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My 12 for ’12: The Muppets & Everything You Need, Right In Front Of You

I’m counting down my top twelve films of the year between now and January, starting at #12 and heading to #1. I expect the list to be a little bit predictable, a little bit surprising, a little bit of everything. All films released in the UK and Ireland in 2012 qualify. Sound off below, and let me know if I’m on the money, or if I’m completely off the radar. And let me know your own picks or recommendations.

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I can’t help but feel that The Muppets probably aren’t quite as popular over here as they really should be. After all, we had to wait about three months for the eventual release of the film in Irish cinemas. Even later this year, following all the publicity around the recent revival, I was only able to find one cinema in Dublin doing three screening of The Muppets’ Christmas Carol, despite the highly-publicised re-release. However, perhaps I shouldn’t take their international publicity for granted either. After all, Jason Segal spent six or seven years trying to guide everybody’s favourite felt performers to the big screen again.

Still, The Muppets demonstrated that the gang had lost absolutely nothing in transitioning out of retirement and back to the screen, demonstrating that all these sorts of characters need is a bit of sincere love and affection.

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To be fair, the Muppets weren’t absent from screens for too long, before the recent release. The last time they anchored their own film was in 2008, with the direct-to-video A Muppet Christmas: Letters to Santa. The last time they held down their own television special was in 2005 with The Muppets’ Wizard of Oz. (That one featured a cameo from “noted action director” Quentin Tarantino!) The characters have been popping up here and there for quite some time, and it seems a bit hard – looking at their filmography – to argue that the Muppets ever “really” went away.

Okay, granted, the last time that the characters appeared in cinemas was with Muppets from Space in 1999. That seems like a long time ago. In Hollywood terms, it might as well be a century. The Matrix had only just appeared, the public’s last memory of Batman was Joel Schumacher’s Batman & Robin, and George Lucas was just unleashing The Phantom Menace. Still, it feels like that Muppets had been absent for even longer than that.

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The Muppets were purchased by Disney in 2004, and it seemed like the studio was never quite sure how to handle the property. Indeed, they still seem to be having a bit of trouble synergising the brand, if you’ll pardon my liberal application of buzzwords. Despite the hype around The Muppets, for example, the studio last released a classic boxset of The Muppet Show in 2008. This seems a little nuts, given that The Muppet Show was a key plot point in The Muppets. (Yes, the music rights are an issue, but we do own have all of Miami Vice on DVD.)

It seems like Disney had a bit of trouble with the property initially, at least compared to some of the other properties they have purchased. Consider, for example, the speed and ease with which Disney have exploited their other investments. Marvel Studios has a game plan running up to The Avengers 2 in 2015, with Iron Man 3 and Thor: The Dark World planned for release next year. No sooner had Disney bought LucasArts than they announced plans for Star Wars: Episode VII, with the search for a director apparently on-going. (Even if Disney have found him, the media is still hunting.) Pixar continued to produce movies annually after Disney’s purchase.

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In contrast, the Muppets themselves were left relatively fallow, confined to cameo appearances and dodgy specials as people tried to figure out exactly what to do with Kermit, Piggy and the gang. It was 2009 before we saw any movement in the property, with a YouTube channel and a Twitter account set up. This engagement with social media not only brought the characters into the twenty-first century and garnered deserved awards, it also started building towards the release of The Muppets, which was two years (to the month) away at that point. It seems like the characters found purpose after half-a-decade in the wilderness.

And – here’s the thing – The Muppets was actually worth the wait. It managed to live up to (and even surpass) the expectations built up, as if those behind the scenes had patiently waited until everything was just right before releasing it. It managed to make audiences forget about all the mediocrity that had existed in the franchise, and offered an energy and enthusiasm worthy of the gang. Of course, I saw “the gang”, but the characters are so old that most of the operators and voices have moved on – replaced by a younger generation. Some veteran performers like Frank Oz were rather vocal in their criticism, arguing that Jason Segel’s script “creates a false history that the characters were forced to act out for the sake of this movie.”

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That hardly seems like a fair criticism, as The Muppets is clearly written with a zeal that bleeds through the film. Sure, the characters start out in a dark place, but that reflects the real life position of these characters. If you had asked anybody in mid-2009 whether they were expecting a blockbuster Muppets movie any time soon, most would have looked at you funny. The Muppets acknowledges that the characters had perhaps slipped from the public imagination, and that they had to capture it once again – like they did before.

And here’s the thing. The Muppets works because – despite starting at that disadvantage – the characters don’t have to compromise in order to succeed. Fozzie still tells bad jokes. Kermit is still earnest and sincere. Piggy is still a diva. Gonzo is still insane. None of the characters needs an attitude overhaul, and none of them act out of character. Even the kidnapping of the “special guest host” is exactly the kind of thing you’d see in the original show. I remember that “now he’s Martin Short and Fat” gag from Muppets Tonight. Even though I saw it decades ago, which is quite a statement.

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Anyway, The Muppets is fascinating because the journey that our characters embark on isn’t necessarily based around change or evolution. Instead, it’s based upon the idea of accepting who they are. Gary and Walter start the movie as a man and a Muppet respectively. The Man or Muppet musical number just sees each confirming that identity. The Muppets themselves fend off “trendy” replacements when Richman produces “the Moopets.”

The Muppets proves that there is room for classic ideas and concepts in modern cinema. We frequently hear complaints about the lack of originality in film, but I think that it’s too easy to lose sight of things that work. I would love to see more original blockbusters, but horrible sequels, prequels and remakes aren’t generally terrible because they lack novelty. Transformers did not suck because it was a cartoon before it was a film. The problems with this year’s Total Recall would still exist if it were completely disassociated from the classic original. Similarly, Eagle EyeJumper and Salt all demonstrate that original premises are not necessarily inherently stronger.

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There’s room for both old and new in mainstream cinema, and while that balance is perhaps weighted a little too heavily towards the former at the expense of the latter, there is a reason that we get nostalgic. Sure, occasionally films fail to quite grab the essence of what excited us in the first place. Sometimes it’s the fact that they mistake fidelity for respect (as with Psycho and other shot-for-shot remakes), sometimes it’s the fact that they seem uncomfortable with the connection at all (as with the Miami Vice remake), sometimes it’s the fact that connection weighs too heavily on them (as in The Bourne Legacy and The Hobbit this year).

On the other hands, The Muppets manages that rare feat of remembering and celebrating why we fell in love with these characters in the first place. Life’s a happy song,” we’re told, “when there’s someone by your side to sing along.” The Muppets has all the right people by its side, from a superb cast to a great director in James Bobin and a talented everything-doer Jason Segel. Special mention must be made of Bret McKenzie, who deservedly earned an Oscar for his work on the soundtrack – which is probably the best musical soundtrack in years.

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It is great to try new things, but occasionally it’s fun to know that the old things don’t quite go away, that they retain the magic and mystery that we associated with them years ago. All it takes is the right people to bring it out, and The Muppets had its fair share of those. Jason Segel will sadly not be returning for the sequel, but with Bobin remaining behind the camera and Ricky Gervais and Ty Burrell (and maybe Christoph Waltz) lined up, it looks like the Muppets might have everything that they need.

Check out our 12 favourite films of 2012:

12. The Raid (Redemption)

11. Skyfall

10. Room 237

09. Jeff Who Lives at Home

08. Moonrise Kingdom

07. Silver Linings Playbook

06. The Master

05. Prometheus

04. Cabin in the Woods

03. The Muppets

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