Let’s get the obvious out of the way: THE MUPPETS revives the misplaced Jim Henson brand in this lighthearted, occasionally kooky musical comedy with felt-covered gusto. Star Jason Segel along with co-writer Nicholas Stoller infuse this very self-aware story of the Muppets’ resurgence with a golly-gee-whiz sense of joy and reverence for the puppet pop icons that is infectious (and occasionally overwhelming). Segel and co-star Amy Adams sing and dance their way from kitschy Smalltown to cynical Hollywood only to find the ‘historic’ Muppet Studio an abandoned shamble instead of a movie mecca. What was planned as a romantic vacation for the budding couple turns into a “let’s put on a show” mission to raise $10 million, prevent an evil oil tycoon from mowing down the studio, and preserve the Muppets’ wholesome legacy for a new generation.
And that’s really the point of THE MUPPETS move waiting to start the music and dim the lights in your local cineplex: revive the classic, family-friendly brand of beloved fantasy characters for Kermit and Piggy’s original generation of fans, plus introduce them to a new breed of young viewers who can carry Fozzie Bear forward into the 21st century. In this goal, puppet devotee Segel and stylish director James Bobin succeed handily and amusingly, blending silliness and sentiment in traditional Muppet fashion — albeit with a satiric bent which occasionally distracts from the main story with some truly odd side effects.
THE MUPPETS are sure to win the battle over modern-day cynicism and bah-humbuggery this holiday season, and the wacky, gleeful film arrives at the perfect time for a modern world bogged down in a little too much reality for its own health. A good dose of Kermit’s genuine optimism and filmic friendship will do us all a lot of good.
Now for the less obvious half of our review. While all of the above is true, I have never had a harder time reviewing a seemingly simple movie than I have with THE MUPPETS. At several moments, the film is strangely entertaining, or perhaps entertainingly strange. Either way, that was the last feeling I ever imagined I’d feel walking out of this particular screening.
Witness Gary (Segel) growing up in Smalltown with his pseudo-brother Walter (voiced by Peter Linz), a Muppet who fails to grow up like his ultimately towering human sibling. Yet in the truly ageless realm of the Muppets, Walter does mature mentally along with Gary so he both grows up and he doesn’t. This might seem odd except the same is true about Gary, who retains a firm grip on his idyllic, naive youth even as a grown up 6′ 4″ man-child. Neither Gary nor Walter have ever surrendered their adoration for the Muppets in the harsh light of maturity, which proves all the more extreme in Gary’s case. While the Muppets have often blurred the worlds of puppets and people quite ingeniously, the thought of a human boy growing up with a puppet ‘brother’ really tests the limits of the concept to start the movie. Oddly enough, while the film begins entirely focused on this odd couple, Walter nearly fades away in the last act once all the famous Muppets finally occupy the screen. What starts as a soul journey for Walter ends as a footnote for a hand-operated character who simply cannot outshine Kermit, Beaker and the Swedish Chef.
Gary also has a peculiar relationship with Mary (Adams), whom he’s loved in a very chaste way for the past decade but his devotion to Muppet glory of the past turns their romantic getaway into a showbiz rescue mission. One wonders why Mary’s so smitten with Gary given his somewhat dopey development into adulthood, as the musical number “Are You a Man or a Muppet?” addresses directly. This dilemma fits the story like a glove, but at the same time it introduces an unintended question: if we’re meant to mourn the Muppets’ irrelevance in our hard-edged society today, then why is Gary’s devotion to Muppet values shown as a stunting, negative trait which holds him back from growing up and marrying the woman he loves? This contradiction seems like an attempt to battle a cynical world while also playing by its rules, which offers some distracting sidebar questions that pop you right out of the story as you ponder them.
