I don’t know about you, but I could sure use some happy right about now, so here is my tragically belated and unreasonably long continuation of my review of Muppet Babies 2018.
(Part One of my review can be found here.)
Initially I was only going to watch and review the first episode of Muppet Babies because it was available for free on Amazon and YouTube. Then I saw that episode 5 was going to feature characters of Steve’s, including Rizzo, and I was very curious to see how they would handle them, so I purchased and watched that one too. Here I’ll be reviewing all four of the stories that I saw over the course of the two episodes.
Episode 1.1: SIR KERMIT THE BRAVE
I don’t know if it’s intended as an homage, but right away, the title reminds me of the song “Sir Robin the Brave” from The Frog Prince.
Miss Nanny comes into the playroom looking for her “favorite green sweater.” None of the Muppet Babies seem to know what she’s talking about. I’m guessing we’ll never see the sweater again after this episode. (Edit: From clips I’ve watched on YouTube, I’ve discovered that we do see the sweater again, but Miss Nanny never seems to wear it).
Frankly, I don’t buy the premise of this episode. Miss Nanny goes into the “art closet” to look for her sweater, closes the door behind her, and–defying all logic–doesn’t turn on the light. I know this is a series for small children, and it’s been a long time since I took educational psychology, but I suspect that even the most preoperational three-year-old would look at that and say, “What the hey? Why doesn’t she just turn on the light?”
Miss Nanny makes noises while bumbling around in the dark, searching for her sweater by touch, and Summer immediately decides that there’s a dragon in the closet, causing all the other Muppet Babies to drop their personalized action figures in horror. Summer further announces that they must undertake a rescue operation to save Miss Nanny from the dragon.
Meet the Muppet Babies’ Freelance Rescue Squadron! Fozzie, an archer who shoots rubber-chicken arrows! Summer, a wizard! Gonzo, a veterinarian! (because why not?) Miss Piggy, a fairy queen–NOT a princess! Animal is troll! And Sir Kermit the Brave, a knight leading the expedition…at least in theory.
The expedition heads to the art closet and opens the door. The closet is still dark, but lightened somewhat by the light from the playroom. Miss Nanny is nowhere to be seen. Exactly how big is this closet, anyway?
The whole point of this episode is that Kermit is afraid of the dark, and also afraid to admit it. So he tries to convince Fozzie to go in first. Fozzie responds, “It’s kind of damp in there, and frogs love damp!” Now, I’m watching this as an adult and a homeowner, so the idea of errant moisture scares me a lot more than the prospect of a dragon: “Oh no, don’t go in there! You might encounter…MILDEW!”
Kermit determines that the coast is clear, and then gallantly allows the others to go in ahead of him. Then he pusillanimously turns freshly shed tail and tries to sneak away. Kermit is less like Sir Robin the Brave in this and more like Brave Sir Robin.
Let’s be real here: Summer is the leader of this expedition. It was her idea in the first place, she takes point upon entering the closet, she lights the way with her magic wand and warns everyone to watch out for traps. Honestly, Kermit is really nothing but a giant load in this story, running away at every possible opportunity, accidentally stepping on the trap to trigger Giant Rolling Synergy of Doom, looking at the camera and making whimpering noises at every opportunity. Heck, Animal is more heroic in this story than Kermit.
I probably don’t need to remind you that Summer is the new character created specifically for this show, or that people were upset about her replacing Skeeter. I’m not upset about her replacing Skeeter (although I’m not yet convinced that it was strictly necessary), and I like Summer as a character, but I don’t like it when I feel like the writers are shilling her. So if I’d noticed that Summer was usurping Kermit’s position as de facto leader of the group (however temporarily), I would have been annoyed.
But that’s the thing: I didn’t notice. Kermit’s been established as the leader for so long that I just took it for granted. It took multiple viewings over the course of a month for me to notice what was happening. Similarly, the Muppet Babies themselves don’t notice that Kermit’s not really doing much leading. They still see him as the leader and make excuses for his shortcomings. Whether it was intended or not, this just goes to show, once again, how belief can affect perception.
