Tuesday, November 15, 2011

An Early Review of “The Muppets” – Is This An Angel’s Wish for Fans?

Film Rating: A

If you get the Muppet in-joke in the headline, then you are going to lose your freaking mind for “The Muppets.”

And if you don’t know the lyrics to “Never Before, Never Again” by heart?  Don’t worry.  You too will fall in love with this film.  I can’t imagine a single person being immune to the movie’s charms.

But this film was made by the biggest Muppets fans in the world, and it’s aimed squarely at the hearts of those who remember the first time they saw Kermit ride a bicycle, fit right in at the Happiness Hotel, or cried as the gang sang “Saying Goodbye.”  “The Muppets” is a film made by fans for fans, and it may the most jubilant labor of love I have ever seen on the silver screen.  Writers Jason Segel and Nicholas Stoller are one-hundred percent committed to the notion that the Muppets deserve to be a permanent fixture in pop culture, that the world is a better place with these furry felt creatures around, and for two straight hours, they prove that point again and again. 

I went in already in love with the Muppets, so the film merely reinforced that standpoint for me.  Its real test will be whether or not it can sway the rest of the world, and given that I saw the film with a crowd full of jaded college kids who all laughed, cheered, and applauded right along with me, I think it’s safe to say that “The Muppets” are back. 

If that isn’t movie magic at its purest, then I don’t know what is.

Extended, probably rambling thoughts on “The Muppets” after the jump…

“The Muppets” is a meta-narrative, with Segel and Stoller using the story to celebrate the history and value of the title characters, while also reflecting their current circumstances.  Segel plays Gary, whose brother Walter looks an awful lot like a Muppet.  He’s short, yellow, and made of felt, and though Gary loves him just the same, Walter has always felt like an outcast.  But one day, Walter sees “The Muppet Show” for the very first time, and his life is forever changed.  He falls in love with Kermit, Fozzie, Gonzo, Miss Piggy, and all the other performers, quickly becoming the Muppets’ biggest fan, an enthusiasm Gary shares in.   

At this point – all illustrated during the opening credits – the movie already had me by the heart.  I always love stories about brothers, and there’s so much truth to the relationship between Gary and Walter, the profound way in which brothers bond over something they both love.  It’s an emotional through-thread that pays off wonderfully throughout the film.  More importantly, I saw a lot of myself in Walter, and I think most Muppets fans will as well.  It’s not just that Walter and I both love the Muppets, but that we both recognize how they are more than just pop culture icons.  They are childhood friends who follow us into adulthood, there not just to make us laugh, but to inspire us.  Has anybody watched “The Muppet Movie” and not immediately felt an urge to go out and fulfill their dreams?  Walter is the embodiment of every die-hard Muppet fan, and he is such a well-established character right off the bat that the audience should be on board from the get-go. 

Gary and his girlfriend Mary (Amy Adams) are about to travel to Hollywood to celebrate their tenth anniversary, and they invite Walter along so he can visit the Muppet studios!  But when they arrive, they find the location dilapidated, in total disrepair.  Worse yet, Walter discovers that an evil oil baron, Tex Richman (Chris Cooper), has found oil underneath the old Muppet theater, and plans to tear it all down if the Muppets can’t come up with ten million dollars in the next week!  Walter, Gary, and Mary rush to find Kermit the Frog and inform him, but when they do, they realize there’s a major problem: the Muppets aren’t famous anymore.  The gang has long since broken up, and they are no longer popular enough to make a difference. 

The metaphors aren’t hard to spot.  Both in the film and in real life, the Muppets have been out of the limelight for a long time, and it’s unclear whether or not people will still love them all these years later.  In the story, the Muppets have to prove their worth the only way they know how: by putting on the best show they possibly can, reintroducing their act to the world in the hopes that it will attract new and old fans alike.  The film itself attempts to do the same thing, to prove that the Muppet characters and their distinctive style of humor have relevance for a new generation.  I don’t want to spoil the story, so I won’t say whether or not Kermit and friends succeed, but as a film, “The Muppets” achieves every last one of its goals in rousing fashion.

First and foremost are the characters, all of whom Segel and Stoller have an incredible handle on.  They understand how Kermit’s soft demeanor makes him so inspiring, appreciate that Fozzie is always the most well-meaning, good-natured bear in the room (even if he is rarely the funniest), and recognize that Miss Piggy is so much more than just a loud pig with an angry temper.  They take these characters seriously, treating them not as puppets, but as real, living beings, just as Jim Henson and company always did; their relationships are more poignant and fully formed than many newcomers will expect, but that’s always been a trademark of the Muppets.

As seriously as they take the characters, Segel and Stoller also know that the Muppets at the top of their game are the greatest comedians in the world, and it’s almost surreal to see how well they recapture the trademark Muppet humor.  “The Muppets” is screamingly funny from start to finish, and not one joke feels out of place.  When the Muppets need to get to Paris and only have a car, they “travel by map.”  There’s no deliberation, that’s just something they all know they can do, and it’s a gag that brought the house down.  Fozzie’s new career finds him repurposing old Muppets songs as corporate advertisements in Reno, Animal learns that drumming is his trigger through anger management, and when Gonzo needs to ditch his job as the head of a toilet manufacturing company…well, let’s just say he makes an explosive exit, exactly as Gonzo should.  It’s not even limited to strong character humor: little visual details or minor lines in songs had me doubled over in hysterics.  The film is full of gleefully self-aware gags that come and go at a rapid-fire pace.  The jokes aren’t just recognizably Muppet – they represent Muppet humor at its finest, and I don’t there’s ever been a more uproariously funny Muppets film.

