November 30, 2011

The Muppets (2011)

REALITY CHECK: There are now generations of children who haven’t been properly exposed to the special brand of adorable anarchy that is the Muppets. This is a crime.

Apparently, actor Jason Segel (Forgetting Sarah Marshall) felt the same way. Drawing on his fond childhood memories of the original Muppet movies and The Muppet Show, he championed a new feature film for his formerly famous felt friends (fun fact: I love alliteration). That film, simply titled The Muppets, opened over the Thanksgiving holiday.

The premise is inspiring, and has one foot in pseudo-reality: The Muppets disbanded years ago, and no one has heard from (or cared about) them since. But this may change as Kermit, Fozzie Bear, Miss Piggy, and the gang reunite to throw a telethon to save the Muppet Theater from being demolished by a greedy oil tycoon, Tex Richman (a perfectly evil Chris Cooper). Leading the charge are two brothers: human Gary (Segel) and his Muppet brother Walter (voice of Peter Linz), who dreams of one day being an official member of the Muppets himself.


In creating The Muppets, Segel (who co-wrote the script) and director James Bobin had two daunting tasks: 1) Satisfy the nostalgia of Gen X-ers raised on the original Muppet movies and The Muppet Show; 2) Hook the current generation of children who only know Muppets from the benign edutainment of Sesame Street.

Did they succeed? Regarding the latter, time will tell if there’s room today among kids’ fast-paced, CGI-laden entertainment for a bunch of felt characters who haven’t been big since the Reagan administration. But for parents who were raised on Kermit, Fozzie, and Miss Piggy’s antics, The Muppets hits all the sweet spots of nostalgia. If you’re a Gen X-er (like yours truly), you’ll feel like a kid again as the film shows clips of the old Muppet Show, pans past framed pictures of former guest hosts, and hauls out a new yet faithful rendition of “The Rainbow Connection,” the signature song from the original Muppet Movie.

Like the Muppet films that preceded it, the humor in The Muppets is very self-aware. Clever bits include traveling “by map” to get places faster, and the Muppets agreeing that a montage would be the best use of time for rounding up the remaining members of their gang to save the theater.

The Muppets works best when the humans don’t get in the way. Yes, there are human villains and a slew of celebrity cameos in the original trilogy of Muppet films (The Muppet Movie, Great Muppet Caper, and The Muppets Take Manhattan). But the Muppets didn’t share the main storylines in those films with anyone who wasn’t a fellow felt creation. While it’s understandable Segel would want to write himself into his dream project, you wonder how much leaner the film might have been had he relegated himself to a cameo or supporting role.

The Muppets’ original musical numbers by Flight of the Concords’ Bret McKenzie are good, the standouts being the big opener “Life’s a Happy Song” and the hysterically overwrought “Man or Muppet.” However, the licensed soundtrack choices are trite and uninspired, including tired anthems such as “Back in Black,” “Bad to the Bone,” and “We Built This City.”

Another area that’s anemic is the lackluster roster of celebrity cameos, which in past Muppet films has been populated either by current A-listers or Hollywood royalty. To compare: The original Muppet Movie has Milton Berle, Bob Hope, Mel Brooks, James Coburn, Dom DeLuise, Madeline Kahn, Richard Pryor, Steve Martin, and Orson Welles. With The Muppets, we get Emily Blunt, Judd Hirsch, Ken Jeong, Jim Parsons, Sarah Silverman, John Krasinski, Emily Blunt, and the kid from ABC’s Modern Family. (One plus: Neil Patrick Harris’ cameo is both fleeting and funny.) You also have to wonder if kids who watch The Muppets generations from now will know or remember Jack Black (Kung Fu Panda 2), the “celebrity host” (emphasis on the air quotes) that the Muppets get to emcee the telethon.

Soundtrack and celebrities aside, nearly everything about The Muppets feels right. It’s fun to watch, and it exposes today’s kids to the joys of Muppet mayhem. After a rousing finale, the audience in our theater applauded. And as we left the theater, I was happy.

But once we got home, the cinematic equivalent of buyer’s remorse set in. Did Segel and Bobin just use a large chunk of Muppets nostalgia to make their movie work? Aside from some new, uneven musical numbers, what did they bring to the Muppet legacy to re-establish it, as was surely the plan with this project?

Look at it this way: Midway through The Muppets, Miss Piggy declares they’re going to get a celebrity host for their telethon “by any means necessary.” The same goes for the film itself. If it means nostalgically hijacking the Muppet memories of Gen X-ers to get a new generation of kids to know, cherish, and bond with Kermit and company, fine. Whatever it takes. The truth is, as you’re watching those memories unfold on screen, you won’t care. You’ll just be happy to see the Muppets again – and that today’s generation of kids can now discover what they’ve been missing.


What did Dash and Jack-Jack think?
They loved The Muppets, laughing frequently and eating up the antics. Some of the plot logistics may have gone over their heads, but it didn’t faze the fun they were having – though Jack-Jack was quick to point out, upon Fozzie demonstrating his “fart shoes:” “See, that’s why it’s rated PG.”

Is it suitable for your kids?
The Muppets is rated PG for mild rude humor, aka the aforementioned fart shoes. Aside from those shoes, a comical fistfight breaking out at a relaxation center, and some menacing by Cooper’s Tex Richman, there’s nothing terribly inappropriate for kids.

Will your FilmMother want to watch it?
Absolutely. And she should. Despite its minor flaws, she’ll love The Muppets. See it as a family; if you don’t have kids, see it as a couple. It’s worth it.

"Wow, there it is...where all the Oompa-Loompas make Everlasting Gobstoppers..."
"Uh, Gary, you're thinking of a different place..."

The Muppets
* Director: James Bobin
* Screenwriters: Jason Segel, Nicholas Stoller
* Stars: Jason Segel, Amy Adams, Chris Cooper, Jack Black
* MPAA Rating: PG

Rent The Muppets from Netflix >>


Retro Hound said...

Well I tell ya, my kids have seen all the Muppet movies and some of the TV shows, all on Netflix or gramdma's video tape collection, so I hardly think this movie is necessary. But I'm an old curmudgeon.

Phillyradiogeek said...

I saw the film an highly enjoyed it. It wasn't perfect, but a very welcome film that I hope re-establishes the Muppets for today's generation and, hopefully, inspires future projects, especially the return of the Muppet Show.

That's possibly the thing I enjoyed the most about the movie: it's not just a love letter to the Muppets in general, but specifically to the Muppet Show, where we first enjoyed the characters. Truly one of my favorite TV series of all time.

Tom said...

Haha. "Buyer's remorse"..I felt the same. Also yawned "ho-hum" at the lackluster cameos, which felt rushed. Alan Arkin's was good. That would have been cool if they got Adam Sandler for the anger therapy scene.

James (SeattleDad) said...

Sounds like a lot of fun. Thanks for the review.

StuartOhQueue said...

This is probably my favorite family film since "Rango." I finally caught the first "Kung-Fu Panda" over Christmas break and was impressed by that as well (the story and characters, not the animation).


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