James V. Carroll - 2011 brought us a new Muppet movie featuring an all-new character responsible for getting the gang back together. That’s just a movie, of course. The Muppets were already around and working in numerous projects over the decades since the loss of their creator and entertainment legend Jim Henson. The Muppets' closing credits led a lot of fans to believe that Walter had served his purpose as a fan-boy plot device. It was time for him to join Clueless Morgan and Polly Lobster on the unemployment line, or maybe he’d head over to some downtown Manhattan boardroom to pitch a new angle on Ocean Breeze Soap with Bill, Gil and Jill. That would have been a great injustice to such a delightful character and Muppet hero.
Our first glimpse of the spunky little fella came from a beautiful magazine spread for Entertainment Weekly. He initially received a backlash of fan criticism over the perception of a somewhat stiff, generic appearance. A lot was riding on his fleece and felt shoulders so I don’t blame him for looking a little nervous. Besides, simplicity is the heart of the best Muppet designs. He’s displayed enough wild expressions in The Muppets, crazy dance moves in the Lady Gaga & The Muppets Holiday Spectacular and a very passionate performance in “The Weight” number for Jimmy Fallon’s epic Late Night finale to legitimize his place with the rest of the gang.
In recent years we have seen the Muppets begin to grow stale without new characters and new situations to explore. Every theater troupe knows the vitality of this. The Muppet Show had a way of throwing things against the wall to see what sticks. Unfortunately, the gang doesn’t currently have the privilege of a weekly show, but Walter seems perfectly content with being thrown against anything for the sake of his friends. That, by itself, is not enough. It is important that he distinguish himself from the other Muppets. His debut certainly showcases his fanaticism, musical prowess and whistling skills, but it does a lot more than that. Peter Linz portrays Walter as a live-wire and that’s a genuine thrill to watch.
Walter's rise to fame was swift. His character was thrust upon the public whether we were ready for him or not. That’s a really big gamble that has been tried several times before with mixed results. Clifford served a similar role in the ill-fated Muppets Tonight. Fans were already familiar with the character from The Jim Henson Hour, but his character hadn’t really been established with a wider viewing audience. His initial introduction on stage exclaiming, "Hi, I'm Clifford. Your homey made of foamy!" was kind of cringe-worthy and outdated, even by 90s standards. Most of us warmed-up to him over time. The poor guy had big flippers to fill and it was a mistake to hire anyone except Kermit to host a Muppet show. Lesson learned. Clifford has some funny moments and he’s one of the more visually stunning Muppets. I was hoping his character would develop over time, yet it appears he's taken an indefinite sabbatical along with the extremely talented Kevin Clash.
Pépe is an example of the correct way to introduce a Muppet. The prawn, like fellow diva Miss Piggy before him, began as more of a chorus Muppet than a main player. He immediately struck a chord with everyone and the writers followed suit. The rest is history. That's how it usually works. Pépe, along with the rest of Bill Barretta's stock of characters, helped revitalize the Muppet brand in the late 90s. He also lends a legitimate spark to the rather hollow Muppets From Space. I imagine poor Seymour is somewhere clipping coupons and living on canned beans. I hope Pépe remembers to send a check to his forgotten friend every once in a while.
Walter didn't have several episodes to cultivate his persona. He had one shot to make an impression. This humble little guy wasn’t some interloper trying to take Kermit's place like Matt Vogel's masterfully performed Constantine in Muppets Most Wanted. Instead, he became the guide for young audiences to experience the Muppet gang for the first time. He was a helpful fan whose adoration for Kermit is apparent in nearly every frame of the 2011 film. This could have been the formula for a rather dull character if not for the absurd lengths Walter takes his helpfulness. This is evidenced by his willingness to be tossed over an electrified fence as many times as it takes in order to meet with Kermit.
Some fans and critics have claimed that Walter only serves as a needless version of Scooter. I'm going to invoke my own inner-Walter and choose to see that as a misunderstanding rather than the blatant Muppet racism that it probably is. While Walter has a warm skin tone and often serves as Kermit's helper, the similarities end there. Walter is timid and gracious. Many people misremember Scooter. He's not the nerdy one-note computer enthusiast that the Muppet Babies made him out to be. Richard Hunt provided him with a very colorful, passive-aggressive personality. Scooter confidently elbowed his way into the Muppet group through nepotism. After all, until recently his Uncle J.P. Grosse owned the Muppet Theatre. Scooter has lofty dreams of becoming a rock star as seen in his "Six-String Orchestra" number and his idolization of Muppet Show guest star Elton John. These are things that would easily cause poor Walter to run through a wall or faint. Scooter has a playful side and can be a little stinker at times. He often delights in the chaos that ensues while attending to Kermit’s needs. An argument could be made that he has a hand in encouraging some of this backstage grief for his own amusement. Scooter had an agenda during those early days and worked hard at it. That’s what solidified him as a lovable main player that David Rudman continues today while he accompanies Scooter as he scolds TED audiences about perceived technological slights against puppets in the digital age and helping the gang figure out the new Toyota Highlander.
Walter didn’t save the Muppets from Tex Richman. He saved the Muppets from a zombie-like fate of retracing old steps. Walter’s presence, and the possibilities created by it, has breathed new life into the group. The Muppets never went away like Segel and Stoller suggested in their movie, but they haven’t been this lively or fun in years. The Muppet Christmas Carol, Muppet Treasure Island, Muppets From Space, and It's A Very Merry Muppet Christmas Movie are all noble attempts at bringing back the magic, yet the main cast often appears to be suffering from a peculiar melancholy. Walter brought some much-needed spark back into the Muppets and that makes him a hero in my eyes. It’s also what keeps the Muppets from merely being nostalgic relics of the past. They have a future and Walter is part of it. I enjoyed him. I hope he stays with us for a very long time and brings some new guys like Constantine with him to join our favorite fuzzy anarchists.
Walter is not Scooter, he's not a Clifford-type, and he's certainly not a generic whatnot. Walter is earnest. He's so kind-hearted that it blinds him to many obvious obstacles around him. That often causes him to become self-involved with his own selflessness and all of this behavior appears to come by choice rather than delusion. Or maybe he chooses the delusion. Either way, it's clear that he's kind of a mess and that’s what makes Walter a Muppet. A very manly Muppet!
The Muppet Mindset by Ryan Dosier, firstname.lastname@example.org