The original Muppet Babies series was not part of my childhood because it was on a channel that we didn’t get at my house. However, as a teenager I had a steady babysitting job and I watched Muppet Babies with those kids a lot, so I’m passingly familiar with it. And yet, that was twenty-some years ago, so it’s no longer in the forefront of my consciousness.
All of which is just to say that, as I review the new Muppet Babies series (or, at least, the two episodes of it that I’ve seen), I won’t be making comparisons with the original series because the original series is largely lost to me in the mists of memory.
Before the reboot aired, I had some concerns about it. Essentially, I was afraid that Disney would screw it up by playing to the lowest common denominator, like they did with the 2015 series, or would concentrate too much on the flashy animation without giving it any real substance or heart. And it didn’t help that the fan sites pre-emptively started apologizing for it by helpfully pointing out that the series is intended for children, as though that were an excuse for poor quality.
Happily, in this instance my fears were largely unfounded. Based on the two episodes I’ve seen, the Muppet Babies reboot is cute and clever and funny. Is it perfect? No. Does it have flaws? Yes. It is, of course, a Disney show on a Disney channel, so obviously part of the reason it exists is to make money for Disney. And yet, it doesn’t feel manipulative or transparently commercial. It’s more substantial than that. Thus far, it seems to have the requisite amount of heart. It remembers that it’s part of a larger Muppet-verse by bringing in guest characters and sneakily adding easter eggs and making musical references, rather than trying exist in a self-contained vacuum, which would be very un-Muppet-like.
My litmus test for judging productions like this is whether or not I would be comfortable recommending it to people that I love. In this case, I probably wouldn’t recommend it to my sister’s kids because (a) they don’t get that channel, (b) the three of them are probably all beyond the targeted age demographic by now, and (c) my current negative feelings toward Disney would make me feel uncomfortable recommending anything Disney-related to them at the moment. But if I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it to them, neither would I object to them watching it. If they wanted to, and if they had access to it, I would feel entirely comfortable with them doing so.
Like a lot of kids’ cartoon shows, it is structured as roughly 24-minute episodes with two stories of approximately 12 minutes each. I watched two episodes, which means I’ve seen a total of four of the stories. I intend to review each of those four individual stories in another review, but for now, I’d just like to talk about some general impressions that I have about the show.
The animation is CGI–which, from what I’ve seen of animated kids’ shows lately, is pretty much par for the course. That’s not a criticism, by the way; just an observation. It’s a medium that works well, making the setting seem, if not realistic, then at least believable. Apparently, the goal of the animators was to make the characters seem as though the puppets themselves have come to life. For the most part they were successful, but in my opinion it’s more appropriate for some characters than for others…but I’ll get to that later.
One thing about the animation is that it allows the characters to have facial expressions that they can’t have as puppets, which can be both good and bad. For example, as a puppet, Beaker literally cannot smile because of the way his mouth is constructed, but when Baby Beaker appears on the show, it’s no hardship for the animators to turn his frown upside down, and so he is afforded a greater range of emotion which, in turn, gives him somewhat greater range as a character because it indicates to us in the audience that there are things that he enjoys. On the other hand, the animators also use Kermit’s eyes a lot to convey emotion, specifically by altering the size and shape of his pupils, and sometimes it gets to the point where you’re not thinking about the story or the emotion that’s being conveyed anymore but just thinking about what’s involved in altering the shape of Kermit’s pupils and wondering how they’re going to change next. It’s a little distracting, is what I’m saying.
Like the original series, this one involves the Muppet Babies’ use of imagination, and what is interesting about this series is that the animation style in the imagination segments seems to change for each story. For example, one story starts out with the Muppet Babies in the playroom making collages during “art time,” and then when they take their imaginary trip to Paris shortly thereafter, the imaginary settings seem to be collages themselves–with, for example, the clock in the cabin of the airplane visibly taped to the wall.
Now, of course a prominent feature of the original Muppet Babies series was the use of live-action film clips integrated into the animation. For the new series, this seems to be the exception rather than the rule. In the two episodes I watched, they only used one film clip. It was the giant rolling rock scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark. I can’t fault them for using it, since film clips were such an integral part of the original series. Nor can I fault them for the way they did it; the lighting and shading on the characters really makes them blend into the live-action footage and makes it look as though they are part of that world. Nevertheless, what should be just a fun little scene, and a fitting homage, falls flat for me, because as I watch the Muppet Babies run away from the rolling boulder, I can’t help but be reminded that Disney owns Lucasfilm. It’s like it’s screaming in my face, “Disney owns Lucasfilm now! Just in case you forgot!” (I didn’t, thanks.) Despite the skillful animation in the sequence, it doesn’t feel organic; it feels like a commercial. It’s distracting, and it takes me out of the story. It reminds me of all the stuff that I don’t like about Disney, and that I’d prefer not to be thinking about while I’m trying to enjoy Muppet Babies. So if they make a habit of using live-action footage, I hope that they’ll be judicious about it, because if it’s not serving to enhance the story, I’d prefer that they not use it at all.
The theme song is very similar to that from the original series, but the lyrics have been updated. It is performed by Renee Elise Goldsberry, who played Angelica Schuyler in the original Broadway cast of Hamilton. Obviously I can’t find any fault there.
When it comes to original music, three of the four stories that I watched included original songs, which is impressive. It’s refreshing to see so many original songs when so many kids’ shows seem to be recording one or two songs at the beginning of the series or the season and reusing them every episode. I’m not sure that Sesame Street is even doing an original song every episode any more, so any kids’ show that does is going to endear itself to me on some level.
