This past Friday saw the UK cinema release of Muppets Most Wanted, directed by James Bobin and starring Ricky Gervais, Tina Fey and, of course, those lovable Muppets. This movie marks the 8th theatrical released Muppet movie in the last 35 years, and their creation dates back over half a century. Despite this, The Muppets seem to be as popular as ever, with 2011’s The Muppets drawing $165M at the worldwide box office.

How, after so many years, and numerous ups and downs, are the Muppets still seeing such success? What is it about The Muppets that has made them the most enduring ensemble cast in cinematic history?

The first, and maybe most important, element of The Muppets’ continuing success has to be their creator, Jim Henson. When Henson created these lovable characters, he imbued them with perhaps his most valuable trait. Positivity. In a world where negative emotions and opinions are the easy fall-back response to anything, The Muppets still shine as a beacon of hope, and all that is good about the world. They ‘live’ to entertain, and it is this quality that does indeed bring these characters to life.

And they really do feel alive. Even though long periods of time go by without a major Muppet release, and despite the fact that they are, (whispers), puppets, it is impossible not to wonder about what they have been up to in the interim. This is because they are, and always have been, fully fleshed out characters. Kermit is the classic leading frog, Miss Piggy the original diva. Scooter is the spoilt rich kid, and Gonzo is, well, Gonzo. They all have differing relationships with each other too. Kermit and Miss Piggy have a very special, very real relationship. Fozzie and Kermit are best friends, whilst Gonzo is almost like the manic third wheel. Meanwhile, Rolf is the Dean Martin of the group, cool and mellow.

The Muppets are at a very good age for making new fans right now. Much like Star Wars, and other iconic properties of the late seventies, the original audience have never forgotten, and merchandise has continued to be released constantly. These fans have their own kids now; at about the age they were when they first developed love for the felt puppets. The brilliance of the original Muppet Show was that whilst the fuzzy puppets were obviously directed at kids, the, sometimes very subversive, humour within the show was aimed at both children and adults. Whilst this at times Python-esque comedy isn’t quite so prevalent in Muppet movies, what is there does still appeal to both parents and children alike, meaning adults are far keener to introduce their sons and daughters to The Muppets than to more nonsensical ‘family’ properties.

None of this would help keep the Muppet love alive, however, if the property hadn’t been able to remain current. Since the very beginning, though, the Muppets have aligned themselves with real world stars of the day. From the huge guest stars The Muppet Show was able to attract, to the stars that have been peppered throughout the Muppet movie catalogue in both cameos and main roles, The Muppets have always used contemporary celebrities to enhance their appeal.

The films themselves have also evolved. The first three Muppet movies dealt with the adventures of the Muppets, but rather than rehashing similar ideas for subsequent films, they instead began playing characters in adaptations of famous stories. When that approach began to show diminishing returns, The Muppets returned to their roots, and whilst Muppets From Space didn’t really work, 2011’s The Muppets saw the titular stars returning to form.

This, in large part, was due to Walter. Walter was a new Muppet, and worked very much as a bridge between the Muppets and real world characters, giving new young fans a character they could identify with. The original Muppet cast have remained constant throughout their time in the spotlight, but additions have been made along the way to keep things fresh and interesting. Some, like Clifford, have maybe not proved as popular, but others, like Pepe the King Prawn, and Johnny Fiama and Sal, have become genuine favourites in their own right.

If left to inhabit their own world, The Muppets may well have withered and died. One of their biggest strengths, however, is that in all of their properties, they truly live in the real world. Human co-stars treat them as equals, meaning they don’t look ridiculously out of place in their films. They don’t live in a technicolour dreamland, where every worry can be banished with a magic sword. The Muppets struggle against the same life challenges as the rest of us. Finding jobs, making money, and achieving dreams.

The Muppets don’t look or sound like us, because they are not us. They are what we aspire to be. Contented, positive beings, facing life’s trials with a song, a dance, and a smile. Unless, by some miracle, we manage to reach this ideal ourselves, we will always be fascinated by Jim Henson’s great creations, and The Muppets will continue to live on. Forever.