The Muppets

The MuppetsSynopsis: Muppet domination continues with a hilarious new movie from Walt Disney Studios. Jason Segel, Academy Award nominee Amy Adams (Best Performance By An Actress In a Supporting Role, Junebug, 2005, Doubt, 2008, The Fighter, 2010) and Academy Award winner Chris Cooper (Best Performance By An Actor In A Supporting Role, Adaptation, 2002) join everyone’s favorite Muppets and an all-star celebrity cast in a comic adventure for the whole family.

While on vacation in Los Angeles, Walter, the world’s biggest Muppet fan, his brother Gary, and friend Mary uncover the diabolical plot of a greedy oil millionaire to destroy the Muppet Theater. Now, the Muppet-loving trio must reunite Kermit, Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear and their friends to stage the greatest Muppet telethon ever and save their beloved theater. The gang is back together again in a must-own movie full of irresistible music and family fun.

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The Muppets 8.0

eyelights: The Muppets. the relatively clever and respectful script. the perfectly-tuned nostalgia. the genius cameos. the exuberant musical numbers.
eyesores: the middling midsection. Chris Cooper’s painful rap. the Disney branding.

Walter: “The Muppets are amazing! You give people the greatest gift that can ever be given!”
Kermit the Frog: “Children?”
Walter: “No, the other gift.”
Kermit the Frog: “Ice cream?”
Walter: “No, no, after that…”
Kermit the Frog: “Laughter?”
Walter: “Yes! The third greatest gift ever!”

‘The Muppets’ is the 2011 comeback vehicle of Jim Henson’s beloved Muppets. Written, directed and produced by Muppets fans, it was intended not just as a return to form but a loving tribute to the characters and their films. Even though the Muppets hadn’t been seen on the big screen in a dozen years, the film was a smash hit – their biggest yet.

The plot is simple: Walter, a Muppet-like boy, suffers from stunted growth. Discovering The Muppets, he begins a life-long fascination with them. When he and his brother visit the disused and dilapidated Muppet Studios, he overhears a plot to tear it down – so he takes it upon himself to track down all of the Muppets in a bid to save the studio.

This is not a new theme for The Muppets, as they’ve had to save their theater on ‘The Muppet Show’ and, more recently, in the 2002 TV movie ‘It’s a Very Merry Muppet Christmas Movie’. The connections between the two are significant. The key difference: ‘The Muppets’ was quite entertaining, while the other is not. (More about that in December).

And ‘The Muppets’ truly is entertaining: I laughed, I cried, I sang along. (Thankfully, I live alone.)

Honestly, when I heard that Jason Segel was behind the Muppets’ renaissance, I immediately tuned out. Having seen him in ‘Forgetting Sarah Marshall‘ and ‘I Love You, Man’ was enough: they were amusing, and he could be funny, but he’s not an exceptional actor by any means. To me, there was nothing in his performances that inspired me.

It turns out that Segel is a huge Muppets fan, and he affectionately tackled the project with his writing partner Nicholas Stoller, turning out a script filled with old-school charm, nostalgic homages to days gone by, as well as references to more modern sensibilities – all the while staying true to Jim Henson’s lovable characters.

In short, he created a Muppet movie for Muppet fans.

In keeping with the classic Muppet films, this new production of ‘The Muppets’ (whose title really irks me – it sounds too much like a lame reboot) is jam-packed with silliness, all sorts of gags (some funny, others appropriately groan-worthy), catchy tunes, amusing cameos by tons of celebrities, and makes the most of its stars: The Muppets themselves.

The latter may seem self-evident, but, as anyone who’s kept up with The Muppets since the ’90s knows, this has not always been the case. In fact three of the movies that have been released since Jim Henson’s death sideline the Muppets, imposing personalities on them that are not their own. Segel and company knew better.

Unfortunately, all the ads that I saw, suggested otherwise. This was another reason why I didn’t see the film at the time. The trailers were so focused on Jason Segel and Amy Adams that it gave me the impression that it would be mostly about them – and since I’m no great fan of either of them, I just couldn’t be bothered.

Frankly, I needn’t have worried: not only do they leave the spotlight to The Muppets, but they were both really good here; neither played it camp or came off as too precious. And they were actually excellent in their musical numbers, surprisingly enough: Segel pulled through nicely, while Adams gave it all she had; she was fantastic.

Another concern I had was with respect to the new Muppet, Walter: he looks lame and doesn’t really fit in visually – he’s like a less inspired version of Scooter. I’ve heard countless complaints about Walter since the film’s release, but, truth be told, I thought he was just fine; he was a good bridge between the human and Muppet worlds.

In any case, he won me over the moment that he dressed up as Kermit for Hallowe’en. That was both hilarious and adorable!

While the movie begins with Walter, his brother Gary (Jason Segel) and Gary’s girlfriend, Mary (Amy Adams), it soon takes us to Muppet Studios, after which we are reintroduced to most of the Muppets in a sequence not dissimilar from the one in ‘The Blues Brothers‘ when Jake and Elwood try to put the band together again (Fozzie’s segment is strangely familiar).

Once the Muppets are reunited, ‘The Muppets’ focuses primarily on them, with a side-story about Gary and Mary facing romantic difficulties, and some time spent with the Tex Richman, the villain of the piece (played with gusto by Chris Cooper). In this respect, it is about as balanced as ‘The Great Muppet Caper‘ was.

