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A Surprise Screening of The Muppets Disorients a Film Festival Crowd Psyched for Ennui

The Muppets Photo: Scott Garfield ?Disney Enterprises, Inc./?Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

For the average moviegoer with the average amount of joy in his or her heart, being surprised with the World Premiere screening of The Muppets would be a good thing. However, film festival attendees are not average moviegoers. They are trained to embrace unrelentingly dark films about death and ennui or complex foreign films about oppression, and so to unexpectedly spring an exuberant puppet comedy on them is akin to switching their salt shaker for one full of sugar. And so it went Friday night when the attendees at the Savannah Film Festival filled a theater for the mystery “Director’s Choice,” which was billed as a “special surprise screening of a highly anticipated film.” The crowd wanted something dark and heavy: Conventional wisdom had it that they’d be seeing either Steven Spielberg’s War Horse, Clint Eastwood’s J. Edgar, or Martin Scorsese’s Hugo. Instead, it was time to play the music, it was time to light the lights. Michael Barbo, in town from Massachusetts, was pretty annoyed. “I stayed groaning through the entire thing,” he later lamented. “I wanted something deep and artsy — I didn’t fly all the way down here for this. I like Muppets, just don’t do it at a film festival.”

It’s not that the SFF attendees will not tolerate any laughter: The broad comedy Butter had screened only a few days earlier, but in that case everyone had been warned in advance. At the Director’s Choice surprise screening, expectations had been raised, moods had been darkened, Pauline Kael biographies had been bookmarked! All for the Great Gonzo?! Shortly after the pick was revealed, several disappointed audience members harrumphed out of the theater to bitch about it at the ice cream parlor next door. Some begrudgingly copped to being okay with it, even if it took a little while to admit to themselves that it was a treat. Said one Savannah local, “For a director’s choice, I always think of something pretty dramatic, so I mentally made a groan. But it was delightful.” Elizabeth Mills, a filmmaker from New York who said she was definitely “not expecting this,” said she was open to seeing The Muppets, but that it couldn’t compare with what she’d experienced earlier in the week. “My favorite films at this festival were Inuk, about an abused Greenlandic teenager, and We Need to Talk About Kevin, about a budding psychopath,” she said. “By comparison, I was just bored by the idea of The Muppets.”

Fortunately, there were many younger budding cinephiles who were just as happy with Fozzie Bear as they would be with a Fassbinder retrospective. “When the theme song was just turning on, I was, like, singing along!’” squealed Jen Sparkman, a Savannah College of Art and Design film student from Las Vegas. Caroline Nead from New Orleans, who also studies film at SCAD, had some final words for the haters: “If the Muppets can’t brighten your day, you need to go see more Muppet movies.”

Film Festival Audience Can’t Handle Muppet Joy