Cece Hampton ’24
We all know and love the Muppets. One of the more recent films of the franchise was The Muppets, released in November of 2011. In this film, brothers Walter (a Muppet) and Gary (a human) visit Los Angeles in celebration of Gary and his girlfriend Mary’s tenth anniversary. In the city, they become involved in a fundraiser to help the Muppets get back together and buy their old studio back. Well-known for its musical numbers, this iconic movie produced the song “Man or Muppet,” a duet featuring both Gary and Walter. It is within this scene that the characters, as well as viewers, are presented with a deeply philosophical question.
The scene begins with Mary leaving Gary a note explaining that she has returned home from their trip to Los Angeles without him, and she poses the question, “Are you a man or a Muppet?” Meanwhile, Walter experiences a critical moment: he begins to question how much he fits in with Gary’s human life versus how much he fits in with the Muppets. As these two scenes come to a head, the beginning chords of the song start up, and both Walter and Gary step into the dark and rainy night to ponder this question.
For Walter, this idea culminates after a lifetime of growing up being able to recognize his differences from Gary but not fully being able to grasp the causes. While the movie never fully delves into this issue, we as viewers are given some context clues. For one, the beginning of the movie depicts Walter and Gary’s childhood. They are repeatedly measured next to each other as they grow up. When they are younger, it does not matter as much because they are the same size; over time, as Gary consistently grows since he is a human, Walter always remains the same height. As both he and Gary grow older, Walter appears to expect and hope for some growth, and he is increasingly more affected by this issue. When Walter discovers the existence of the Muppets and becomes an avid fan of them, he admits that it makes his life better and gives him something to be happy about. However, the movie fails to address whether Walter first takes an interest in them simply because they make him happy, or if he takes an interest because he recognizes himself as a Muppet and therefore identifies with them.
While this scene is emotionally riveting, Walter does not get enough credit for his role in it. Gary is originally presented with the question, but his argument with Mary about whether he is a man or a Muppet is simply due to his recent commitment to Walter and the Muppets’ fundraiser. In contrast, Walter has reached this point after decades of not fitting in and never understanding why. Walter’s position here is infinitely more vulnerable, yet the movie fails to recognize this.
Despite this, the song and the movie overall have a lot to offer viewers—both young and old. By the end of the song, Gary recognizes that he is a man, and Walter recognizes that he is a Muppet. The song finishes with both Walter and Gary singing, “That’s what I am” at the same time. The scene never addresses how Gary and Walter reach each of their epiphanies, so it is up to the viewers’ interpretation to determine how they figured this out. In a more philosophical sense, it suggests to viewers that the only way to fully understand and get to know one’s inner self is on an individual level. No one else can determine one’s own identity. At the end of the day, what The Muppet movie has to teach all of us is that we must open our minds and be willing to learn from even the simplest and, seemingly, most silly things.