As you’re probably already aware, there’s a movie coming out today called The Happytime Murders, directed by Brian Henson. I haven’t talked about the movie here, and the reason is that I haven’t been able to bring myself to watch the trailer, and I make it a point not to critique things that I haven’t seen. It’s a personal quirk of mine; I call it “integrity.”
There is a certain Muppet fan site, which I will not identify by name, that regards Happytime as Serious Business, and they are Very Concerned about the movie’s R-rated content, concerns that they expressed in an extremely sanctimonious commentary on the movie* that none of them have technically “seen,” raising questions about its worthiness of the Henson name and worrying about its effect on Jim Henson’s legacy.
This is a website, by the way, that tends to either rationalize or overlook questionable Muppet gags such as “fart shoes,” “cross-promoting,” and other unnecessary, unfunny jokes concerning bodily fluids that Muppet writers have insisted on including in Muppet projects of the recent past. They have apologized for many ill-conceived, cringe-inducing gags of the 2015 series, including one bizarre instance in which the apology is actually more offensive than the original line. And yet, when Brian Henson makes a non-Muppet movie about non-Muppet characters who do raunchy things, they can’t handle it.
(Here are some Muppet jokes regarding bodily fluids that I find offensive, but before I provide links, I want to give you the warning that no one gave me: the second one in particular is really, really gross: Link 1, Link 2.)
At this point, I would like to invoke the MST3K Mantra: “It’s just a show; we should really just relax.” So the movie (or the advertisements therefore) make you uncomfortable? Perfectly valid reaction; they make me uncomfortable too. But guess what? If the movie makes you uncomfortable, you don’t have to watch it! It’s not like Twitter, where upsetting things show up in your feed and you can’t get rid of them unless you mute or block people, which is sometimes more trouble than it’s worth. It’s actually really easy to avoid watching a movie you don’t want to see. That doesn’t mean that you resent it for the mere fact of its existence. If I lodged a protest or launched a bitter tirade about every movie that showcased something that offended me in its trailer, I’d never get anything else done.
The main objection of this unnamed fan site to the Happytime Murders seems to be that they think it might not be “worthy” of the Henson name. Now…mine is obviously the opinion of a self-proclaimed Muppet heretic, but there are things that Jim Henson himself made that I personally do not think are “worthy” of the Henson name. Examples that immediately come to mind are Labyrinth and The Jim Henson Hour (or, at least, the first half of every episode of The Jim Henson Hour), but even The Muppet Show is sometimes unpalatable to me because of conflict and in-fighting between characters, and Kermit and Piggy specifically behaving in a way that is out of character or inappropriate, respectively. (To get more specific, I would have to watch the available seasons of The Muppet Show again, which will have to be an entry for another day because I don’t have time right now.) We tend to view Jim Henson in an idealized and sanitized way, which does a disservice to him. Yes, he was a remarkable human being, but he was nevertheless a human being with faults and flaws, and like it or not, he had some ideas that just were not very good.
Another concern about Happytime, not only from this particular website but across the Internet, seems to be how it will reflect on Jim Henson’s legacy. My question is, why should it reflect on his legacy at all? The man has been dead for nearly 30 years now; no one can imagine that he had anything to do with the making of this particular movie. I think Jim’s legacy is already established firmly enough that nothing The Jim Henson Company makes now can tarnish what came before. Furthermore, lest we forget, part of Jim Henson’s legacy is creating a Muppet Show pilot cheekily named “Sex and Violence,” encouraging his Labyrinth designers/costumers to make David Bowie wear an enormous codpiece, and performing filthy puppets of his own in the “Land of Gorch” sketches on the first season of Saturday Night Live.
An amusing contradiction in this particular fan site’s blithering condemnation of the movie is that they anxiously lament how Happytime may not be worthy of Jim Henson’s name, and then complain that his name doesn’t actually appear on it, not bearing the imprint of the Jim Henson Company but rather the Henson Alternative logo (“HA!”), and that only in a handful of promotional materials. If you’re so concerned that the movie is going to be a disgrace to Jim Henson’s name, surely the fact that his name doesn’t necessarily appear on it would be a potential positive, right? Apparently not.
