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October 16, 2017

Review: The Muppets Phantom of the Opera

Filed under: Feature,Reviews — Tags: , — Joe Hennes @ 11:29 am

ToughPigs would like to give a special thanks to Disney for providing five copies of “The Muppets Meet the Classics: The Phantom of the Opera” for a fan giveaway.  For future contests, be sure to follow us on Twitter!

The fact that a book called “The Muppets Meet the Classics: The Phantom of the Opera” exists is strange and unexpected.  And that’s appropriate, because the book itself is strange and unexpected.

Written by Erik Forrest Jackson (after Gaston Leroux), we’re brought back to the world where the Muppets are adapting classic literature.  This has been done extremely well (see: Muppet Christmas Carol) and extremely horribly (see: Muppet Classic Theater), and it’s nice to see such a strong effort to capture what’s great about both the Muppets and this classic novel in one handful.

Admittedly, I read this book without ever having read or seen any incarnation of “The Phantom of the Opera”.  For all intents and purposes, this was my real introduction to the story.  Was this book the best way to experience the story for the first time?  Maybe.  I don’t recall how familiar I was with “A Christmas Carol” or “Treasure Island” before the Muppets did their interpretations, but I definitely hadn’t read either book yet, and just like “Phantom”, I knew enough of the CliffsNotes to get the gist.  Scary guy in a mask, haunts an opera house, falling chandelier… got it.

That said, this book definitely wants to be the third Muppet adaptation in the trilogy that includes Muppet Christmas Carol  and Muppet Treasure Island.  Does it live up to those expectations?  Kinda, but not in the way you’d expect.

Muppet Christmas Carol does a brilliant job at inserting the Muppets into a familiar story, but if it were adapted to a book, it would be a find-and-replace for each of the character names, giving us Charles Dickens’ original text with a green Cratchit family and a pluralized “Marleys”, but otherwise mostly unchanged.  “Phantom” has the added challenge of not having visuals to help create the Muppets’ signature style, so it’s forced to add lots and lots (and lots) of jokes.

The strange thing is that the amount of jokes (both the ones that land and those that don’t) would be obnoxious on screen.  The story hardly has time to breathe between Fozzie’s puns and Gonzo’s non-sequitors, but that’s okay when we expect those sorts of things from these guys.  Going without some sort of Muppet reference or gag in each paragraph would make us wonder why they didn’t just reprint the original Gaston Leroux book with a furry cover and just be done with it.

Speaking of “obscure”, this book finds every opportunity possible to make reference to an old or forgotten Muppet character.  Muppets like J.P. Grosse, Mildred Huxtetter, Seymour the Elephant, Yolanda, Howard Tubman, Polly Lobster, Mr. Poodlepants, Johnny Fiama’s mom, Fleet Scribbler, and literally dozens more make appearances or get name-checked.  Sometimes the references are so obscure, it makes me wonder who this book is for: Muppet fanatics or people curious enough to look these names up on the Muppet Wiki.

Of course, the main Muppet cast fills in for the main cast.  Kermit and Miss Piggy star as Vicomte Kermit de Chagny and Piggy Daaé, with Uncle Deadly as the Phantom (his second time as a theater phantom, after the Twiggy episode of The Muppet Show – what a typecast!).  Statler and Waldorf serve as the curmudgeonly cheap managers of the theater, Fozzie is the resident Police Bear, and Constantine as Kermit’s twin brother (which, despite the accent, would be super interesting if canon…).  And then we’ve got lots of Muppet-specific references, like an operatic performance of “Mahna Mahna”, the Phantom being referred to as the “Koozebanian of Music”, and a twisted version of “Rainbow Connection”.

I guess it’s not worth recapping the story, since it’s so well known.  But from what I can tell (thanks Wikipedia!), the adaptation is pretty faithful.  As it should be – Muppet Christmas Carol and Muppet Treasure Island don’t stray too far from the source material, and neither do similar text-based spoofs like “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” or the “William Shakespeare’s Star Wars” novels.  I think the Muppets do extremely well in breaking the rules of well-known stories, but they also excel in translating them accurately.  They don’t often tread in the middle-ground.  Perhaps the next Muppet classic novel will tear down the fourth wall and play with the format, but for now, this works.

Also worth mentioning is the artwork found at the beginning of each chapter.  Artist Owen Richardson created some stunning photorealistic pieces (sadly, none in color, save the cover of the book) that remind me of the classic “Muppet Show Book“.  It’s refreshing to see someone talented create new, official Muppet artwork, rather than relying on stock photos and Clip Art.  Hopefully this is the start of a trend, and Disney will be creating more cool art for us to drool over.

The question I’ve been continually asking myself is this: Is the Muppets’ “Phantom of the Opera” fanfic?  Fan Fiction is defined as works using characters from an existing franchise, written by the fans rather than the original creators.  Since this book is an official Disney production, it’s easy to say it’s official, but it still reads as something written by a superfan.  We met author Erik Forrest Jackson briefly at New York Comic Con, and he is definitely a fan first.  He seems to have written this book from the point of view of someone who genuinely loves the Muppets, and he wanted to direct that love toward this novel.  Still, the tone of the book seems to lie somewhere between “official” and “fan service”, and I realize that the answer to my original question is: “Who cares?”

“The Muppets Meet the Classics: The Phantom of the Opera” is a fun book.  Is it brilliant?  Nah.  Is it the Next Big Thing for the Muppets?  Probably not.  But is it funny?  Is it full of entertaining Muppet characters and obscure references?  Will you enjoy yourself as you read it?  Yeah, absolutely.  This book fits well into the Muppets’ oeuvre, and it will look good on your bookshelf too.  Do yourself a favor and check this book out, remind yourself what you love about the Muppets, and enjoy the chandelier ride.

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by Joe Hennes – Joe@ToughPigs.com



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