Long story short (too late), Kermit meets and befriends the dragon, who’s also afraid of the dark, and after flying on the dragon’s back to find his friends, finally confesses his fears to them. Somebody finally thinks to turn on the light, and it turns out that the dragon was just Nanny’s sweater draped over a vacuum cleaner the whole time. (Or was it?) Only one question remains unanswered: where the heck is Miss Nanny? Even with the lights on, she is nowhere to be seen. Seriously, how big is this “closet” anyway? Is it secretly a passage to Narnia?
After a few perplexed seconds, Miss Nanny appears again, grateful to have her sweater back. Kermit turns off the light again and leads an expedition back out of the closet, Dot the Dragon chuckles and blows smoke at the camera, and I assume Miss Nanny goes back to Narnia and spends many adventurous years with Mr. Tumnus before returning to the playroom a few minutes later.
One last thing to mention before we move on: when Kermit rejoins his friends on the back of a dragon, the others mistakenly believe that the dragon has taken him prisoner. Piggy is all ready to karate chop the dragon before Kermit stops her. I like this because it’s a very in-character moment for Piggy but reminiscent less of TV!Piggy than movie!Piggy, who only hits those who deserve it. Of course, in this case, the dragon didn’t deserve it, but if she HAD captured Kermit, then she WOULD have deserved it (if that makes sense).
Episode 1.2: ANIMAL FLY AIRPLANE
During “art time” in the playroom, five of the Muppet Babies are making collages of their favorite places. Animal is running around crazily, spilling paint and strewing glitter around. But in the process, he manages to make a collage of his favorite place: an airplane.
Okay, couple of things: first of all, I don’t consider an airplane to be a place but a thing. Second, since when is Animal obsessed with airplanes? I suspect that they were looking at Frank Oz’s five words that motivate Animal–“food, drums, sleep, sex, and pain”–and figured that they had to pick something to replace “sex” and came up with “airplane,” which is as good a thing as any, I guess.
Anyway, the kids ask Miss Nanny what her favorite place is, and she tells them it’s Paris, France, which is “full of art and museums,” and “the food there is so tasty”–tactfully not mentioning that frog legs are a delicacy there. While Nanny goes into the kitchen to make some croissants, the Muppet Babies decide to take an imaginary plane trip to Paris.
Now, we all know where this is going (because it’s right there in the title), so I’m going to see if I can’t hurry things along a bit here, but there are a few points I want to hit.
Fozzie watches himself doing a stand-up act as in-flight entertainment, and watching his face as he watches himself just might be my favorite thing ever.
Gonzo is the flight attendant, a position of responsibility in which he is unexpectedly competent. I suspect that, since this episode focuses on Animal being wild, they have to scale back Gonzo’s weirdness a bit to balance that out. And yet, he strikes a delightful balance between responsible competence and smarmy condescension.
Kermit, as the captain, comes out of the cockpit to make an announcement (apparently forgetting to turn on the autopilot before doing so) and peruses Gonzo’s snack cart while the plane takes a nosedive and Animal sneaks into the cockpit.
“No, no, Animal!” says Kermit. “This isn’t a place to be wild! A captain has to be in control of his plane at all times!”
“…like just now when I almost got us all killed because I was distracted by snacks!”
Gonzo attempts to lure Animal back to his seat with pretzels, and in his rush to grab the treats, Animal spins Kermit around in his pilot’s chair. “I’m..dizzy!” Kermit hilariously announces, and we know that its true because his pupils are swirling around in defiance of any known laws of opthalmology. But he’s not only dizzy; “he’s disoriented and demented, and a little nuts.” Except that, of course, you can’t have nuts on a plane anymore because of food allergies. But I digress.
With Kermit incapacitated, someone has to fly the plane. Animal volunteers, but Gonzo refuses him and, in his capacity as flight attendant, uses the seatbelt to tether Animal into his seat. Animal feels discouraged about this: “Animal no fly,” he says. “Friends no like Animal!”
