much time spent on the cliched rehash of Henson’s life, this one scene shows the unexplored potential of the film. It’s good – and it make me re-think entirely the potential of making a film about Henson.
Henson’s death and the subsequent memorial are, as expected, incredibly affecting. This is most likely due to the fact that it was lifted wholecloth from the actual events – you can even find footage of the real service on YouTube, and the script copies it nearly verbatim. The whole thing wraps up with a postscript in the Muppet world – after all, as Kermit says, you can’t end the film on such a down note – but like so much else in the script a good idea is spoilt by a lack of focus. Kermit, inspired by Jim’s actions, wrenches Piggy from the arms of her self-absorbed new love; there’s a wedding, and the events culminate with a Muppet version of Jim Henson arriving to join them for a final number. This is almost the perfect way to end such a film – Muppet Henson and all his creations in a sort of puppety Valhalla – but there’s too much going on. There’s the wedding, and then Animal goes nuts and tears down the church, then they’re on a soundstage, and there’s rainbows and singing… it’s just too much, and it muddles the message.
That’s pretty much the problem with the entire film. What are we supposed to take away from this? See a doctor? Call your wife? Don’t be such a creative genius or your wife will leave you? Subjects float in the background but are never meaningfully addressed – Henson’s desire to simultaneously be a serious artist and a entertainer of the masses, the commercialization and corporatization of his productions, and the urge to innovate vs. the push to repeat past successes would all be fodder for an interesting screenplay. Other key events in Henson’s life, such as his plans to sell his company to Disney and increase his creative activities, are ignored completely. And, in the end, who was Henson? Aside from finding out that he was a quiet, nice guy who was really creative (which we already knew), there’s not a lot to walk away with.
The idea behind The Muppet Man is sound. Perhaps that’s why the Henson company wound up buying the script; a complete rewrite that retains the successful concepts of the current script could be quite enjoyable. What’s inexplicable, though, is how this script is receiving so much attention in Hollywood for being a dark and edgy look at Henson, when in fact its observations seem facile and one feels that it barely scratches the surface of what might have made the man so truly fascinating. That’s a script that I’d like to see.
Special thanks to you-know-who-you-are…