Saturday, November 26, 2011

It's Time to Meet "The Muppets"

I really enjoyed the new "Muppet" movie. I laughed at the silly jokes, cheered on the return of familiar characters, and got misty eyed whenever the film took a minute to reflect on how long it had been since everyone had been together. I wonder how much of this was due to the fact that I am an old school Muppet fan, and this was an old school Muppet movie, built on a lot of nostalgia for the old Muppet shows and movies that most kids these days aren't familiar with. Can the Muppets be a success with a new generation? That seems to be the major theme of "The Muppets."

First off, we're introduced to three totally new characters, two humans and a puppet. The puppet is Walter (Peter Linz), a resident of Smalltown, USA. He's frustrated with life as a three-foot tall felt puppet, but has great moral support from his brother Gary (Jason Segel), and is a huge fan of the Muppets, who represent a world where Walter might belong. When Gary and his patient girlfriend Mary (Amy Adams) decide to take a trip out to Los Angeles for their anniversary, Walter is invited along so he can see the Muppet Studios. Alas, the studio is boarded up, the Muppet performers have scattered, and Walter overhears oil tycoon Tex Richman (Chris Cooper) plotting to take possession of the studio and tear it down so he can drill, baby, drill. So the trio decides to find Kermit, get the gang back together, and put on a big show to raise money and save the studio.

In other words, "The Muppets" is a great, big musical road movie that ends with a stage show extravaganza. And at the same time, much to the relief of everyone who still retains affection for the Muppets, writers Jason Segel and Nicholas Stoller have taken the characters back to basics. Instead of larger-than-life showbiz icons, the Muppets are just a bunch of dysfunctional friends, and several have fallen on hard times. It's genuinely touching to see them reunite and reconnect with each other again. Kermit questions early on whether it's worth it to even try and fight for the Muppet studios, and what he really means is whether it's worth it to try and reconcile with everyone that he's let drift away over the years, including Miss Piggy. I took their relationship as a running joke in the past, and this was the first time that I was genuinely touched to see Kermit and Piggy together, squabbling, nursing hurt feelings, and clearly still in love.

I had honestly forgotten how adult the Muppets could be. A lot of their humor is bad puns and bizarre anarchy, but they also know how to get in their more stinging zingers. Some were so smart and so quick, they caught me off guard. There's a lot of fourth-wall breaking, self-referential meta, and moments of pretty biting satire. For instance, once the gang is reunited, they go around pitching their telethon to various networks. An executive played by Rashida Jones shoots them down, pointing out that the entertainment world has changed, and the most popular program is a reality show called "Punch Teacher," which is exactly what it sounds like. The Muppets are out of date, in other words, and as the characters fight that notion in the movie, they're making their case to the audience too.

The new guys behind the scenes get all the important stuff right about the Muppets - the humor, the heart, and the philosophy too. Bret McKenzie of "Flight of the Conchords" has my eternal gratitude for penning the songs. Even the celebrity cameos, a fixture of all Muppet media, come off pretty well. However, it's hard to overlook how rushed the film feels at times, and that those three new characters, Walter, Gary, and Mary, get really shortchanged . I don't find anything notable about Walter, a bland little guy whose only defining trait is really his inferiority complex, and that wears out quick. The humans and their romantic subplot are okay. Just okay. I always like Amy Adams, and she's wonderful here, but I don't think Jason Segel has any business appearing in a movie where he needs to sing and dance.

But in the end, my complaints are minor, and the movie did answer one question for me: it doesn't matter if the Muppets succeed in coming out of the mothballs and winning over the mainstream again. It was good enough that they tried, and that they gave the fans who loved the Muppets one more great show.

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