Tuesday, December 6, 2011
Director: James Bobin
Starring: Jason Segel, Amy Adams, Chris Cooper, Rashida Jones, Jack Black
Running Time: 103 min.
★★★★ (out of ★★★★)
I knew within the first ten minutes of watching The Muppets that co-writer, star and lifelong Muppet fan Jason Segel nails it, putting to rest any doubts a new movie couldn't capture the true spirit of Jim Henson's original creation. Segel plays Gary and it makes perfect sense he would have grown up with a puppet brother named Walter. Of course they'd still live together as adults. And of course Gary would have a girlfriend named Mary who couldn't be played by anyone other than Amy Adams. And she'd worry that he still shares his bedroom with a puppet. This is the Muppets universe and Segel nails it even before they show up. A genuine joy from start to finish, the film asks whether there's still a place in our cynical world for the Muppets. Have we moved on? While the question is kind of horrifying, it's sadly not without merit considering how long they've been absent.
Attributing any favorable reaction exclusively to nostalgia would be kind of silly though, considering that's exactly what the movie's plot is built on. While kids will probably love this the movie's central concept leaves little doubt the primary audience just may be grown-ups who remember what it's like to be kids. That feeling is brilliantly conveyed through the new character of Walter who gets to tag along with Gary and Mary on vacation to Muppet Studios in Los Angeles. Now run-down and dilapidated, it's discovered the studio is being purchased by greedy oil tycoon Tex Richman (Chris Cooper) who plans to tear it down and drill unless the Muppets can raise 10 million dollars to buy it back. So now Walter, Gary and Mary have to track down Kermit and the gang and convince them to reunite for a telethon.
When we do catch up with Kermit, Fozzie, Gonzo, Animal and Miss Piggy it's relief to find out find out they return with their Henson era Muppet Show personalities intact. After Henson's death the property lost its way in the 90's with Muppets in Space and Muppet Treasure Island failing re-capture that magic, instead shoehorning them into parody. They've really been gone a lot longer than anyone's willing to admit. It was never that the public didn't want them anymore but rather they didn't want many of the misguided latter projects in which they appeared. What was always most endearing about the Muppets was how life-like each seemed, easily recognizable by not only their names, looks and mannerisms, but individual characteristics. As strange as it sounds to say of puppets, they seemed to have personalities that reminded us of ourselves at our best and worst, and that's where much their appeal came from. Those later movies took that away, and once you do that, there really isn't much left. Segel and Stoller bring it back, which becomes clear when we see Kermit again, reacting to news of a potential reunion exactly how Kermit should and would. Always the ringleader of the group and rallying the troops, this is the first time we've ever seen the character in a state of total hopelessness. In an empty, secluded mansion reminiscing of fun times with the gang that seem long gone (poignantly realized in the musical number "Pictures in My Head"), it's Kermit in need of inspiration this time. As for the rest, Fozzie's a failed comic, Animal's in anger management therapy, Gonzo's selling toilets and Miss Piggy is a fashion editor in Paris. It all seems in the spirit of how we remember them.
It's one thing to be true to the original characters, but it's another for director James Bobin, Segel and co-writer Nicholas Stoller to somehow all these years later be able to recapture the exact tone and humor of the Muppets, which is very distinctive and fairly difficult to duplicate. It's a mistake, if not an outright betrayal, to have them be edgy or cynical, but the humor can't seem too juvenile either, as it's always featured inside jokes aimed at adults. Here the entire plot practically demands it. As was done in the original variety show and movies the fourth wall is broken to let the audience in on the fact that the characters get it. Early on, in response to Kermit's refusal of a reunion, Amy Adams remarks it's going to be a really short one. When it's time for a montage Segel's more than happy to let us know we're getting one. Chris Cooper's sneeering villain verbally brags (and at one point even raps) that he's the sneering villain. It's exactly that self-awareness and sense of fun that most of the post-Henson projects lacked and what made the 80's era projects such a communal viewing experience.
The Muppets being rooted in past provide some of the best in-jokes such as Kermit flipping through his old Rolodex looking for a celebrity guest and Walter being told it isn't 1978 anymore. And I'd say it's about time everyone be re-introduced to the awesomeness that is Starship's "We Built This City," as a pop song long derided as soulless corporate rock is redeemed here as the exact opposite, finding its place as an inspirational Muppets anthem and finally sounding like the nostalgic guilty pleasure it was meant to be all along. Segel and Adams, while ceding much of the spotlight to their puppet co-stars, seem to effortlessly slide right into this world. Not only does it feel very natural seeing them act alongside them (which can't be easy) but they're great together and look like they're having the time of their lives, especially during the many musical numbers. Segel has stated being able to make and act in this is a childhood dream come true for him, but what caught me off guard was just how much the performance reflected that. He's like a giant kid in a candy store and doesn't once hit a false or insincere note. Chris Cooper may own an Oscar but now he can say he played the villain in a Muppet movie. Take a guess which I think is the bigger accomplishment. There are many guest appearances and cameos, with two key roles going to Rashida Jones as a TV exec who thinks the Muppets are yesterdays news and Jack Black playing a version of himself.
If I have a complaint about the film (and it's admittedly a really small one), it's that I expected bigger stars to cameo from what I read and heard about the production. Whether they weren't available, didn't want to appear or certain scenes were left on the cutting room floor I have no idea, but the filmmakers did the best with what they had, as many were cleverly placed and completely in sync with the Muppet tradition. But what's most in in sync with that tradition are the original songs written and produced by Flight of the Conchords' star Bret McKenzie, that meet, if not surpass, the standard of excellence set by classic Muppet songs like "The Rainbow Connection" (which of course also shows up). The two real standouts and likely Oscar nominees for Best Song are the infectiously catchy "Life's a Happy Song" and "Man or Muppet," the latter featuring a musical number so subversively hilarious it wouldn't seem out of place as an SNL Digital Short.
While we all know the two characters who will ultimately take center stage, and justifiably do, I have a feeling the puppet creation that may be most remembered from this movie is Segel's original one. It's a risky move introducing a new Muppet, but it's even riskier making him, not necessarily Kermit or any of the others, the protagonist of the story. Walter's no Jar Jar Binks. Performed by puppeteer Peter Linz and providing many lump in throat moments, he's a brilliantly realized character that not only stands in for all Muppet fans, but children and adults who must overcome a lack of self-confidence to face their fears. One of the more interesting aspects of Walter is his age, or lack of it. That's not a coincidence. He seems to be teetering between childhood innocence and adulthood, with the resolution of that struggle coming to a head emotionally at the end. It's the sophisticated writing of this character's journey that really takes this film to the next level making it a benchmark in family entertainment that should be enjoyed for years to come. And the finale actually warrants discussion in that it isn't exactly what you'd expect, but in a good way. I think. The final few minutes kind of reverses expectations to a point that it almost becomes confusing. Is it happy? Sad? Both? I don't know and it doesn't matter. What does is that this feels like The Muppets and it's great to have them back.