Which is an unexpectedly poignant moment of emotional gravitas. While it’s affecting, it’s slightly concerning as well, because both Frank Oz and Steve Whitmire have cautioned against the dangers of letting Animal get too intelligent or, more to the point, overly dimensional. It’s a valid concern, but I think there’s some wiggle room available here for Animal’s emotional development because (a) by their very nature, emotions are considerably more primal than intellect, and therefore not so far removed from Animal’s essence, and (b) this is, after all, a show targeted at little kids, and it seems to me (based not so much on ed psych but from looking back at my own experience) that the way Animal feels personally rejected from being chastised and limited, the way he interprets it as rejection, is very relatable for little kids of all temperaments.
With Kermit incapacited, someone else has to fly the plane. Gonzo’s too busy with his flight attendant duties and looking after the chicks, and Miss Piggy opts out because “pigs don’t fly,” but Fozzie and Summer each take a turn. Fozzie tries to get directions from the control tower in Paris but they get distracted telling each other jokes that end up with Fozzie literally rolling in the aisle. Summer takes a turn and initally does well, switching the radio to a samba remix of “La Marseillaise” (the French national anthem) that segues into something that sounds suspiciously like the bridge section to “Cabin Fever” from Muppet Treasure Island. Coincidence?
But then Summer flies too high and encounters some scary dark clouds that she somehow never noticed when she was flying right under them…? Anyway, though scared of the dark clouds, and the thunder and lightning that they propagate, she tries to pep talk herself: “Face your fears, Summer Penguin.” *lightning crash* “Aah!”
“I’m sorry, guys!” she says as she goes running back to the cabin. “I can’t fly the plane! I’m really afraid of stormy storm storms!”
I think it was a really smart move to have Summer be flawed and vulnerable, because that’s more relatable than having her capable and brilliantly talented in multiple activities all at the same time. Again, I understand why they wanted to depict her in a positive light, but it’s a character’s flaws and weaknesses that make them interesting, especially as it relates to the Muppets who are so often defined by one primary flaw, so much so that it’s sometimes part of their name (Oscar the Grouch, Forgetful Jones, etc.)
Anyway, Animal lands the plane, Kermit is revived and all is well. Summer tells Animal, “We shouldn’t have just decided you couldn’t fly the plane. You at least deserved a chance, Animal!” Fair enough, but should the chance come when you’re 20,000 feet over the ocean?
But then again, they weren’t actually over the ocean or in a plane at all. The whole thing happened in their imaginations; within the reality of the show, they never left the floor of the playroom. So why couldn’t they have let Animal fly in the first place? Is it like Inception where if you die in the dream, you die in real life? (Is that how it worked in Inception? It’s been a long time since I’ve seen it.)
Anyway, the kids have a musical montage in a collage of Paris, then return to the playroom for croissants. The End.
Episode 5.1: HOW KERMIT GOT HIS GROOVE
I’m enjoying the little Easter eggs that the Muppet Babies team keeps putting into the show. As Kermit announces the name of the episode, music that sounds like “Happy Feet” plays in the background.
Okay, as much fun as it is to make snarky comments, I’m going to try hold myself to a standard of brevity this time. This episode/story is significant because it features Rizzo’s Muppet Babies’ debut.
It was sort of jarring to hear someone other than Steve performing Rizzo’s voice, although that would have been the case even if the Schism had not happened. On first viewing the preview, I was concerned by the fact that Rizzo was being depicted as a bully and an antagonist. Taken out of context, I found it kind of offensive and wondered if it was supposed to be a commentary on the Schism. That’s what made me want to shell out the three bucks (or whatever it was) to watch this episode, to see if it was going to end in a Muppety way, with the Babies working out their differences with Rizzo and becoming friends, or in a petty, vindictive way, with Rizzo being banished from the playroom forever. Fortunately, it turned out to be the former, so it probably wasn’t intended to be a commentary on the Schism–or if it was, it suggests that the show’s creators are more sympathetic to Steve than I would have expected.
