The Muppets seemed to be the perfect candidate with which to study narrative structure. After all, a beloved children’s franchise famous for also entertaining adults was more than likely to contain a Hollywood-style composition. It didn’t fail to deliver. It has most of what makes a good screenplay: conflict, clarity of plot, and a storybook climax. However, it lacks one very important thing, split into three subcategories: resolution against a believable, scary antagonist with clear motivations. This missing piece was its undoing, destroying the rest of the film and trivializing the conflict.
The story of The Muppets begins with a lighthearted montage highlighting the relationship between two brothers: one a puppet character named Walter who dreams of becoming a Muppet someday, the other a human named Gary played by Jason Segel. It establishes their appreciation of each other, and sets up one of the main conflicts: Walter’s growing dissatisfaction with his differences. Over the next few chunks of movie, we learn that they are setting out on a trip to visit Los Angeles for Gary and his girlfriend Mary’s ten-year anniversary, Walter in tow. The young puppet is thrilled to have the chance to visit the Muppet Studios where all the episodes of The Muppet Show were recorded decades ago.
Unfortunately, when they arrive they find the studio shut down, derelict, covered in dust, and strung with spiderwebs. Only a single, disgruntled tour guide remains, who takes them unenthusiastically to Kermit the Frog’s former office. We learn that the Muppets have been out of style for years, and after drifting apart, they were forgotten.
Walter wanders off and happens to overhear a convenient conversation between three suited figures, one of which is Tex Richman. He and his cronies discuss a plan to take over the Muppet Studios due to a small article within the “standard Rich and Famous” contract Kermit signed years ago. It states that Tex Richman has the rights to the property by a certain date, if the Muppets are unable to come up with ten million dollars. This is the point where we learn that Tex is the “bad guy”. Walter learns of the dastardly villain’s plot to level the studios and drill for oil (which is strange, considering the studios are located in the middle of the city…). Walter, of course, then sets out on a journey to reunite the Muppets so they can put on one last show, raise the money, and buy their studio back.
This seems like a relatively reasonable set up for the film that follows, seeing as most audiences would be accepting of such a simple plot. However, Tex Richman fails to live up to the image the film makers want him to have. He is never scary, seldom intimidating, and last of all, he has no reason to be doing what he is doing.
For a short time after the character is first introduced, Tex appears to be nice, pretending to be converting the Muppet Studios into a Muppet museum. Walter soon finds the real reason for the takeover by listening in secretly, at which point Tex tells his henchmen to perform a “maniacal laugh”. They do so, to the audience’s confusion. Much later in the movie, we discover that the reason for this is because of Tex Richman’s own inability to laugh, maniacally or otherwise. It’s an interesting quirk to give a villain, but the late reveal defeats the effectiveness, essentially robbing the audience of something to identify the antagonist with for the majority of the movie.
The only real encounter the Muppets have face to face with Tex is well before the climax, in the billionaire’s office, where a ridiculously embarrassing hip hop number takes place featuring the villain himself, rapping about how he does anything and everything he wants, because he is rich. Kermit sits bemused, while the audience covers their faces in shame. Any smidgen of intimidation previously present is very suddenly gone.
Even the climax of the film is lackluster (though it does have one of the only instances of much appreciated nostalgia). Tex attempts to shut down the power to the studio while the Muppets are filming a telethon meant to save them and raise ten million dollars. He rams his car into a power pole, severs a main power line, and eventually tries to cut live wires on top of the building with nothing but bolt cutters (never mind how deadly it would be if he succeeded). Through all of this, there is no contact with the heroes of the story. Eventually one of his own “turned-leaf” henchmen takes the bolt cutters from him, and essentially knocks him out by accident. The entire sequence only serves to make Tex look childish, incompetent, and utterly un-threatening.
One of the main downfalls of the entire plot was the lack of motivation Tex Richman had for doing what he does. By openly acknowledging the fact that even the film makers don’t know why he is such a bad guy, the audience is given nothing with which to reconcile the events taking place. We are told that Tex is bad because that is his nature, which only works for faceless Evil Overlords in their towers, not men in business suits. To essentially tell the audience, “Laugh with us, ‘cause Tex being a bad dude just ‘because’ is a joke,” doesn’t work. Mainly because it has been done before (and better) in The Great Muppet Caper, when Kermit asks Steve Martin’s character, “Why are you doing this?” to which the villain replies charmingly, “Because I’m a villain!”.
Also, the city of Los Angeles would definitely not allow oil drilling efforts to take place directly on top of the oil deposit. The red tape, zoning issues, and most of all, the local public’s involvement in the inevitable protests would be impossible to surmount. At very least, Tex would have to introduce an angled system to allow a long drill and line to access the oil from outside city limits, thus leaving the Muppet Studio untouched. This would be his only option, and hardly feasible. Thus the entire conflict of the story is fundamentally flawed in a large, very noticeable way.
All of the above aside, the conflict fails to resolve properly. Tex is not defeated or even shown up by the Muppets and friends (they fail to get the ten million dollars by the time limit). There are several resolutions across the board, from Walter’s inclusion into the ranks of the Muppets, Kermit’s reconcile with Miss Piggy, Gary’s proposal to Mary, to the resurgence of the Muppet’s relevance in modern media. However, they do nothing to overcome Tex’s “evil”, there is no comeuppance, and there is no resolution to his involvement. Almost as an afterthought, the film maker’s have Gonzo hit the (somehow) defeated villain with a bowling ball on accident, loosening a laugh from him for the first time, after which Tex decides to give the Muppets back their studio. It’s shoddy writing, and a huge let down, trivializing the efforts of all the characters involved.
Many people might say that all of these facts are pointless when applied to a kid’s movie. That a movie like The Muppets isn’t intended to wrap one’s mind in layers of mystery and plot. It’s meant to enjoyed, simply and quickly. Well, it came close to accomplishing that goal. But since the Muppets are famous for entertaining all age groups with different levels of humor and quality writing, it’s an excuse that doesn’t hold up. With just a little tweaking of the antagonist in three key areas, it could have ended as a much better film. Hopefully future Muppet movies take a cue from their older predecessors and focus on a good story first, and gimmicky characters last.