If you read my blog regularly, you know that Brian Henson is not my favorite person (to put it mildly). Nevertheless, I don’t think it’s fair to expect a man–any man–to live in his father’s shadow forever. I don’t think it’s fair to expect Brian to be beholden to his father’s legacy. I think he has the same right that everybody else has to try to carve out his own legacy for himself. Now, if I were trying to forge my own legacy, building it on a foundation of filthy puppets is not the choice I would have gone with, but to each his own.
In other words, if Brian chooses to make a filthy puppet movie, I think it’s his prerogative. Who is he hurting by doing so? Of the people who are complaining about the movie, who is actually being harmed by it? The only possible people I can think of who could potentially be harmed by the movie are kids who were brought to it by negligent parents, and I think the filmmakers have made it abundantly clear by now that that is not only an irresponsible but a stupid thing to do. I don’t think it’s any more fair to judge a movie by its trailer than it is to judge a book by its cover, but I don’t think anyone who goes to see this movie can make a defensible claim that they didn’t know what they were getting into; I think the warnings have been more than sufficient.
Towards the end of the commentary on this unnamed website, the writer mournfully expresses that he “expected more” from a movie from the Jim Henson Company. To which I say, “more what?” How can you say you expected more from a movie that you haven’t even seen? But even though it’s a ridiculous thing to say, I think it speaks to the reason why I’m less invested in the movie than some Muppet fans. I have no expectations of Brian Henson whatsoever. Brian Henson has already disappointed me so severely that I can’t be any more disappointed in him than I already am.
And that’s why I feel the need to address this issue: had it not been for Brian Henson’s appalling behavior toward Steve Whitmire last year, I could laugh this whole thing off as a silly, overblown “controversy” that’s not worth my time. But last year Brian Henson spread malicious rumors about Steve Whitmire in a transparent attempt to damage Steve’s reputation in the eyes of the public. It was cruel and petty, vindictive and unprofessional, and to me it reflects far more negatively on Jim Henson’s legacy than any silly little movie ever could.
And this particular fan site was largely silent about it.
They passed along links to the Hollywood Reporter article in which Brian Henson said that he really didn’t want to be talking about the reasons Steve was fired, and then proceeded to give a lengthy interview on the reasons Steve was fired that was short on facts and long on insinuation. But this particular fan site didn’t feel the need to call Brian out on his behavior. They didn’t question whether his behavior was “worthy” of the Henson name. They just sat back and watched as Brian kicked a man–a puppeteer whom they had previously claimed to admire–when he was down. They stood silently by as a man’s name was gratuitously dragged through the mud, and then repeatedly told their readers, in essence, “Nothing more to see here, people. Move along.” At a moment when righteous indignation was called for, they chose to enable bullying behavior by tacit approval. But now, when the Henson Company offends their tender sensibilities, they feel the need to speak out about what it’s doing in the form of ignorantly self-aggrandizing diatribes.
I have no idea what Jim Henson would think of Happytime Murders, but knowing what a loving father he was, and knowing his own history of performing filthy puppets on SNL, he would probably be supportive and encouraging. I can’t imagine that he would condemn a genuine attempt to make a movie that brought laughter and pleasure (guilty or otherwise) to audiences of consenting adults. However, Jim Henson’s condemnation of bullying is well established, and one of the few documented instances of him ever becoming demonstrably angry (per Jim Henson: The Biography) was when Richard Hunt made derisive comments about a Muppet Show guest that were subsequently published in a tabloid. So I also can’t imagine that he would condone Brian Henson’s slander of one of his (Jim’s) most valued collaborators and friends.
Jim Henson’s final letter didn’t say anything about filthy puppets, one way or the other. What it did say was “Love and forgive everyone.” Surely we should all, myself included, try take our cue from Jim Henson when it comes to deciding what really matters.