Anyway, the plot of the episode is that Rizzo moves out of a hole in the wall and into the playroom where he plays annoyingly loud music and practices his “sweet dance moves.” In this iteration, Rizzo is obsessed with dance, which I believe is a new development for the character, but I suppose it would have been as irresponsible to have him obsessed with food as it would have been to have Animal preoccupied with sex. In other words, it’s an effective plot device, but for those of us who already know the character, it seems a bit random, if not contrived.
The Muppet Babies are angry with Rizzo for messing up the playroom that they just finished cleaning, and Rizzo announces his intention to take over the “joint,” which he disappointingly doesn’t pronounce as “j’int.” Nevertheless, with the seemingly infalliable instinct of bullies to target the insecurities of others, he challenges Kermit to a dance-off, with use of the playroom as stakes. I kind of wonder why no one pointed out that Miss Nanny should have a say in how the playroom is used and by whom, but I’m probably over-thinking things.
Kermit doesn’t know how to dance, so most of the rest of the episode consists of the other Muppet Babies trying to teach him, and Kermit whining because he can’t do it. This iteration of Kermit is so angsty. I don’t necessarily mind that so much, although it is a little annoying, but I’m frustrated that this iteration of Kermit is allowed to be angsty without comment or complaint when that has been one of the commonly cited criticisms of Steve’s portrayal of Kermit.
Anyway, if you’ve ever seen any Muppet thing ever, you can probably figure out how this thing plays out: the dance-off commences, it looks like Rizzo is going to win, but then Kermit wows everyone, including Rizzo and himself, and ends up winning instead. Chastened, Rizzo gets ready to slink back into his hole and stay out of the playroom. But because defeat often means friendship for the Muppets, Kermit invites him back to the playroom whenever he wants, so long as he helps to keep it clean.
Miss Nanny welcomes Rizzo to the playroom instead of taking the sensible action of screaming and running away (I don’t like rats, okay? Rizzo is pretty much the only exception, and it took me a long time to warm up to him too), hands out musical instruments to all the kids, including Rizzo, and the episode ends with the Muppet Babies making music and Rizzo wailing on a toy trumpet, and I can’t help but wonder if that’s supposed to be an homage to Steve and Lips, but I’m probably reading too much into it.
At first, I was apprehensive about the way that they’d be handling Rizzo, since he’s an original character of Steve’s. But it was handled in a Muppety way. While there’s no Muppet canon as such, it was consistent with Rizzo’s established characterization; even Steve has said that Rizzo can be “kind of a jerk” sometimes.
As for animated!Rizzo’s design, his face is kind of weirdly stretched out, as though somebody grabbed him by both cheeks and pulled. However, I really like his little fingers, which remind me of the puppet’s fingers, which are pretty much my favorite thing about Rizzo’s physical appearance. Also, animated!Rizzo’s tail looks like a real rat’s tail, which is disturbing but impressive. I also like that they drew Rizzo’s fur to look kind of matted. Vocally, I thought the voice was less accurate at the beginning of the episode when he’s all arrogant, but when he’s humbled later in the episode, his voice sounds more Rizzo-like (Rizzo-y? Rizzo-esque?) Overall it’s fine. Ultimately, I have no real complaints about the way they’ve used Rizzo.
Rizzo is voiced by Ben Diskin, who also voices Gonzo, which I bring up because I want to mention that Baby Gonzo sometimes does that weird raising-one-eyelid thing, which is awesome.
Episode 5.2: ONE SMALL PROBLEM
This story sees Bunsen Honeydew and Beaker join the cast for the first time in the 2018 series. But it’s really a Summer Penguin story as she feels insecure about being the smallest one in the playroom. Bunsen offers to make her bigger using his Enlarge-O-Ray, but it has the opposite of the intended effect, and Summer becomes about 2 inches tall.
This is a really good, Muppety premise, and it allows us to get to know Summer a little bit better. This is the first time she really appealed to me as a character. I can pinpoint the exact moment that I came to love her: She’s talking about all the things she’ll be able to do once she’s made bigger, one of which is, “I’ll even be able to see over the head of the person in front of me at the movies!” I remember how frustrating it was for me as a child to be too little to see over people’s heads when sitting in an auditorium, which I did a lot because of my older siblings’ extracurricular activities, so that line made me laugh really hard.
