Monday, November 12, 2018

Fairy Tale Fandom Book Report: Muppets Meet the Classics: Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm

It’s time to play the music.  It’s time to light the lights.  It’s time to meet the Muppets in Muppet Fairy Tales tonight!

Oh, yeah!  This is my kind of book!  I’m a big Muppets fan going way back.  Way, way back!  How big?  Well, this is what my checkbook looks like.  I’m not going to show you the actual checks, but trust me they follow the same theme as the cover.
The book we’re talking about is the latest in the new Muppets Meet the Classics line of children’s books.  This one in particular is Muppets Meet the Classics: Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm by Erik Forrest Jackson.  Now, this is hardly the first time the Muppets have adapted fairy tales and it probably won’t be the last.  Some of the earliest Muppet productions I remember watching were Jim Henson’s The Frog Prince, Hey, Cinderella and The Muppet Musicians of Bremen.  They also tackled a few fairy tales, fables and myths in  a straight-to-video project called Muppet Classic Theater.  Heck, when there was a license for Muppet comics at Boom! Studios, Muppet Snow White was one of the miniseries produced.   But I suppose I’ll deal with those another time.
Now, while this is not the first time adapting (and lampooning) fairy tales, it is the first time they’ve gone quite this deep.  They’re focused on just one historic fairy tale collection this time and are adapting 18 stories both popular and obscure.  The thing is, is it possible to catch the trademark humor and warmth the Muppets are known for on the printed page?  Even some of the modern TV Muppets productions haven’t quite measured up.

The book is set up as a sort of performance by the Muppets.  Essentially, they know they’re in a book.  There are a prologue and an epilogue that deal with the times before and after said performance when the Muppets are preparing or winding down and can be themselves rather than their characters.  Sometimes they break the fourth wall during the tales.  Sometimes, stuff from one tale will bleed into another, usually in the form of a running gag.  Really, it’s just a very funny book.  Jackson captures the traditional Muppets humor very well.  Sometimes he’ll work the joke into fairy tale fiction staples like fanciful ways of saying time passed.  A regular fairy tale fantasy might describe the seasons passing.  In the book’s first story, it’s done like this: “Time passed.  The snow fell.  Britney Spears had another comeback, fell from favor yet again, and came back once more”.  The Muppets, being the big zany showbiz family that they are, are going to poke fun at show business.  The writer knows this.  The Muppet version of Rapunzel takes place in Las Vegas and their version of Dame Gothel (played by Miss Piggy) is a witch who works as a stage magician.  In their version of “The Fisherman and his Wife”, the greedy wife played once again by Miss Piggy wishes for a mansion but also starts wishing for a number of entertainment awards like the Oscars, Grammys and Emmys.  She even muses on the possibility of wishing for a Newberry Medal (given for excellence in children’s literature).  Kermit then responds that it’s not going to happen for this book.   All of it’s done with the typical lighthearted optimism the Muppets are known for.
A still from Jim Henson's The Frog Prince
Usually, around this point I’d talk about the writer’s choice of tales to adapt.  I do want to do that.  However, I also want to talk about the choice of Muppets he makes.  In terms of the stories, most of the more popular tales from the Brothers Grimm are here.  There are “Cinderella”, “The Frog King”, “Rapunzel”, “Little Red Cap”, “Snow Drop”, “Rumpelstiltskin”, “Hansel and Gretel”, etc.  And that’s fine.  The majority of people want to see the old favorites.  However, there are also a lot of less famous tales adapted here.  There’s “Simeli Mountain”, “The Cat and the Mouse Set Up House”, “The Giant with the Three Golden Hairs”, “The Mouse, the Bird and the Sausage”, “The Golden Goose” and others.  Probably my favorite of those adapted is “Faithful John” which gets adapted as “Faithful Sweetums”, with the Great Gonzo in the role of the prince and of course the towering but ultimately kind-hearted ogre Sweetums in the title role.  And that brings me to another thing.  A character like Sweetums usually plays background roles.  He’s around if the Muppets need a big, powerful, scary full-body Muppet but he’s not usually the star.  But Jackson doesn’t really let that stop him.  He digs deep into the Muppet cast and pulls out characters you might not expect and often gives them starring roles.  This is a very good thing.  Why?  Well, let’s just admit something here.  If you reduced the Muppets down to just their most prominent characters, you would only have one female character.  That character is the one, the only (thank goodness) Miss Piggy.  It’s been an issue before.  In both the original Muppet Babies cartoon and the new series, they had to create new female characters just to diversify the cast.  In the ‘80s it was Scooter’s twin sister Skeeter.  Today, it’s a character named Summer Penguin.  The stories collected by the Brothers Grimm have many, many prominent female roles in them.  Can you imagine if every princess, witch, peasant girl and crone in these stories had to be played by the same self-absorbed pig.  Yikes.  From the first story, you can tell that’s not going to be a problem.  It’s Jackson and the Muppets’ take on “Cinderella” (or “Ashputtel”) and while Miss Piggy does end up taking the role of the Wicked Stepmother, the Cinderella role goes to Camilla, Gonzo’s chicken paramour.  That’s not all, either.  Janice, the Electric Mayhem’s guitarist, plays both Snow Drop and Rapunzel (just a refresher: “Snow Drop” is another name for Snow White).  Also, one of the rats, Yolanda, plays the book’s Sleeping Beauty.  Sometimes they just gender-bend the roles, like having Fozzie play Little Red-Cap or having Andy and Randy Pig play the wicked stepsisters in “Cinderella”.  Piggy still has a lot of work, though.  She’s the princess in “The Frog Prince” as well as various villainesses and other assorted roles.  And that’s just a few of the Muppets you’ll see in this book.
The Muppet Musicians of Bremen
Overall, this book is just a load of fun.  It’s fun for fairy tale fans.  It’s fun for Muppet fans.  It’s fun for people who just like send ups of fairy tales (like Shrek or Fractured Fairy Tales).  I’d recommend reading it.  If they’re all like this one, I hope the Muppets Meet the Classics line has a whole lot of success.

You know, I could probably talk about Muppet fairy tale adaptations for a long time.  But alas, that is something for another time.  Like maybe next post.

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