Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Movie Review: The Muppets

Richard Hunt, Steve Whitmire, Jerry Nelson, Jim Henson, Frank Oz and Dave Goelz

I haven’t written anything other than business letters and passive aggressive emails for some time now. I’ve been thinking about loss lately, mostly because I lost my grandfather in late September. I can’t help but feel that I didn’t have the chance to really make him proud before he left us. Maybe that’s because I refused to believe he was really leaving and that coincided with the recent realization that I will never be famous.  There is a palpable absence in my heart and mind during those stark moments when I recognize that he is no longer here where we are right now. Do they even have the Interweb in Heaven?  A little closer to the surface, a couple rungs up the strata of my psyche is another hole, a hole for famous people.  It’s not a very big hole, but Jim Henson makes up most of it. I will one day fit Steve Martin in that hole too.  Huh, that sounds disgusting. Anyway, I remember the morning when someone at school told me Henson died, I was in denial then too.  But, last week my heart was lifted for 98 minutes and during that time everything was right with the world...almost.

The Muppets have not graced the silver screen since the far from memorable Muppets From Space way back in ’99.  While the efforts shortly after Henson’s 1990 death are quite wonderful and true to his spirit (The Muppet Christmas Carol & Muppet Treasure Island), Muppets From Space signaled a strange time for the Muppets and their fans. Mediocre TV specials, Frank Oz stepping down from performing Piggy, Fozzie, Animal and others - the Muppets as most of us knew them were just not right.  After rumors of Oz working on a script to bring them back to the theater, Muppet enthusiast and pretty funny guy Jason Segel and his writing partner Nick Stoller got the gig.  When James Bobin and Brett McKenzie, co-creators of the Flight of the Conchords, were attached some of us got, I daresay it, excited for the reboot.  After months of teasers, fake trailers, real trailers that seems fake and irksome speculation the wait is over.  But, after decade of modest output, do the Muppets still have it?

For the most part, yes they do.  Bobin, Segel (who also stars), and Stoller ease the faithful back into this world where, to paraphrase Oz, bears can tell jokes, chickens can sing, pigs can be stars and they all can ride bicycles.  The gentlemen do this by making the newest Muppet as big of a fan as many of us, or at least very short and felt-covered stand-in for a couple of generations’ childhood hopes and dreams named Walter. It feels as if Segel and company are acutely aware that with one wrong line or plot point they could retroactively contaminate one of the most creative and beloved franchises in movie history like so many blinking Ewoks.  If only it had Oz’s approval, that would make the rebirth truly blessed.

Walter is the biggest Muppet fan in Smalltown, USA having been introduced to old Muppet Show DVD’s by his brother Gary (Segel). The vertically challenged and unsure Walter finds kinship with the merry band of misfits and weirdos even though the Muppets haven’t performed together in “years.”  During a very adorable opening number we learn that Gary and Walter are inseparable, Garry is in love with Mary (Amy Adams), and Mary could stand to see Gary spend less time with his brother.  The three set off on a romantic bus ride to Hollywood, to fulfill Walter’s lifelong dream of visiting Muppet studios, and celebrate Gary and Mary’s ten year dating anniversary.  But, upon arrival in L.A. a heartbroken Walter finds the studios and theater in disrepair and while hiding in Kermit’s abandoned office, Walter learns that new owner of the property Tex Richman (Chris Cooper) is in fact not planning on opening a Muppet museum, but leveling it all to reach oil.

Walter, Gary and Mary seek out Kermit the Frog in a desperate attempt to save the theater. Mr. The Frog, far from the limelight (and his ancestral swamp), is a lonely soul hold up in his old Hollywood mansion filled with Muppet memorabilia and oddly, a large number of oil painting of his former Muppet co-stars.  Fueled by the drive to give the world the third most important gift of all, laughter, Walter convinces Kermit to get the gang back together to put on a show to save the theater despite their lack of market relevance.

A road trip commences, with 80’s Robot (voiced by John Hodgeman) at the wheel, to gather up the rest of the disbanded Muppets, allowing for some of the most creative bits in the film.  It would be a disservice for me to summarize this sequence, but I will tell you that you get to meet the Moopets in Reno and Gonzo is still with Camilla after all these years (click here if you hate surprises). With the gang all here, the Muppets and their new human friends work to get the theater up to code and put together a variety show telethon that will hopefully raise the $10M needed to buy back the Muppets’ property.  Walter begins to find his niche, Gary struggles to deal with Walter’s newfound independence and Mary just hopes Gary doesn’t screw up their anniversary.  Piggy and Kermit do their relationship dance and the rest of the Muppets rally as they usually do, pulling out elaborate musical numbers with little to no rehearsal. As is the tradition with Muppet movies, celebrity cameos are plentiful. Sarah Silverman gives a nod to Steve Martin’s rude waiter in The Muppet Movie and Jack Black is really great as the straight man, just to name a few folks.

