The Muppets (2011)
Editor’s Notes: Muppets Most Wanted opens wide release today, March 21st. Mel Valentin has a review.
Muppet movies have always been problematic. While many moments are good, the films struggle to maintain the zany attitude that the television show established. Somehow the translation to a long-form format always missed, sometimes just slightly and other times widely, off the mark. That changed with The Muppets (2011), possibly because co-writers Jason Segal and Nicholas Stoller approached the screenplay with the irreverence that permeated the series and utilized the trademark Muppet self-reference and breaking of “the fourth wall” to draw people in and keep the plot afloat.
The story is that of Walter (performed by Peter Linz), his brother Gary (Jason Segal) and his girlfriend Mary (the incomparable Amy Adams). Gary and Mary are on their way to LA for their 10th anniversary as a couple, and Gary decides to bring his brother Walter along to see the Muppet Studios. Gary and Walter have been joined at the hip their whole lives, not as conjoined twins but as best friends as well as brothers. Walter idolizes the Muppets because they are more like him, and they make him feel like he’s not alone.
Once in the studios, Walter discovers a plot to tear down the studios to drill for oil by Tex Richman (Chris Cooper), a man who hates the Muppets because he does not know how to laugh. Walter freaks out in hilarious fashion (screaming non-stop for hours), and once calmed the trio decides to alert Kermit of their discovery. Once convinced, Kermit takes the three and 80s Robot (Matt Vogel) in a Blues Brothers (1980)-like quest to get the band back together and put on a show, in 1930s musical fashion, to raise $10 million to buy back the studio as stipulated in the “Standard Rich and Famous Contract” issued to Kermit by Orson Welles in The Muppet Movie (1979).
There is a marvelous quality to the film that is established early on when Gary and Walter break out into a song and dance number that ends up incorporating their entire town, who then collapse after someone yells “They’re gone!” as if the entire sequence was solely for their benefit. Throughout the film, the characters of Gary and Mary make frequent remarks that indicate that they know they’re in a film (upon Kermit’s initial rejection of their offer to help get the Muppets back together, Mary remarks “This is going to be a short movie” and later when Gary makes his decision to be with Mary during the Oscar-winning song “Man or Muppet?” he tells Mary “No, I’ve made my decision, I just sang a whole song about it”), breaking down the normal suspension of disbelief and letting the audience have a little bit of a voice, like when an aside pokes fun at a plot hole.
With a primary cast this game and the obligatory cameos from scores of celebrates, it’s easy to see how this film propelled the Muppets back into popularity.
As much credit as the screenwriters deserve for returning the Muppets to their irreverent roots and in many ways distancing them from the cutesy iterations that have been prevalent since Muppets from Space (1999), director James Bobin deserves credit for how the film is shot and framed. Shooting a Muppets movie has to be difficult because of the level of interaction between Muppets and people. Not only that, but the visual gags he is able to pull off are fantastic, like the off-screen explosion of Gonzo’s plumbing warehouse, of which Fozzie comments how expensive it looked and that he’s amazed they had that kind of an explosion in the budget.
Bobin also infuses the screenplay with an air of whimsy and optimism that is rare even in children’s films. The incredible good nature and attitude of Gary, Mary and Walter are infectious, and those attitudes carry the film along. He also manages to work in musical numbers that are self-reflexive and that work within the construct of the film. There are no throw-away songs and each one is well timed in the context of the plot. For those songs, Bobin got Bret McKenzie (half of the comedy folk group Flight of the Concords, whose HBO show Bobin directed) to add his flair for comedic songwriting. Making the film a musical, something that no other Muppet movie is, goes a long way to recapturing the feel of the variety show format of the show. Each of McKenzie’s songs is funny and poignant, and they all help further the plot instead of being distractions. The only original song he didn’t write for the film, “Pictures in My Head,” is also a perfect way to relate how Kermit is feeling about his old friends.
The performances of Segal and Adams are fantastic in their roles as sunny-side optimists from a small, mid-western town. To attack these characters as one-dimensional is to not pay attention to the film. They are layered characters who show those layers throughout the film. They may feel that everything is great and everything is grand, but both have reservations that they work to overcome. Adam’s Mary is hoping that Gary will finally grow out of a protective role for his brother and become his own person and marry her, while Gary is convincing himself that Walter always needs him when it turns out the opposite is true. All of this transpires amid the backdrop of the Muppets getting their act together (literally) while the Muppets themselves are resolving their own issues (namely the volatile relationship of Kermit and Miss Piggy).
With a primary cast this game and the obligatory cameos from scores of celebrates, it’s easy to see how this film propelled the Muppets back into popularity after being largely absent for twelve years save the occasional mediocre TV special (which they are not immune to even now; I of course cite the abysmal Thanksgiving 2013 special with Lady Gaga). With a script this smart, songs this good and direction that works hard to keep the light tone going, it’s easy to overlook some plot holes, like why didn’t Gonzo, described as the richest plumbing magnate in the rust belt, give them the money? Who cares? This was a great excuse to see the Muppets again and doing a variation on the classic Muppet Show for their telethon. True, it’s still hard to get past the different voices since everyone who is now playing a primary Muppet is a replacement for the original puppeteer save Dave Goelz (Gonzo and others), and even though Steve Whitmire has been doing Kermit’s voice for 22 years (only eight less than Jim Henson), Kermit still doesn’t sound right. With all of that, The Muppets is still superior entertainment that even manages to make the room a little dusty from time to time, causing the need to wipe away a tear or two. It brings back the true nature of the Muppets and lets us all remember what we loved so much about them while we were growing up and gives new audiences something to grab onto.
[notification type=”star”]88/100 ~ GREAT. The Muppets triumphs with the irreverence that permeated the series and utilizes the trademark Muppet self-reference and breaking of “the fourth wall” to draw people in and keep the plot afloat.[/notification]