Sunday, November 25, 2018

Fairy Tale Media Fix: The Muppet Musicians of Bremen.


Well, I said I’d talk about a Muppets adaptation of a classic fairy tale, and by Grimm I will!

Like I’ve said before, there were three distinct adaptations I remember being run on syndicated television when I was younger.  There was The Frog Prince (1971), Hey Cinderella (1969) and The Muppet Musicians of Bremen (1972).  Now, while the first two have their charms, I thought I’d focus on the last one right now.  Mainly because it’s kind of a distinctive work compared to the other two.  While Frog Prince and Hey Cinderella both feature fairly big parts for Kermit the Frog and other fairly well-known Muppets characters, Muppet Musicians of Bremen largely focuses on Muppets that are mainly known through this special.  Kermit does appear, but only to introduce the special and close it out as well as a very brief guest spot.  It’s also the only one that changes the setting of the tale away from a generic European fairy tale kingdom and to rural Louisiana.
First, a little about the fairy tale itself.  “The Bremen Town-Musicians” is a short but rather distinctive tale from the Grimms’ collection.  In terms of popularity, it’s kind of a middle of the road tale.  More well-known than stories like “Simeli Mountain” or “Faithful John”, but not as popular or famous as tales like “Snow White” and “Rumpelstiltskin”.  The story follows four aging farm animals, a donkey, dog, cat and rooster as they run away from their respective owners who are planning to do them in.  They decide to head to the city of Bremen and become musicians.  Along the way, they run across a house full of thieves who the animals scare away.  Rather than go on to Bremen, they decide to live out the rest of their lives together in the house.

The Muppet version starts out, per Kermit’s introduction, somewhere in the countryside of Louisiana a ways from the towns of Bremen and Gogalala.  We open on a short-tempered thief named Mordecai Sledge and his aging donkey Leroy as they return home from a job Mordecai and his gang were pulling in a train yard.  Having rushed out without checking what he was unloading from the boxcars, Mordecai is steamed to find out he had just stolen a load of musical instruments.  Without any means to rationally express his anger, he blames Leroy and goes to get his gun to “retire him proper”.  At this, Leroy decides to hoof it, which results in a comedic sequence that involves Mordecai screaming incoherent obscenities, getting his foot caught in a bass drum and Leroy getting a tuba stuck round his neck as he runs off.  After a short talk with Kermit the Frog (I told you he was in here as a guest star), he decides to head off to Bremen as a travelling musician.  Along the way, he meets three other animals with stories similar to his own.  There’s T.R. the rooster, who’s on the run from the gluttonous farmer Lardpork who’s out to kill and cook T.R. for not crowing to wake him.  Rover Joe the hound dog, cast out by his cowardly and superstitious owner Mean Floyd.  Then there’s Catgut, a lady cat who was almost drowned by her cruel and selfish master Caleb Siles for making friends with the rats.  Together, they set off with a cart full of instruments to become travelling musicians.  Our erstwhile band soon gets lost in swamp country.  They soon come upon a house where all their ex-owners, who just happen to be Mordecai’s gang, are meeting to split up the loot from several robberies.  Both groups experience a case of mistaken identity.  The animals, just looking at silhouettes through a window shade, mistaken the thieves for a loving family.  The robbers, hearing the animals’ noises and prodded on by Mean Floyd’s natural superstitiousness, mistaken the animals for a bunch of assorted swamp demons.  This leads to a conflict in the darkened house wherein the animals try to save the “beautiful family” that they think is in trouble and the robbers get scared off by what they think are swamp demons.  And so the robbers run off to never be seen again and the animals live in the house where they can continue to play music together.
Travelling Musicians
It’s a rather fun special.  The plot matches pretty well with the original fairy tale.  The changes that are made are either inconsequential or actually make the experience of watching the special a little better.  Probably one of the best changes was making the Musicians of Bremen into actual musicians.  In the Grimms’ tale, it just seemed like the old animals were a bit deluded.  In the Muppet version, despite having pretty much no time to learn how to play and practice, they show some impressive chops pretty early on.  So, with Leroy on tuba, T.R. on banjo, Rover Joe on trombone and Catgut on trumpet, the quartet produce some very fun, catchy tunes.  True to the special's new Louisiana setting, there are definite jazz and country flavors to the songs.  One other change, making their four owners into the same robbers they chase off, does have some pros and cons.  On the con side, it removes some of the brutally honest context of the animals’ reason for running away.  It wasn’t uncommon at one time for farm animals to be valued only for the work they could do and the food they could become.  Donkeys pulled wagons.  Cats killed rats and mice.  Dogs hunted or guarded the house.  Roosters crowed and mated to produce more chickens.  If they couldn’t do that work anymore, it was often seen as necessary to put them down rather than let them become a burden.  So, the owners in the written version of the tale weren’t necessarily bad people.  They were just doing their jobs.  By making the owners into a band of thieves, the whole thing is cast in another light.  On the pro side, it provides a sort of economy of storytelling.  It also gives the story some more established villains to root against.  Overall though, I like it.  I’d give the Muppet performers lots of credit.  They always do a good job bringing characters to life.  Each of the animals has their own personality that comes across well.  Leroy is an optimistic dreamer, T.R. is a charmer to the hens and has a bit of a dry sense of humor, Rover Joe is soft-hearted but slow on the uptake and Catgut is a bit dramatic.  All the animal puppets are designed to look old and worn out like the aging farm animals they’re supposed to be.  As for the human-sized puppets that play the villains, they can be a little surprising at first.  Over time, it would become a common practice to have the Muppets interact with actual human actors if they needed human characters.  But not here.  The puppets/costumes here have a sort of caricatured ugliness to them that is comical once you get used to it.
Our nasty robbers.
If you’d like to see it, don’t go looking for this special on DVD.  It was never released on one.  However, someone has uploaded the whole thing onto YouTube.  Apparently, whoever owns the copyright now (probably Disney, because they own the Muppets) doesn’t seem to care about people watching it there because it’s been there forever and is easy to find.

But I think I’ll end with a song from the band itself.  Play us out, Leroy!

Until next time.

1 comment:

  1. Ooh, I gotta check that out. "The Bremen Town Musicians" is another one of my favourites.

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