Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The Muppets (2011)

No More Henson, No More Oz....
The Muppets Get A New Voice With Jason Segel

- Jim Henson's The Muppets have sung, joked and charmed their way into the hearts and minds of people everywhere for nearly half a century. After first airing on September 5th, 1976 (although Kermit was on TV since 1955 in one form or another), The Muppets enjoyed a successful two-decade theatrical run with such classics as The Muppet Movie (1979) and The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992) that ended in 1999 with the largely disappointing Muppets From Space. The Muppets have not made a big screen appearance since the dawn of the new century but all that would change with The Muppets in 2011. Directed by James Bobin ("Da Ali G Show") and written & co-starring Jason Segel ("How I Met Your Mother"), The Muppets exploded onto the film scene during the 2011 Thanksgiving season to critical acclaim and audience satisfaction.

Like many of you, I grew up on the Muppets. I was too young to ever watch the TV show (it went off the air before I was born) but I have fond memories of The Muppet Movie, The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992, a Christmas staple in my family) and the underrated Muppet Treasure Island (1996). And being the fan of the Muppets that I am, I find myself unable to criticize The Muppets too harshly since it includes many enjoyable elements; and yet, I cannot agree with its chorus of fans that it is a great movie. While I do find it entertaining in many ways, The Muppets just does not measure up to the rest of the franchise.

The Muppets attempts to reboot the Muppets franchise while not really rebooting it at the same time. Unlike Batman Begins (2005) or Casino Royale (2006), which ignore past films and start from scratch by re-introducing Batman/Bond from his beginning, The Muppets follows the lead from J.J. Abrams' Star Trek (2009) by giving its characters a rebirth while keeping everything that preceded it within the context of its story. The film opens by introducing some new characters: Walter and Gary (Jason Segel). Walter and Gary are brothers and have always been close but Walter always noticed the big differences between them. While Gary continued to grow, Walter's height plateaued early. While Gary looks like a human, Walter looks like a Muppet. A psychiatrist is not required to point out that Walter has felt like an outsider for most of his life. This story, on paper, is sad in a compelling sort of way but Walter is unfortunately not nearly as endearing as the film thinks he is. Actually, he is kind of a creepy fellow. Maybe it is just the puppet design or the frequent screaming.... I don't know.

Growing up in the late-1970s and early-1980s in Smalltown, U.S.A., Walter found solace, entertainment, acceptance and brotherly bonding watching "The Muppet Show." It was hilarious, bold and spoke directly to Walter in a way that nothing ever had. Walter's fanfare never faltered but, after years on TV and decades of popular films, the Muppets faded into obscurity. In the present day, the famed Muppets Theatre became vacant, gathering dust and decaying in the maze of Hollywood; existing only for die-hard Muppets fans and desperate tourists. Of course Walter has always wanted to visit the Muppets Theatre and gets his chance when Gary invites Walter to go along on his and longtime girlfriend Mary's (Amy Adams) anniversary getaway to Hollywood. If you thought Walter was not a compelling character, Jason Segel's Gary and Amy Adams' Mary are even more uninteresting. Both act out a side story involving some bumps in their otherwise picture-perfect relationship but really seem to exist for the sole purpose of alerting everyone within earshot that The Muppets is a put-on.

After a long and awkward song-and-dance sequence involving most of the smiley residents of Smalltown, U.S.A (boy do Muppets go a long way in vindicating song-and-dance numbers!), Walter, Gary and Mary head off to the city of Angels and the old Muppet Theatre. Upon arrival at the Muppet theatre, Walter cannot restrict himself to the tour guide's droning and takes off past the caution tape and into the theatre. A flood of feelings comes over him. He was meant to be in this place. But before Walter can get too comfortable in his Muppet Mecca, Statler and Woldorf burst in with oil tycoon "Tex" Richman (Chris Cooper). Tex wants to buy the Muppets Theatre so he can demolish it and drill for the oil underneath; and he will succeed unless The Muppets come up with ten million dollars before a certain period of time. This Tex Richman character seems like Hollywood's ignorant idea of how everyone to the Right of Hillary Clinton behaves: a sort of snarling, greedy, rapping, Red Bull-chugging, maniacally laughing jerk. Tex is so shallow a character that Tweety Bird would only get his feet wet wading through him. Making things worse is a miscast Chris Cooper, who cannot overact enough to convincingly personify the over-the-top caricature of "Tex."

This is Walter's worst nightmare. Destroying the Muppet Theatre? Say it ain't so! The only solution is finding Kermit the Frog, and if you drive around Bel Air long enough you will find him, to put the old gang back together one last time and raise the cash to save the theatre. As if raising ten million dollars is not hard enough, getting the old Muppet gang back together seems impossible with:

- Fozzie working the clubs, capitalizing on the old Muppets brand.
- Gonzo living as a pluming magnate.
- Animal committed to anger management (with Jack Black as his sponsor).
- Kermit's estranged Miss Piggy a major player at Vogue Paris (the plus-sized section, naturally).

