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Non-Review Review: The Muppets

It’s interesting to imagine what the reaction in the room must have been after Jason Segal was asked to name his next project, building off the success of Forgetting Sarah Marshall. The fast-rising actor and writer could have had his pick of any number of features, and yet he chose to work on a revival of The Muppets. After all, these were a group of characters who had enjoyed a reasonable revival with The Muppets Christmas Carol and Muppet Treasure Island in the early-to-mid-nineties, but had seen their fame quickly eroded with a string of poorly-received television and movie projects. It’s easy to imagine discussions being had about the “relevance” of the Muppets in the era of reality television and pandering television, as the film portrays with a fictional executive portrayed by Rashida Jones. It seemed like there was a lot of weight riding on the project, both for Segal and the studio, and for Jim Henson’s creations themselves.

I think they can all be extremely proud. I think it’s safe to describe the finished product as the best family film of the past year.

Brush with greatness?

The success of The Muppets movie is the way that it doesn’t try to modernise the concept or to “reimagine” the series for a new and younger audience. When an executive shoots down Kermit’s idea for a telethon, favouring a two-hour block of America’s favourite reality television show, “Punch Teacher”, the green frog prepares to deliver a very important monologue about how kids aren’t as dumb as we like to take them for. He’s interrupted when a door is slammed open in his face, but there’s a grain of truth to that joke, and I think that the movie works because Segal and the rest of the team appreciate that there’s nothing inherently wrong with the concept.

Sure, you get celebrity cameos, by the bucket load. You get Selena Gomez and Neil Patrick Harris answering telephones. “Why am I not hosting this?” he moans down the phone to a donor, referencing his phenomenal history as a song-and-dance MC. There’s a joke about Kermit not recognising the kid from Modern Family and these young and “hip” talents showing up because their agents told them to. However, none of these reasonably big names ever steal the limelight or hijack the show. Even the “special celebrity host”, who does his best work in a good few years (“where am I? why am I so fancy? this is not good for my image!”), is just a footnote.

This little piggy went to town...

The movie’s central players are the Muppet themselves, and three human actors cast on their talents rather than their brand recognition to family audiences. The themes are simple and straight-forward, with the script by Jason Segal and Nicholas Stoller effectively dramatising the conflict between the muppets and those who claim they are old-fashioned and out-of-date. It’s no coincidence that the network won’t air the special, and that the villain of the piece has own “reimagined” crew of Moopets updated for the modern world. This updated crew includes a razor-wielding pig and a “street” version of Fozzie Bear. “Yo, what the waka, man?”

Segal and Stoller (along with music supervisor Bret McKenzie and director James Bobin) make the case that the Muppets don’t need to be “relevent” or anything so dramatic. They just need exposure. The telethon itself is essentially an old-fashioned staging of The Muppet Show, complete with guest host, behind-the-scenes turmoil and variety-show style. And the movie shows us audiences at home, mostly families, taking great joy in rediscovering the characters they’d always known, but somehow forgotten.

Standing out from the crowd...

Because that’s the appeal of the characters. Sure, there’s a wry self-awareness to the humour, but there’s also a warming moral to The Muppets. There’s the notion that a bunch of wonderfully eccentric and creative and outlandish individuals can somehow be brought together and stay together, because they take great joy in what they do. It doesn’t matter that these aren’t necessarily the most talented of performers (with Fozzie’s old jokes, Piggie’s narcissism and Gonzo’s lack of any common sense). It’s important that they find some measure of joy in what they do, and in doing it together. I don’t like to dwell too much on the morals of family cinema, but that is a pretty decent hook right there – and I think it’s as solid a basis today as it ever was.

And the human performances are very much in the spirit of that central theme. Jason Segal is endearing as the male lead, as he clearly struggles a bit with the choreography and the singing – occasionally falling a little bit out of synch during the superb opening song Life’s a Happy Song. However, Seal’s clearly having the time of his life, and he’s a good sport about it, which is the entire point of the film. This is a movie that gives us the glorious absurdity of a Chris Cooper rap song (“I got more cheddar then some super sized nachos, got cash flow like Robert has De Niros”). How can you resist the charm of that?

They've got drive...

The movie’s also interesting in how it approaches the notion of fandom, through the newest Muppet, young Walter. The film sees Walter effectively motivating Kermit to put the band back together to save the studio, and realising his dream of belonging to his favourite television show, perhaps reflecting how those behind the scenes felt to be working on the project. At the same time, the film shrewdly acknowledges that there are limits, and that different people like different things, and have different priorities.

While Walter’s faith in the show allows him to fully grow-up, the same involvement has a damaging effect on his brother’s relationship. It’s a nice and warm approach – it’s interesting that the movie acknowledges that the two human leads could come along to support Walter, while not having a complete emotional investment in the reunion gig – discovering themselves what makes them happy, not necessarily tied to an old television show. It’s perfectly in fitting with the more powerful themes in Henson’s work, and it is heartwarming to see it here. It isn’t about saving the studio, it’s about what’s important to each person. For Walter it is saving the studio, but for his brother it’s a loving and stable relationship.

On a froggy night...

The film does have some minor flaws. While Chris Cooper is more than game as the villain of the piece, with his rap being the stand-out moment of a film filled with stand-out moments, some of his moments seem pretty nonsensical without the expanded back story from his rap song – cut from the final version of the film. So the denouement when one of his underlings points out that he can’t laugh makes little sense, as does his “maniacal laugh” bit – a plot point that is expanded in his rap song, but the verse was excised from the final cut. Still, I love the idea that he has enough money to keep a line of chorus girls standing by just outside his office for whenever he spontaneously bursts into song.

Still, it’s a minor complaint, in a movie that’s a genuine rarity – a heart-warming family film that never talks down to its audience. It’s a string of brilliant gags, all constructed around a wonderfully powerful central narrative – the best of all worlds. It’s hard to not to love the Muppets. Even if you can resist some of the brilliant gags, it’s hard not to sit through the film with grin on your face. C’mon. You know what time it is.

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6 Responses

  1. Longtime Muppet fans will undoubtedly have more fun than young ones, but for the most part, it’s a witty, delightful romp, that shows you that you can still be funny, without ever being mean still in 2011. Good review Darren.

    • Thanks. And I think that’s important – not a hint of meanness to be found. Well, not too much. Optimism with a wry self-awareness. What could be wrong with that?

  2. Great review. A lot of bloggers I read seem to really enjoy the movie. Cheers.

  3. Best movie of the year. Period.

    • To be honest, second best movie of the year so far, for me. Shame was marginally better. But both were as good as almost any movie last year. I suspect, based on what we’ve seen so far, that both will probably rank very highly at the end of year.

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