Mary has some Smalltown issues of her own, as expressed in tune via “Party of One” which demonstrates her internal quandary of loving Gary while playing third banana in his life to Walter and the many Muppets. This tune and some others expose the film’s heightened self-awareness, eventually folding over on itself as if Christopher Nolan had populated INCEPTION with hand puppets. Often THE MUPPETS shifts gears from being a musical to become a musical making fun of musicals for people who would love to star in their own musical. I can totally agree with the film’s message that we’re not meant to take all this so seriously, but many viewers may end up taking it all with several grains of salt just to go on with the show.
Then there are moments where the film simply tries too hard to be hip, a prominent thread of the tale which proves quite out of character for the magic of Muppet simplicity. All credit to Chris Cooper for giving 100% as the villain, oil baron Tex Richman, but his out-of-nowhere rap number “Let’s Talk About Me” is a show stopper in the most unfortunate sense (and not at all his fault). In fact his character is seemingly written with a melange of discarded dialogue from Mike Myers’ Doctor Evil, exemplified by his “maniacal laugh” mantra which seems to embarrass his puppet henchmen as much as it fails to get a laugh from viewers. At moments Tex is just plain creepy rather than villainous, yet conversely all his bad guy histrionics fail to generate any true menace as the film’s happy ending is a foregone conclusion (mainly because the old trope of putting on a show to save the day and let love triumph has worked unfailingly since Mickey and Judy did it 1939).
Some of these momentary derailments are funny (Muppets singing “Smells Like Teen Spirit” as a barbershop quartet), while others are just oddly unlikely (Muppet chickens clucking their way through a cover of Ce-Lo’s “Forget You” if you use the clean title). Amid the abundance of co-stars and cameos — including Jack Black, Zach Galifianakis, Rashida Jones, Alan Arkin, Mickey Rooney, Whoopi Goldberg, Selena Gomez, James Carville, Neil Patrick Harris and John Krasinski — some stand out like sore thumbs jammed into a day’s shooting schedule without purpose or pleasure. Such oddities are fleeting as they pop up throughout the film, but their sum has a cumulative effect on how one views the film start to finish, allowing other perfectly enjoyable scenes appear to make up for such misfires rather than rise above them.
For FilmEdge, the magical appeal of the Muppets, typified by The Muppet Show, was their artful ability to draw audiences of all ages and sophistication levels and welcome them to a joyous realm that was always a bit nicer, funnier and friendlier than real life. If you were over seven years old, you may not have wanted to live in the Muppets’ world but you sure enjoyed a weekly visit. By banishing the Muppets from their unique realm to eke out livings in our down and dirty world as a Reno lounge act (Fozzie), Paris fashion mag editor (Piggy) or the prince of plumbing supplies (Gonzo), THE MUPPETS tends to immerse these beloved characters in the very cynicism the film attempts to combat. By the big ending, the Muppets are more survivors than triumphant champions of heartwarming delight.
Did we ever really stop loving the Muppets enough for them to fail as performers on their own show, or did real-world events like the death of Jim Henson bring on corporate complications that simply removed the Muppets from the spotlight for a while? A diehard devotee like Jason Segel may have felt so betrayed by the humans who sullied the Muppets reputation as an entertainment force for good, that he created a metaphorical rescue mission to save them. But will this jive with a larger audiences who never really blamed the Muppets for their hiatus or were simply too young to have loved them the first time around? In a way, the movie blames us all as part of today’s world for the Muppets’ downfall, when in reality most of us had little to do with their temporary hiatus.
THE MUPPETS will likely clean up at the box office this holiday weekend and leave plenty of tickets sales for leftover helpings in December, and FilmEdge applauds that prospect. But the filmmakers may have tried just a little to hard to have their conceptual cake and eat it too. If the message is to eschew our modern cynicism, then why include pointless unfunny fart gags simply because test panels show little boys giggle helplessly at flatulent humor? Often times less is better, and THE MUPPETS could benefit by less in several spots to allow its best aspects to shine more brightly. I don’t recall Kermit ever finding fart shoes at the end of the rainbow connection, and I never wanted him to either.
FilmEdge gives THE MUPPETS an unlikely, unexpected 3 stars overall for a fondly enjoyable experience with old friends, hindered by a few sour notes that just don’t fit.