But there is a giant blue monster in the room.  And in addition to him, there are too many human faces front and center in too many scenes.  At times the Muppets themselves are clearly in supporting roles.  And if there is one Muppet star of this movie, it’s Walter, not Kermit – that’s just hard to accept even though Walter is surprisingly lovable and endearing.  But the other elements come together beautifully. Running jokes, sight gags, corny bits, disregard for the fourth wall, absurd renditions of contemporary pop songs, it’s all there – I don’t want to spoil anything with details. The Muppets is so refreshingly nostalgic and just really, really funny.

It seems logical that Conchords alums would be associated with the Muppets. After all, the Conchords are na├»ve yet sweet unhip outsiders attempting to follow their dreams in a dead genre just like the Muppets.  I didn’t get that Vaudeville wasn’t popular in the 70’s until much later in life when I reflect on where the Muppets fit into pop culture. The everlasting charm of the Muppets has everything to do with their persistence and knack for keeping old jokes (good and bad) alive and miraculously still funny - and the Muppets are never afraid to be the punchline.

Miss Piggy and Mary separately perform the disco number “Me Party” which, though cleverly intercut with Mary at Mel’s Diner and Piggy in her dressing room, managed to both bore and infuriate me despite Adams’ irresistible dance moves. There isn’t a plethora of female Muppets, there never has been actually. I don’t think Janice of Electric Mayhem has a single line in this film. But this “Me Party” song about a chick being ignored by her man is a reminder that Adams’ character really has no purpose other than to stand by Segel’s side and that Piggy has lost some of her depth.  It was one of the few week moments in the film.  McKenzie provides many other very clever songs written in the style of the Muppets, but they, like many Conchords songs, go for the rhyme not necessarily for the right sentiment.  “Me Party” is over quickly, and most of the other musical sequences seemed to be cut down for the current generation. As a kid, I always thought that Muppet musical numbers went on too long, especially compared to the frenetic pace of Sesame Street segments, so the change was welcome.

What caught me off guard about The Muppets and frankly, brought me to tears a few times, was the reverence for the original TV show. Clips and sounds from the past haunt The Muppets, recalling voices of the dead or disassociated (the late Jim Henson as Kermit and Richard Hunt as Scooter and the absent Oz and Jerry Nelson, specifically).  There is a resignation to today’s Kermit; there is a spark missing. That loss is overpowering at moments, but it helps these “new” Muppets achieve that bittersweet magic of the classic Muppets.  Defeat is a running theme in this world, for holding on to dreams in the real world is never easy.  We should remember that 1979’s The Muppet Movie ends as the set that they worked the whole movie to build crashes around fuzzy heroes.  But they still have faith – “Life’s like a movie, write your own ending…”

The Muppets is an honorable endeavor aimed at the true fans - those of us who, for example, used to slip in “Moving Right Along” into our high school mix tapes and have seen Muppet Vision 3D more than 6 times even though we’ve only visited that Disney park three times.  This new film is a welcome achievement. The writing is smart and the film is filled with Easter eggs for the observant. For the fans, The Muppets will at times bring us back to the days of sitting too close to the TV set and wondering just who the heck is Charles Azvanour or Kaye Ballard anyway.  For the rest of the world, it’s a hilarious family movie with an authenticity and naturalness that is hardly ever attained in Disney flicks.

No way around it, this looks weird.
Now this is going to sound really picky, but the one thing they didn’t get right was the seamless way in which Muppets and human actors were able to inhabit the same plane in the older films. Henson achieved this by building elaborate sets on platforms that allowed the human to integrate better on the same plane as their legless (and often pants-less) co-stars. In the finale of this film I couldn’t help cringe at the sight of a front row of dancing Muppets with an out of focus Segel and Adam’s dancing behind them. Hey, at least they didn’t use CGI.

Watching the Muppets “crash” Segel’s monologue on Saturday Night Live this past weekend further illustrated their status as supporting characters to more currently famous human actors. It was pretty depressing.  Regardless, The Muppets is a wonderful continuation of a franchise that seemed to be in danger of dying or just lingering in a sad state of not-so-great TV specials.  Most of the magic is back, as much as humanly possibly really, and that is a huge relief. And it’s wonderful that new generation is being introduced to a “new” from of live action children’s features that are clearly for adults too.  A quote from The Great Gonzo sums up the Muppets’ return best, “There’s not a word yet, for old friends who’ve just met.”

The Muppets
Opens tomorrow!
Dir.: James Bobin
Writ.: Jason Segel, Nick Stoller, based on Jim Henson’s characters
Starring: Humans and Muppets!
Rated: PG for mild and rude humor and fart shoes. Also, Chris Cooper does a rap and Miss Piggy does a questionable Karate move involving her crotch and Jack Black's face.

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