What’s so special about the movie is that all this humor comes from the heart; Segel, who has been talking about the Muppets as his dream project since “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” in 2008, clearly has a deep and abiding love for this universe, a love that is shared by all involved.  The creative team has an active enthusiasm to please, to entertain and ‘wow’ the audience so that viewers will share in their love of the Muppets.  It’s the same kind of gusto Henson and company exhibited each and every week on “The Muppet Show.”  As with the series, the film is undeniably charming even when certain moments don’t connect; the amount of heart on display is just too powerful to ignore, and that makes “The Muppets” an absolute winner from start to finish.

I’ve been crediting writers Segel and Stoller for much of the film’s success, but James Bobin’s directorial contributions shouldn’t be ignored.  He wisely steps back visually, allowing the Muppets to command the frame rather than do anything inventive with the camera.  Instead, Bobin focuses on comic timing and seamlessly integrating the Muppets into a real world setting, an effort that isn’t nearly as easy as it looks.  It takes a great director to utilize the full potential of the Muppets, and Bobin is just as successful as Jim Henson and Frank Oz were so many years ago. 

The music is also spot on; Muppet songs were always notable for being first and foremost fantastic compositions.  They could be witty or satirical, but quality always came first, so it makes perfect sense to hire Bret McKenzie of “Flight of the Conchords” to write the original songs.  The Conchords’ music bears many similarities to the Muppets, and McKenzie’s sensibilities are perfect for the material.  In all honesty, this is my least favorite set of songs written for a Muppet movie (when you’re going up against material like “Rainbow Connection,” “Happiness Hotel,” “Saying Goodbye,” “It Feels Like Christmas,” and “Love Led Us Here,” that’s practically a foregone conclusion), but that hardly matters.  They serve the movie well and are as heartwarming as they are hilarious.  Amy Adams and Miss Piggy share a duet that fell flat for me, but others in the theatre got a kick out of it, and like everything else in the movie, it’s still heartfelt and earnest enough to endear.

Segel and Stoller made the wise choice of putting the Muppets front and center, so even though Segel, Adams, and Cooper are all over the advertising, their actual screen-time is relatively limited.  Nevertheless, I really loved the human characters; this is the perfect assortment of actors to be performing opposite the Muppets, starting with Segel himself, who looks like the happiest man in the world from start to finish.  He is clearly fulfilling a lifelong dream here, and that jubilation is absolutely infectious.  Amy Adams, with her all-American, irresistible persona, is a wonderful choice for female lead, game for absolutely anything just as a Muppet co-star should be.  Chris Cooper has oodles of fun playing evil, and Rashida Jones is amusingly cold as Veronica, head of the studio that sponsors the Muppets.  As per Muppet tradition, the film also contains a huge assortment of celebrity cameos, and I dare not spoil even one of them here, except to say that my favorite was a character named “Hobo Joe.”

But as I said above, the Muppets are the stars here, and though the Muppet Performers are a very different group of people than they were even ten years ago, they still do outstanding work.  One of the most amazing things about the film is how much expression the puppeteers get out of such a limited range of motion; Kermit’s visual performance is simply awe-inspiring.  His voice is pretty fantastic too.  Steve Whitmire has been a tremendous replacement for Henson’s Kermit for decades now, and here he does the best work of his career, delivering a number of speeches that should put a tear in the eye of even the most cold-hearted viewers.  Eric Jacobson takes over Fozzie and Miss Piggy from Frank Oz, and while the switch is noticeable, it’s never regrettable; Jacobson respects Oz’s work while pushing forward fearlessly.  Outside of these core characters, I don’t think viewers will be able to tell which have been recast and which haven’t (though I would like to note that that’s still Dave Goelz doing Gonzo, all these years later). 

This is exactly as it should be.  The Muppets are the Muppets, regardless of who is doing the voice; as Segel, Stoller, Bobin, and the rest of the crew prove, the same applies to those behind the camera.  The torch has officially been passed, and that pleases me to no end.  I want “The Muppets” to outlive those who created them.  I want these characters to be around when I have kids, and I when I am gone, I hope their children can enjoy the antics of Kermit, Fozzie, and the rest of the gang as well.  These characters deserve to endure.  As long as they remain in the hands of talented people who truly love and understand them, then I believe the Muppets can and should last forever.

That’s what this new film is all about.  For lifelong fans like me, “The Muppets” is practically life affirming, hilarious and beautiful and obscenely heartwarming.  Just to know that the franchise is in such good hands makes me feel happy.  For those who haven’t yet discovered the brilliance of the Muppets, primarily younger children, this movie is going to be an incredible eye-opener, creating a whole new generations of Muppet maniacs to carry this monumental legacy in their hearts.  After all, this film is essentially a product of fandom; what Jim Henson and company began so long ago has touched the lives of people like Segel so intensely that they have now picked up the torch and continued where the original team left off.  The highest praise I can give to the new film is that I believe it will inspire the same kind of passion in today’s children.  The Muppets have officially entered a new generation, and the transition is seamless.  I couldn’t possibly be happier.

“The Muppets” opens in theatres nationwide Thursday, November 23rd.  It obviously earns my highest recommendation. 

Photos in this article courtesy of Disney Enterprises via www.allmoviephoto.com.  

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