Everyone loves Muppets. Everyone. Thanks to The Muppet Show, Sesame Street and various Muppet movies, everyone knows the big ones.
But there are dozens of Muppet characters, and some of them are quite monstrous.
One of the oldest and biggest is known only as “Sweetums”.
It fits him perfectly, don’t you think?
Sweetums first appeared in a Muppet adaptation of “The Frog Prince”, with Sweetums being an ogre in service of the witch who cursed the titular prince. And he is deeply stupid. It fits with the whole “Ogre” thing. Strong upper torso with a proud mane suggests that it was built for close in combat with prey (or other ogres).
The most interesting thing about its general biology is in the massive jaw. Sweetums has the under bite of a bulldog or pug.
This is ‘looks tough’ but is actually more disadvantageous, and more found in animals that are breed by humans than in the wild.
The original bulldogs had a longer jaws designed to hold onto bulls and pull them down (by the nose, primarily).
They’ve changed quite a bit since then.
It’s meant to look big and intimidating to us humans, primarily.
Bared teeth (with prominent fangs) are an old primate threat symbol (and the smile is chimpanzee symbolism for submission, just for comparison).
That it has the physical power to back up such visible threats is almost an afterthought. This suggests that Sweetums, at least originally, was a creation of the witch or other dark magic user for the purpose of being a big, strong, dumb bodyguard or weapon against their foes.
Of course, that’s just where he first appeared. Like all Muppets, he keeps showing up in situations where such an origin would not make much sense, assuming there’s continuity in Muppet appearances and that is too nerdy even for me.
Because he’s been around for so long, Sweetum’s symbolism has gone under some interesting shifts. Originally, he was an ogre in both form and shape. An adversary that was strong but deeply stupid. A big, threatening adversary for children through which the mind is the strongest weapon they have.
Later appearances didn’t do that, they did something completely different.
I call it the Hagrid Principle; named after J.K. Rowling’s half-giant animal husbandry ‘expert’ in the Harry Potter series. A monstrous version of not judging a book by its cover. A character or creature looks big and ferocious, but is actually sweet and kind.
In those appearances Sweetums living up to his name. He spends most of The Muppet Movie just trying to find the other Muppets (something that becomes a bit of a running gag). The movie also has him being abused more directly by his handler (his one in “The Frog Prince” wasn’t too nice to him either, but Mad Man Mooney is far slimier), making him far more sympathetic. The softened features of the puppet also help.
Other appearances let him keep his overall ferociousness (as he becomes the effective leader of the other monstrous Muppets out there), such as his appearance in Muppet Treasure Island which is well worth a watch if only for the delicious ham that is Tim Curry.
In that film, Sweetums starts as one of the unscrupulous cutthroats that Long John Silver (Tim Curry) hires, the initial joke being that his name doesn’t match his appearance (contrasted with a list of names which amounted to sight gags and a beautiful woman named “Big Fat Ugly Bug Faced Baby Eating O’Brian”).
The lesson is there: don’t trust things by their name.
But during the climactic battle, he turns on the other pirates in epic fashion—throwing a log at three other pirates and taking them out. Kermit (The Captain) asks him why he did that. His reasoning remains very stupid, but lives up to his name. He just loves “You little guys” and goes on his rampage.
The lesson becomes: Don’t judge things by their appearance.
He has transformed from monster to be conquered to a lesson against prejudice and judging people (or monsters).
That’s not to say he doesn’t also play roles of the dimwitted thug/ogre still (Muppet Wizard of Oz), the symbolism just isn’t as deep in comparison.