Saturday, February 18, 2012

The Muppets Movie Review

It’s been 15 years since the last time the Muppets graced cinema screens. I haven’t seen The Muppets in a movie since they took Manhattan 25 years ago. Someone in Hollywood apparently thought it was worth a shot to bring them back. Really they took a chance on Jason Segel and Nicholas Stoller, who came up with a story and pitched it successfully to Disney studio executives. Lo and behold, The Muppets, directed by James Bobin, has turned out to be one of the most successful Muppet movies.

Because it’s been so long since they went away the story has to awkwardly cater to their old fans while introducing them anew to the next generation. I don’t know if this is a franchise Disney can maintain because the one thing that remains certain after seeing this film is that the Muppets are analog characters in a digital age.

Segel plays Gary, whose brother Walter is a Muppet-like puppet although in this world no distinctions are drawn between Muppets and humans except that Walter felt out of place his whole life until he discovered “The Muppet Show.” All he’s ever wanted to do was to see the real Muppet studio in Hollywood. His dream comes true when Gary invites him along on an anniversary getaway with his girlfriend Mary (Amy Adams).

Of course this being a Muppet movie there will be some big dramatic development to set the plot in motion. In this case, an oil tycoon appropriately named Tex Richman (Chris Cooper) has discovered untapped reserves beneath the studio and it will be his unless they can raise $10 million. Walter overhears all this and convinces Gary and Mary to go seek out Kermit the Frog so they can round up “the old gang” to put on one more show to raise the money.

The sequence of going around to gather the Muppets in their respective new lives serves as a way to bridge the gap between those old fans and the potential new ones. It’s also vaguely reminiscent of The Blues Brothers. One of the characters, however, realizes that it will take far too much screen time to do this for every one of them, so they recommend a montage. This type of humor was popularized by the Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker team with films like Airplane, Top Secret!, and The Naked Gun. It would be amusing if it didn’t feel entirely dated, especially when they take a quick jaunt to Paris to round up Miss Piggy and they “travel by map.” Raiders of the Lost Ark was made 30 years ago and even that film was calling attention to a style popularized in the 30s. Chris Cooper’s villain is satirically cartoonish in the way Dr. Evil was in the Austin Powers series. When he commands his underlings to provide a “maniacal laugh” I couldn’t stop thinking about Dr. Evil and his henchman with their big guffaws after announcing their plans for world domination.

Yes, there is something nostalgic and almost exciting about seeing the Muppets together again. But I can’t get past the oddness of it. They belong to another time it seems. There’s an innocence to their characters that doesn’t quite fit the new millennium. Looking at Animal and his band mates I couldn’t help but think about the fact that those kind of hippie musicians don’t really exist anymore.

As a musical, the songwriting leaves something to be desired. None of the songs really moved me a whole lot, least of all the Oscar-nominated song “Man or Muppet,” a duet between Gary and Walter in which each wonders which of the two he really is. For kids entertainment you can do a whole lot worse, that’s for sure. It was all just so benign and good-hearted and kind of dull. All except for Animal of course, who has always been my favorite Muppet. When we meet him he’s in an anger management center with Jack Black as his guru. “Drum” is his trigger word and so he’s forbidden from playing the drums. Later they’ll kidnap Jack Black to use as their celebrity guest star on the show, one of the contractual obligations set down by the TV executive (Rashida Jones) who gives them air time.

There are some pretty good celebrity cameos like Alan Arkin as the Muppet studio tour guide and Zach Galifianakis as Hobo Joe, initially their only audience member, but I often found myself wishing for a time in the past that The Muppets seems so desperate to recall and hold onto. I just wasn’t feeling it. Maybe I’m too much man and not enough Muppet.

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