One major difference between this film and the classics is that it’s not as fast and zany, although it has its share: in fact, it’s very consistent from start to finish. I laughed out loud many, many times – sometimes because it was funny, sometimes out of relief that the filmmakers were so careful and respectful, putting all sorts of little touches in it.

Speaking of which… the meta-references were back! Throughout ‘The Muppets’, knowing comments about the fact that this is movie are made by various characters, breaking the fourth wall. In effect, this indicated to the audience that we are all in on the joke – something that is integral to the Muppets’ brand of humour.

This allowed for the filmmakers to formally acknowledge that some things are impossible in the real world, but that it was possible via “movie magic”. So, for instance, when the passage of time was being messed with (ex: Segel and Adams go back and forth between Smalltown and L.A. in minutes), it was okay. Funny, even.

I adored how the filmmakers immersed us into the Muppets all over again, with tie-ins to the classic Muppet episodes and movies, like the use of The Standard Rich and Famous Contract (which has a 30-year statute of limitations here) or the quick visit at the Mad Man Mooney’s (which is now names “…and Son”) to get a used car for their road trip.

It was terrific to visit the Muppets Studios, which was rich in detail and memorabilia (including pictures of Jim Henson and past Muppet Show guests), and thought it clever to do a telethon to save the studio and have it replicate one of the episodes of ‘The Muppet Show’. These nostalgic moments gave me a warm Fozzie feeling.

Fuzzy, not Fozzie. Obviously.

Bret McKenzie’s songs were all pretty darned good. This was by far the best set since ‘The Great Muppet Caper’ – with the exception of Chris Cooper’s rap, which hurt. Not all songs were originals, but the filmmakers knew their audience and tossed in a few ’80s classics, knowing that they would be familiar to them. Well done.

And it was terrific to hear them. Plus there were odes to previous tracks, like “The Muppet Show Theme”, “The Rainbow Connection”, “Mahna Mahna”, …etc. Strangely the song that everyone  fawns over, “Man or Muppet”, really didn’t impress me; it was okay, no more. But “Life’s a Happy Song” was splendid, infectious with its sunnyness.

There were also a few hilarious covers, such as The Muppets Barbershop Quartet butchering Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” in the most adorable way and Camilla and the Chickens squawking Cee-Lo Green’s “Forget You” to great effect. Honestly, I couldn’t have asked for a better soundtrack to this picture. I might even buy the CD.

The cameos were terrific. There are too many to mention, but David Grohl was amazing to see as The Moopets’ Animool; he was just eating that up. Alan Arkin was a load of laughs as the Muppet Studios tour guide, Neil Patrick Harris had a great line or two, and Whoopi Goldberg was terrific as always, as one of the telethon participants.

Of the secondary cast, my favourites were the ever-delightful Charida Jones as the CDE executive who greenlights The Muppets’ fundraiser – with some reservations. And Chris Cooper was phenomenal as Tex Richman, despite his gawdawful rap. We couldn’t have asked for a better villain (“Maniacal laugh… maniacal laugh…”).

For the main cast, The Muppets, it was nice to see that  the filmmakers decided to use only old-style techniques for all the Muppet effects, such as remote control and battery-operated puppets rather than computer animation. Still there was more blue-screening and CGI than I would have liked, which took away from the Muppets’ charm.

Overall, the film was far more stylish and technically accomplished than in previous pictures (of course, this was made over three decades later!). Heck, even the soundtrack was outstanding, coming out rich and detailed in 7.1 surround. This may have something to do with the fact that ‘The Muppets’ was produced by Disney – no slouch, technically.

Which leads me to one great issue that I had with ‘The Muppets’: the Disney branding.

In one scene, ‘The Muppets’ featured a billboard with ‘Cars’ on it. At the end, there were fireworks subtly designed to look like Mickey Mouse. Even the hilarious ’80s Robot reminded me vaguely of ‘Wall-E’. Of course, it could be a coincidence. Could also not be. I mean, the finale takes place in front of the El Capitan Theater, owned by… Disney.

But what really made my heart sink was seeing “Based on Disney’s Muppet Properties” during the end credits. I hate the idea that Disney has taken complete ownership of these beloved characters. And I hate they’ve been labelled “Properties” – and by Disney, no less; you don’t get more corporate than that.

No less an authority on the Muppets than Frank Oz has spoken out (albeit delicately) about his concerns with the so-called “Disney process”. For one, he says that he found the movie all too safe, too sweet. He doesn’t seem to be a fan of it, even though he’s pleased that it brought the Muppets back into the spotlight.

And I share his concern. I don’t agree that ‘The Muppets’ was “too safe”, but it does tend to be mostly politically-correct family fare; it feels like product, in many ways (again, for me, the branding did that). I suppose that only time will tell if Disney will remain respectful of their so-called “property”. Or if they will bastardize it.

As it stands, however, I think that the Muppets have been treated with much love and care by those charged to bring them back. Sure, Disney’s foul prints are all over it, but the fact remains that, beyond its extreme commercialization, ‘The Muppets’ has heart a plenty. It was really quite a kick to see the Muppets together again.

I just regret not having seen this in cinemas, with a group of Muppets fans. It must have been a grand ol’ time.

Gary: “Whoa whoa whoa, wait wait wait, stop! Are there Muppets in this movie?”

Date of viewing: March 17, 2014

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