But, of course, it’s not just the quantity of songs that matters but the quality. And in this case…well, let me illustrate my point by sharing some sample lyrics from two of the songs:
So…the good news is that if you like near-rhymes, you’re going to love the new Muppet Babies‘ music. As for me, I find the music to be, if not stellar, then solid; it gets the job done. There is also one song that’s partly written in authentic-sounding French, which is impressive. I appreciate the effort that’s clearly being put into it. And to be fair, the original Muppet Babies wasn’t necessarily the cream of the Muppet music crop either (unless you have an insatiable appetite for doo-wop, that is).
I want to talk about the characters (at least, the main characters), individually, but first I would like to talk about how they function as a group.
Drama requires conflict, and conflict can come from different places. It can come from characters disagreeing amongst themselves, or it can come from characters working together against a common antagonist. Again, I don’t remember the original Muppet Babies series in any great detail, so in this case, I defer to Joe Hennes in his Tough Pigs review when he says that the original series relied more on the former method of creating drama, while the current series relies more on the latter. But while Joe seems to consider all the positivity to be too saccharine, I find it to be refreshing.
When it comes to this particular branch of the Muppet family tree (i.e., the characters that mostly originated from The Muppet Show/movies), my concept of who they are, how they should behave, and what they represent has been shaped primarily by the movies, in which the drama tends to come more from conflict with outside adversaries than from interpersonal conflicts. So when the Muppets fight amongst themselves on The Muppet Show (or, more recently, in the 2015 series), I find it jarring and uncomfortable. Therefore, I find it refreshing that the Muppet Babies largely support and encourage one another, and give each other constructive criticism, rather than just butting heads and snarking at one another.
With that said, let’s look at the individual characters:
Fozzie: Everything about Fozzie is perfect, right down to the rotating propeller on top of his beanie. He looks exactly right, he sounds exactly right, and the animation makes him seem soft and furry and huggable. Plus, his ears wiggle. As far as I’m concerned, he’s the gold standard by which all the other characters should be measured.
Gonzo: And yet, Gonzo is probably my favorite of the main characters, which is strange for me to say, because usually Gonzo is NOT one of my favorite characters. But he easily gets the funniest lines here. He is recognizable as the Muppets’ resident weirdo, with his crazy stunts and hilarious non sequiturs. And yet, often he comes across as strangely competent, sometimes even more so than Kermit. It’s as though his unusual outlook on life gives him the ability to think outside the box and see solutions to problems that the others can’t.
Animal: While recognizably his untamed, hedonistic self, this iteration of Animal appears to have hidden depths and unsuspected emotional capacity, which is intriguing. Time will tell how well this ends up working for the character.
Miss Piggy: Needless to say, Miss Piggy is a complicated character, and it can be difficult to strike the correct balance of sweet and sour. Here they tend more toward the sweet side, which is appropriate for a kid’s show, but she’s still tough when she needs to be.
Kermit: Ohhhhhh, Kermit…where do I begin? Let’s start with the fuzz. Because the animators made a conscious decision to try to make the characters look as much as possible like their grown-up puppet counterparts, Baby Kermit is covered in fuzz. Which makes sense for a puppet made out of cloth. But Baby Kermit isn’t made out of cloth, he’s made out of pixels, which means there’s no earthly reason why he should be fuzzy. Frankly, I find it weird and distracting, but it’s a little better now that I at least know the reason for it. Other than that, and his perpetual-motion pupils, his design is very cute.
Then there’s the voice. Baby Kermit sounds exactly like Matt Vogel. Which is not a bad thing in itself. In fact, it totally makes sense and is completely logical and reasonable. And yet, it’s just difficult to get that concrete confirmation that Disney/Muppets Studio is committed to that particular course of action. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t harbor any illusions about the permanence of Steve’s dismissal, but sometimes you can know something in your head and not believe/accept it in your heart, and this has dramatically illustrated to me that my heart hasn’t quite caught up to my head yet, which is an uncomfortable realization.
Nevertheless, he is still recognizable as Kermit, the frog whom I have known and loved all my life, though in terms of his affect, he does tend toward the neurotic/depressive end of the spectrum, at least in the stories that focus specifically on him. In other words, he tends to demonstrate the character traits that the Hensons said they didn’t like about Steve’s portrayal of Kermit, so it would be interesting to hear what they have to say now that they don’t have Steve to scapegoat anymore. But I digress.
Summer Penguin: Needless to say, Summer is the new character who was created specifically for this series, and as such, she has been embroiled in controversy. I don’t want to say too much about her here because I think she warrants an essay all her own.
I will say, however, that I don’t think much of the way that Summer was introduced. I understand why there was fanfare, and I understand why they feel the need to play up her strengths, but the breathlessly gushy way they described her was off-putting: “Oh, she’s so talented! Oh, she’s so imaginative! Oh, she’s so bold and fearless and confident!”
Oh really? She sounds like all the girls who were ever mean to me in middle school.
But having gotten past the PR campaign and gotten to know Summer a bit as a character, there are things that I like about her now. For one thing, she’s the only one whose voice actually sounds like it could be that of a little kid, which is impressive because her voice actor is a woman my age. As Muppet fans and English majors know, it’s not the virtues and strengths that make a character interesting, it’s the flaws and weaknesses, and fortunately, Summer has some. She has a fear of thunder and lightning, and she has insecurity about her small stature. Those are the qualities that make her relatable and, potentially, lovable.
On the whole, I deem the series to be mostly harmless.
(The entire first episode is available for free on Amazon and YouTube. If you haven’t already, check it out below, and watch for Part 2 of my review when I talk about individual episodes.)