Tuesday, November 29, 2011

THE MUPPETS - It's Time To Get Things Started


- For as long as I can remember, I've been a fan of The Muppets. I grew up watching The Muppet Show in syndication every day after school. Muppet Babies was my absolute favorite Saturday morning cartoon as a young kid - I hopped out of bed and ran downstairs to watch it - I even remember going to see the live stage version of the cartoon at one point. I never missed The Muppet Movie, The Great Muppet Caper, or The Muppets Take Manhattan if any of them came on TV. And I religiously watched every Muppet special that aired, from childhood and into adulthood. From the time I was a young kid, I counted Jim Henson as one of my heroes and inspirations, and even though I was very young when he died, it was one of the first "celebrity" deaths I was aware of that completely threw me for a loop. Jim Henson and The Muppets were all about imagination, entertainment, wry yet silly humor, and an overall spirit of optimism - tinged with darkness - that was and is infectious and inspiring. Jim Henson and The Muppets made me want to tell my own stories, to create. "When your room looks kind of weird, and you wish that you weren't there, just close your eyes and make believe, and you can be anywhere." For a kid growing up in small-town suburbia, that simple statement was surprisingly powerful.

I don't know that The Muppets ever really left pop-culture, but THE MUPPETS is nonetheless being billed as their big comeback. And certainly, it's been a long time since the characters were this omnipresent. And the vibe of the new movie is that of a tribute to beloved characters that have been unearthed after years - even decades - of being relegated to the cultural scrap-heap. That's both good and bad. The good is that this is a movie that, clearly, is trying to do right by these characters. It's trying to make them feel big and important and special. It's not taking anything for granted. The bad? Well, the bad is that the movie sometimes feels too much like a fan-film - and I think it's fair to say that it's a movie that's less about plot, less about doing something new - and more about creating a sort of "greatest hits" package of all that we love about The Muppets.

But for those of us who grew up with the characters, well, the script by Jason Segel and Nicholas Stoller is designed to push all of our nostalgia buttons. It's a classic "getting the gang back together" sort of story, and this means that the Muppet crew gets torn down so that Segel and Stoller can build them back up again. Most of the character stuff works, although I had a couple of issues. Certainly, I never saw what the legendary Frank Oz saw when he criticized the film for not keeping with the spirit of the characters. The spirit, I thought, was definitely there. The humor was definitely there. There are even those moments where, dammit all, you just may find yourself reaching for a hankie. This is definitely the Muppets, no doubt about it.

I guess my issue with the script is that a lot of it feels either arbitrary or like a retread of stuff we've seen before. For instance, while a lot of the "gathering the team" bits are great for some laughs (Fozzie is a highlight), the big plot point that drives a lot of the script - revolving around Kermit and Ms. Piggy and their fractured relationship - is lacking. And yes, I realize how semi-absurd that sounds as a I type it. But I just found it odd that the movie makes this huge deal out of separating and reuniting the couple in such melodramatic fashion, without much in the way of explanation as to why they separated in the first place. It just felt a bit rushed, contrived. And a lot of the storylines around the familiar Muppets felt similar, like Segel and Stoller had thought up some decent siutations for them, but not exactly the *best* situations, the ones that would feel perfect. Like, Gonzo running a factory that makes toilets. Sort of funny, but also random to the point of not 100% clicking. It's funny, but it didn't make me smile and say "that's perfect, that's exactly what a retired-from-showbiz Gonzo *would* be doing." And yeah, talking about the Muppets like that, again, it might sound weird. But these are beloved characters, deep characters, characters that, through the magic of the performers who bring them to life - they practically are living, breathing creatures. Maybe it was just that the backstories weren't very fleshed-out. Why would Kermit and Piggy split and not talk for years? I mean, geez, that's pretty harsh. Why would Animal go to therapy to quit drumming? Did someone force him to? Why would Statler and Waldorff sell out the Muppets to the movie's villain - we know they like to rag on stuff, but I never realized that they actually hate their Muppet companions (although later in the movie they're a part of the revitalized Muppet Show, so who knows).

