I’m struggling with this one, and not because of my feelings on this one particular film in general. I honestly don’t care what the reviews say. I don’t care who knows it. The Muppets Most Wanted was a fantastic movie and my movie of the year so far.
I mean, I’m not the most impartial of judges. I own three versions of Muppets from Space (DVD, VHS, and download). I hit up Muppets 3D, regardless of lines, as my first (and last) ride at Disney’s Hollywood Studios. I’ve gotten into arguments about whether Charles Dickens would have approved of a muppet-led version of his Christmas story (in short, I don’t care what Mr. Dickens thinks). Some people are into Star Trek. Others worship at the blood-drenched altar of Joss Whedon. Give me Gonzo and a camera crew and I’ll conquer the world.
But is this because I have been so brainwashed by Kermit, Ms. Piggy, Fozzie, et al that I’m willing to allow myself to be sucked in? And does it even matter if I’m having a good time?
This is the clinical definition of “effective branding.” I see Muppets content and I defend it, regardless of quality. Could the Muppets really have anything nefarious up their sleeves? No, of course not. Creators couldn’t possibly have ulterior motives with such a beloved brand. I would know; I grew up with the Muppets. They are indelibly linked with some happy moments of childhood. Throw a logo on it, add a whoopie cushion, and you have my money. I have drunk the Kool-Aid and got landed via the ol’ hook, line, and sinker.
Of course, it is Disney that owns the Muppets and they are not above some fairly typical corporate-on-public warfare with their other properties. Straight-to-DVD sequels that are designed purely to prey upon nostalgia, building on Civil War battlefields, their mixed record on fan/creator relations: they even pump the smell of cookies into their amusement parks to get us in the mood for happy childhood… right after we fork over >$90 for a single ticket to get in. Oh, but it’s okay if Disney commodifies our childhood, right? Because, yeah, okay, whatever, they… well, they’re Disney!
What about other companies, though? Is it okay when McDonald’s does it? Or how about GM sucking the marrow out of its consumer base, all while expecting their brand to keep them afloat amidst increasingly poor decisions? Or… well, you get the idea.
Please don’t misunderstand me: there’s nothing wrong with branding or even communicating subtextual messaging to children. I do not subscribe to Adbusters or its line of thinking. Despite what Sam Harris thinks, human beings have free will and can definitely choose the right path if they know the options that are given to them. In short, understanding is the key to understanding.
For creators who aren’t all-in on the Machiavellian/Big Brother/NSA-style manipulation, you have to instill your brands with harmonious essence from the ground-up. There is no room for “let’s let the winds guide us” planning in modern storytelling. If you’re successful, you’re going to be creating something that will reach hordes of people across multiple platforms. You have to play it smart. You have to:
- Make your subtext positive – The Hangover series is all about fraternity in the face of adversity. The Pirates of the Caribbean films are about maintaing your sense of self in a world where nothing is as it seems. The Marvel Cinematic Universe is about doing shouldering the burden of doing what is right, even when the odds are long and there are easier paths. These are all positive aspects that can cover some glaring issues. If you make people want to keep coming back, you will be able to survive setbacks and give yourself second chances.
- Make your branding simple – The more you overcomplicate your design, the more likely you’ll create something discordant, and discordant means confusing and hijack-able. Simplicity doesn’t mean boring: lots of successful works have shown that it is harder but better to tell a simple thing well than it is to negotiate with a beast.
- Be prepared for costs – It’ll be easy to give in with every fight, every note, and every compromise you make, and at first, that’s to be expected. Small fish don’t dictate the diet of sharks. More importantly, just because you came up with the idea doesn’t mean somebody else can’t do it better. But be prepared for decisions that will make you question the direction your career and story is going. Remember that you can pull the plug at any point, and that every decision has its consequences.
I talked about responsibility, branding, and transmedia before, but it’s important enough to mention again. And again. And again. As a creator, it is your duty to understand the messages that you are creating. As a fan, it is your duty to look critically at content and understand what it is saying. It’s not good enough to be passive. We have to be agents of the world.
So, that’s why I’m looking at the Muppets critically right now and making a decision for myself. Ignore the pomp and circumstance of felt-based puppets singing showtunes and try to discern what they give to the world…
Yeah. They’re okay in my book.