But anyway, let’s get back to Bunsen and Beaker. I LOOOOOOVE Beaker’s design. I especially love that he’s been given a range of facial expressions that puppet!Beaker doesn’t have. In other words, he has the ability to smile, and I love that. However, because Beaker doesn’t have eyelids, his pupils turn funny shapes the way that Kermit’s do. It’s not as distracting on Beaker, but it’s there and it’s noticeable.
Bunsen’s design, though overall very good, is a bit problematic. As with his puppet counterpart, Bunsen has glasses but no visible eyes. However, here the shadows of his glasses’ frames fall onto his face at approximately the position where his eyes would be if he had any. It’s a clever device to create the effect of having eyes, but it doesn’t quite work for me. To avoid potentially opening a can of worms, I’ll just leave it at that for now. Bunsen introduces the Enlarge-O-Ray with his catchphrase from The Muppet Show, and the background turns into a virtual replica of the Muppet Labs set, which is awesome.
This episode gives a good dichotomous Piggy. When the Enlarge-O-Ray accidentally shrinks Summer instead of making her bigger, Bunsen says, “Something must have gone wrong,” to which Piggy reports, with beautiful sarcasm, “Hmph. Ya don’t say!” But earlier, when Summer was down on herself for being little, Piggy reacted with sympathy, saying, “Oh, don’t say that! Some of my favorite things are little, like ladybugs and lucky pennies!” It’s a good demonstration of the two sides of Piggy’s personality.
Kermit also attempts to reassure Summer by showing her a toy car: “It’s my fastest race car, and the coolest looking, but it’s little enough to fit in my pocket!” I bring this up for two reasons: (1) The race car becomes important later and, (2) having Kermit be a (toy) car enthusiast gives me warm fuzzies, knowing about Jim Henson’s penchant for car collecting.
But all the Muppet Babies are sympathetic and encouraging of Summer throughout the entire episode. Even after she’s shrunken, they still try to include her in their fun and games. In fact, the first thing they suggest after the accident is to go outside and play, which seems like a really bad idea. Fortunately, they realize this before Summer gets squashed by a soccer ball or eaten by Camilla the chicken and go back inside.
Once inside, Kermit accidentally loses his favorite toy car under the couch, and Summer goes to get it. Under the couch is a mysterious land inhabited by dust bunnies. In a sense, the dust bunnies are the most Muppety thing we’ve seen in the series so far (or at least these two episodes) because they are simultaneously hilarious and kind of creepy. At first they seem friendly, yet they cheefully try to prevent Summer from taking back the car. They can combine themselves into one big bunny, and they have the ability to regenerate themselves after being blown apart by a sneeze, but they’re too insubstantial to pose any real threat.
Summer has to jump the car over “Crack in the Floor Canyon” in order to escape the dust bunnies. Floors should not have cracks in them. Between this and the dampness in the closet, I worry about Miss Nanny neglecting home maintenance (not that I’m qualified to throw stones in that regard).
Anyway, Summer emerges from under the couch driving Kermit’s car, the Enlarge-O-Ray is fixed, Summer learns a valuable lesson about accepting herself, and everything returns to normal. But not before Kermit and the others have to tell Summer how great she is (“You have a big heart!” “And big ideas!” “And big courage!”). I didn’t mind it before when they were trying to build her up when she was feeling down, but this feels like shilling, and frankly, I think it’s gratuitous. Don’t get me wrong; I like Summer, but I just don’t like it when they try to make me like her.
One last thing: Once the Enlarge-O-Ray is repaired (off screen), they test it out on Beaker, who is very pleased with the result. But the effect is “sadly temporary.”
So those are the only Muppet Babies episodes that I’ve seen in their entirety. Occasionally I come across excerpts on YouTube. From what I’ve seen of the show, I like it very much, and I’m glad it’s on the air, but I don’t feel I need to pay for the privilege of watching it.