But like I said, this is a movie that makes the most out of the sheer iconography and lovableness of the characters. The way it's constructed, it's awesome when the gang finally does get back together, and cleans up the old Muppet theater and sings "We Built This City (On Rock & Roll)." When we first meet Kermit, it's not just, "oh yeah, and here's Kermit." It's "and here's Kermit T. By-God Frog, the most beloved fictional character of all time, and one legendary amphibian." Segel and Stoller's Muppet fandom is palpable. The movie is, basically, one giant geek-out.

To that end, a lot of parts of the movie sort of faded in awesomeness for me the more I thought about them. Because a lot of the thrill of the movie is in the geeking-out and nostalgia. "OMG, Kermit! Fozzy! Sweetums! Rizzo! The Swedish Chef!" But what I think people will remember about the film are Jason Segel, Amy Adams, and new Muppet, Walter. Through Walter and Segel, we sort of get beyond the greatest hits and get, I think, the movie's most interest twist on the Muppet mythos - a Muppet who wants to be a Muppet but is living in the human world. And a Man who spends all his time with a Muppet, and in doing so neglects the real world - i.e. his fiance. That's why the "Man or Muppet" song in the film is perhaps it's most memorable. Here, the movie dares to posit that we're all a little bit Muppet, and in turn, the Muppets are pretty darn human. It's a neat little meta-commentary on the fiction of this world. And of course, Segel and Adams pull off their parts extremely well.

At the same time though, THE MUPPETS also transcends tribute via its hipster-cool Flight of the Conchords influence. Director James Bobin, who cut his teeth on Conchords, infuses the film with quirky energy and a slight surrealist bent that will be familiar to anyone who was a fan of FOTC. Similarly, the original songs in the film feel very, very Conchords-ish, and that's no coincidence, as they were crafted by Bret McKenzie himself. The fusion of Conchords and Muppets sensibilities proves to be a great match, as the songs are funny, clever, quirky, and catchy. Occasionally, they're even pretty out there, like when Chris Cooper - playing the movie's vile villain - bursts out in a spontaneous old-school rap session. The songs aren't necessarilly as instantly memorable and timeless as other Muppet classics, but they give the movie a fun, bouncy energy. The movie also establishes its hipster cred - and reestablishes the Muppets as alt-comedy icons - thanks to its long list of cameos. Donald Glover, Sarah Silverman, Neil Patrick Harris, Kristin Schaal, and many more show up, and stars like Rashida Jones and Jack Black play very prominent roles. The casting overall is pretty great. And certainly, while the movie will play well to kids, there's a metric ton packed in specifically designed to appeal to the Gen X and Y fans of the franchise.

And yet, I also give the movie credit for remembering to have heart. Yes, I complained a bit earlier about some of the script issues, but the movie does have a lot of little moments that tug on the heartstrings, whether it's Kermit reprising "The Rainbow Connection," or his somber song about the pictures in his head of his old Muppet pals. There's even a moment - nicely understated - where we see a photo of Jim Henson that will give some chills to any longtime Muppet fan. And really, what THE MUPPETS is ... is a great collection of fun and entertaining little moments. From Piggy karate-chopping a two-bit imitator to Animal rediscovering his love for bangin' on the drums. That's why I agree with a sentiment I've seen elsewhere, which is that THE MUPPETS almost works better as a prelude to a new Muppet Show variety show than as an argument for a new series of feature films. The connective tissue here is mostly stuff we've seen before - evil oil baron wants to tear down the Muppet Theater, and Kermit and co. have to put on a show to raise the money to stop him. As a big, big-screen-worthy movie, this isn't in the same league as The Muppet Movie or The Great Muppet Caper. But what it does a great job with is having the zany, anything-can-happen feel of The Muppet Show.

At the end of the day, this is simply one of the happiest, most fun, most feel-good movies we've seen in theaters in a long time. It's a noble effort, and its heart is in the right place. I think kids of all ages will be more than happy to share in this love letter to Jim Henson and the gifts that he gave us.

My Grade: B+

No comments:

Post a Comment