Thursday, November 24, 2011

The Muppets (James Bobin, 2011)

Not three minutes go by in The Muppets before the filmmakers flaunt their unabashed reverence for Jim Henson's beloved creations. A montage of memorabilia would, in other movie, be as cynical and greedy as a filmmaker could get. Here, however, it establishes character, that of Walter (a new Muppet) and his supportive brother Gary (Jason Segel, who co-wrote the screenplay), as well as setting up the deep vein of affection the movie carries for the franchise. Segel made his Muppet love plain in Forgetting Sarah Marshall, and ardor bursts from every frame of this uneven but lovable revival.

In fact, The Muppets will likely play better to the parents who remember the felt-and-cloth puppets from their own childhood than the kids they take along (though the ones in my audience seemed entertained enough). Packed with self-referential jokes and the usual Muppety meta-humor, the film emerges as a true passion project for Segel, co-writer Nicholas Stoller (director of Marshall) and director James Bobin. And though their nostalgia occasionally threatens to make wall off the movie from the youngest viewers, The Muppets proves funny, and touching, enough to win the fuzzy puppets a new generation of fans.

The Muppets moves quickly through Walter's and Gary's lives, the puppet sibling never growing taller and retreating into the comfort of old Muppets tapes as Gary constantly looks after him. Their bond is so close that Gary, now a grown man celebrating his 10th anniversary with girlfriend Mary (Amy Adams), invites Walter to tag along to Los Angeles so he can visit the famed Muppet Studios. Gary is so happy to see the pure ecstasy on his brother's face that he misses the twitches of irritation on Mary's. But the mildly disrupted idyll of their trip explodes when they arrive in California to find Muppet Studios not only closed but about to be demolished by a tycoon (Chris Cooper) eager to drill for oil. The only way to stop this is to come up with $10 million in two weeks, and there's only one way to get it: Walter has to reunite The Muppets.

Largely following the schema of "getting the band back together" movies, The Muppets wastes no time adding everything that makes the franchise great. Strong opening numbers, especially the wonderfully written and choreographed "Life's a Happy Song," convey all the giddiness of the project, while later tunes play across a range of emotions in a manner so rarely seen in musicals these days. Then again, how often do we get musicals anymore period? Segel and Stoller also break the fourth wall routinely, with characters constantly referring to the audience and the film itself. They also have fun with character backgrounds, from the perpetual cycle of Kermit and Miss Piggy's tumultuous relationship to Animal, here a member of an anger management group to get his frenzied, drum-related hysteria under control.

I won't spoil the film by mentioning the range of celebrities who provide cameos (other than to express regret that Steve Martin isn't one of them), but it speaks to the lingering affection people have for what Jim Henson made that so many people would appear for a few seconds of screen time. This is all the more impressive given how culturally out of step the whole conceit of the Muppets is, something the movie openly acknowledges. When Cooper's bad-guy baron snarls that this is a hard, cynical world, he's the voice of reason, not just antagonism. Yet the sight of Kermit flailing and being tackled by Miss Piggy, of Fozzie selling those awful jokes with all his might, can't help but make someone smile.

To their credit, Bobin, Segel and Stoller don't try to modernize the Muppets, and the isolated instances where they do—a head-scratching rap from the unlikeliest of sources and a clucked sing-a-long by Camilla and the other chickens to a certain Cee-Lo song—are the film's weakest moments. Everything in the movie feels retro, from the cheeky '50s suburbia that opens the film to the parade of '80s songs that make one wonder if someone didn't just use an old mixtape for the soundtrack. But what does it say about us that something so resolutely cheerful, even at its most moving and adult, feels anachronistic?

Overlong and inconsistent in its second half, The Muppets doesn't reach the heights of the show and the original three movies. Nevertheless, it works as a heartwarming (and occasionally heartbreaking) coming-of-age tale and an affirmation of how timeless family entertainment can be when it's done with respect for an audience, not money-grubbing afterthought. For all the issues the film has, I at no point disliked it, and I felt like a kid again watching Kermit bring me to tears with just the slightest "facial expression" caused by a hand moving around inside some felt. By the time The Muppets reaches its joyous conclusion, it's demonstrated itself to be as defiantly unfashionable, chaotically absurd and utterly charming as the Muppets themselves.

1 comment:

  1. Nice review. I can't wait to see this one! Are you planning to review the other Muppet films? It would be cool to have some sort of "retrospective" look at the series.