Can the Muppets get the gang back together? Can they even put on a good enough show after such a long time apart to raise ten million dollars??

One cannot doubt that The Muppets has been received with open arms. The Muppets is currently enjoying an unbelievable 97% "fresh" rating on Rotten Tomatoes which sums up the collective critical opinion of the film as "clever, charming, and heartfelt, The Muppets is a welcome big screen return for Jim Henson's lovable creations that will both win new fans and delight longtime devotees." Unfortunately, I cannot agree with the critical consensus.

The Muppets is just not that clever or delightful a film - certainly not clever or delightful enough to garner so much praise. The Muppets is generally enjoyable and frequently amusing; Segel and co-writer Nicholas Stoller (Fun With Dick And Jane (2005), Gulliver's Travels (2010)) include a lot of fun gags in the script and many celebrities make hilarious cameos, making the film funny enough to keep the audience laughing at a consistent level. Funny to be sure, The Muppets also includes some very nice themes about accepting who you are and believing in yourself. These themes are not quite as strong throughout the whole film but they are quite affecting when they finally show up. The Walter character spearheads these themes and, although I find the character largely off-putting, makes the film mean a little bit more than just the laughs. The most unique aspect of the film is how it brings back elements from the original television show. No other Muppet film has tried to repeat or recapture the spirit of the television show and The Muppets is a unique and enjoyable piece of the Muppets franchise for doing so.

However, I left the cinema feeling that The Muppets was lacking something. The new characters Walter, Gary, Mary and Tex Richman are completely uninteresting; each having their own story lines that trip all over each other from time to time. But there is more than just this unwanted band of newcomers. The magic of the Muppets that exist in the older movies is nonexistent in this 2011 reboot. The entire film seems like forced fan fiction, an unnatural-feeling attempt to bring the Muppets back to the movies; some of which is enjoyable but much of which is also awkward and flat. Jason Segel is a self-proclaimed Muppets fan and tried very hard to bring the Muppets back to life in what ended up being a very clumsy, self-aware movie with some funny bits and our favorite Muppets thrown in (except for Rizo the Rat for some reason). As a result, The Muppets contains enough of the Jim Henson checklist to be recognizably a "Muppet Movie" but does not feel quite like part of the same family of TV and film.

The Muppets did put me in a Muppet mood of sorts - as in, the Muppets were on my mind more than they usually are. This seems to be one of the reasons that The Muppets has been praised so highly. The film did get me thinking about and returning to the old films; it seems as if the singular act of bringing the Muppets back into people's consciousness warrants a medal or something. But isn't that why we have Turner Classic Movies? Why is a new film needed to make new fans of a certain franchise? Clint Eastwood did not need to make a 21st Century Dirty Harry flick for me to find the 1971 original by myself.

Anyways, after I saw The Muppets, I did two things. The first thing I did after seeing the film was look it up on IMDb, searching for Brian Henson and Frank Oz's involvement in the film. To my surprise, their names were nowhere to be found. Further reading on the film revealed that Oz was actually originally working on a Muppets script but lost out in the end to Segel and Stoller. He turned down any involvement with their film because, as he said, "I wasn't happy with the script. I don't think they respected the characters." Being a class-act, Oz left it at that because he did not want to affect the success of the film. But I think Oz is right. Although Jim Henson's daughter Lisa sees the film as a "love letter to the Muppets," when Kermit is a neglectful big shot, Fozzie is an opportunist and Piggy is selfish and vindictive, one begins to question Segel and Stoller's respect for the characters. Add a clucking chicken performance of Cee Lo Green's classy tune, "F!ck You," ("Cluck You!" See what Segel was going for there?) and your head really starts spinning.

The second thing I did after seeing The Muppets was, this being the Holiday Season and all, revisit my personal favorite Muppet movie: The Muppet Christmas Carol. Wow. What a difference. Watching The Muppet Christmas Carol back-to-back with 2011's The Muppets in a two-day span really reinforced some of my feelings.

Look, it ain't easy being mean to a Muppet movie, so I have to reiterate that I thought The Muppets has many amusing, enjoyable aspects. However, I do not think it measures up to what the rest of the Muppet franchise has offered. The magic, the wit, the caliber of music and strength in character of the Henson and Oz era of the Muppets is officially over and we have given it over to the guys who wrote Get Him To The Greek (2010).  So yes, The Muppets are back, and not in horrible fashion mind you, but I am already pinning for the days of old. 

CBC Rating: 6/10

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