Mitchell Stein- The Muppets are no strangers to lending themselves to classic stories, two of them most notably on the big-screen in their theatrical films, Muppet Treasure Island and The Muppet Christmas Carol. Therefore, another venture into the world of classic tales should feel like familiar territory for the characters. With their latest book, The Muppets Meet the Classics: The Phantom of the Opera, the book’s author Erik Forrest Jackson is clearly highly influenced by the works of The Muppets’ storytelling adventures, which for the most part, strongly plays to its advantage. Unlike The Muppet Christmas Carol, and more like Muppet Treasure Island, Jackson places the reader outside of the world of The Muppets we are familiar with, and places them as roles within the classic Gaston Leroux tale, and allows us to immersive ourselves within the logic of having these characters play the roles within the tale. However, this is both to it’s advantage and disadvantage, which plays out differently throughout the story.
The great thing about this retelling of The Phantom of the Opera, is that each role in the story is well-fit to the Muppet character that portrays them within the story. Jackson takes great time to find that each role fits exceptionally perfectly to the tale, and it all plays out brilliantly throughout. The thing that doesn’t work about this though, is the odd illusion that we are placed within, and while we know that this is possibly just The Muppets putting on another show, this time performing The Phantom of the Opera, there’s no attempt to ease us into this setting. Even Muppet Treasure Island allowed to pull us into this world of pirate Muppets, with an opening sequence that credits Kermit the Frog as Captain Smollet, Miss Piggy as Benjamina Gunn, and the greatest opening credit of all time, Rizzo the Rat, as Himself. In that film, while the fact is never stated by the characters, we’re given the indication that this is a tale in which The Muppets be playing characters other than themselves. This would certainly work to the advantage of the franchise when it comes to Leroux’s tale, that’s because Phantom is exceptionally dark. Several beloved Muppets are killed throughout the story and have passed away in established backstories, making this the first time a Muppet has actually died during a Muppet production. Since we aren’t pulled into this illusion in which the Muppets are merely actors, this makes everything feel exceptionally grim.
Again, much comes back to this fact, and this has many instances of where the characters say things that are ‘out-of-character’ for them to say, but then again, the characters are playing characters within a story. So often some characters will need to say things slightly out of their comfort zone for the sake of plot. That’s where the line is blurred from the Muppet characters we are familiar with, and the idea of these characters merely being actors. Or, in this world of illusion, did the troupe known as ‘The Muppets’ ever exist, and are we meant to believe the characters in this world are only known by their Phantom characters? As always with The Muppets, it is best not to think about it too much, especially considering we’re still left wondering if Kermit and Piggy got married in The Muppets Take Manhattan or if that was ‘just a movie’. Gosh, Muppet canon is confusing.
Hey, speaking of characters, did I mention that this book is full of obscure characters? Because it is. A number of obscure characters are featured in this book, from Johnny Fiama, J.P. Grosse, Polly Lobster, Clueless Morgan, Howard Tubman, or Fleet Scribbler will have even the most seasoned of Muppet fans jumping over to Muppet Wiki to name-check characters unseen since The Muppet Show or Muppets Tonight. Some of this obscure-ness certainly feels like a bit of obscure fanservice, but I’m not sure how much of the Muppet readership base can honestly remember Howard Tubman by name.
Another thing is that the book would certainly be stronger with more ambition, and it would have been to it’s strength to acknowledge the absurdity of the situation that is a Muppet-retelling of Phantom of the Opera. The Muppet are at their best when breaking the fourth wall and tackling the absurdity of the genres they’ve just ambitiously tackled, and while the book does a good job at balancing elements to associate with the idea that The Muppets are putting on an amateurish Phantom re-telling, there is a lot of opportunities to go further that the book doesn’t take.
Muppets Meet the Classics is endlessly fun though, and it is full of the goofy tongue-in-cheek gags and humor that are commonly associated with The Muppets, even if at times, that dialogue or pacing seems off. Not everything works as well as it should, and there’s certainly much that could have worked better, but Phantom isn’t bad because of those flaws because the general overview of the book works extremely well.
Perhaps one of my favorite things about the Muppets is that they can take on any story, genre, or format, and it works. Erik Forrest Jackson proves that there are hardly any limits to the stories what the Muppets can take on and the formats that they can translate into. Phantom of the Opera does not need to match The Muppet Christmas Carol or Muppet Treasure Island, nor should it need to. It isn’t the big Muppet production that we wish Disney was focusing their attention towards, but it makes for a fun read, and a project that I hope will inspire young readers to other Muppet productions. Muppets Meet the Classics is the first in a series of upcoming books from Penguin Workshop and The Muppets Studio, and it’s safe to say that while it’s not perfect, it’s off to a truly wonderful start, and we can’t wait to see where it goes next.
The Muppets Meet the Classics: Phantom of the Opera is now available for purchase online.