Monday, November 28, 2011

Review: The Muppets

Quick Version: Loved it, go see it, give them your money.

Long Version:

I've read a lot of reviews of The Muppets (2011) over the last few days. Most of them begin with the author explaining how much the Muppets mean to him/her personally. One reviewer was surprised to remember that it was Jim Henson and his Muppets that taught him how to read and write in the first place. If you've been reading those reviews as well, then I apologize, because I too feel the need to regale everyone with how the Muppets influenced me.

There might be some young men and women around who remember being kids in summer camp when their counselor (me) would make up wild action-adventure stories to tell them. There might be video of me performing Shakespeare and dancing in Elvis's rhinestone jumpsuit during a very ill-advised production of Alice in Wonderland.  I thank heaven that this happened before social media. But somewhere buried in my parents' basement might be home video of something far more telling - my sister and I putting on a show during the holidays. Every year I would rope her (and whatever other young kids were around) into singing and dancing for our families. Why was I so obsessed with putting on a show? Why did I love that more than anything else? Because of the Muppets.

I was two years old when I saw The Muppets Take Manhattan in the theater in 1983. It was my first movie. But as nothing made as big an impact as when I saw the original, The Muppet Movie (1979). It was about Kermit the Frog, who wanted nothing more than to entertain people, to put on a show with singing and dancing and comedy. So he traveled and recruited his friends to perform. He planted the idea in my head that life is best seen as a show with your friends and loved ones as the players, and that nothing feels better than putting that show on, making people laugh and smile. That's why I made the neighborhood kids act on my living room stairs. That's why I wrote plays in third and fourth grade that the whole class had to perform. It's why I made a Spanish-language action movie about Costa Rica instead of a two page essay in high school.

So it's been three paragraphs and we've yet to formally address The Muppets (2011). As I said above, the quick and dirty version is that I loved it, you should go see it. Add to their box office gross so the Muppets can be all over TV and movies again. The longer version required the paragraphs above so the reader can understand what I (and so many others) brought with them into the theater.

The Muppets pretends that the characters have done nothing since Manhattan in 1983. It paints them as a forgotten act that has disbanded and gone on with their lives, with the exception of Kermit who doesn't seem to do much of anything. When the old Muppet Studios is in danger of being demolished, Kermit must reunite the old gang to put on a show once again in order to save the studio. I won't spoil the details of where and in what shape Kermit finds his friends, but it is an enjoyable ride. The resulting show is a hilarious, old-school tribute to "The Muppet Show" and the classic Muppet humor that made them famous in the first place. It's got jokes for kids and for adults; it never forgets who its audience is.

The real treat here is watching how writer/star Jason Segel is able to properly balance the film. The Muppets represent a special time in the history of entertainment; they are eternally optimistic, warm and loving, with just a bit of an edge. They are never cynical or mean, rarely rude or vulgar, and always heartfelt. Segel had to entertain a modern, sometimes cynical audience with a classic act. Segel does this by way of self-referential humor, which abounds. He embraces the Muppets' musicality, paying homage to their classics ("The Rainbow Connection", "Mahna Mahna") as well as introducing new works ("Life's a Happy Song", "Pictures in My Head", "Man or Muppet") and covers of current and classic hits. You haven't lived until you've heard the Muppet Barbershop Quartet's version of "Here We Are Now" by Nirvana or the all-chicken version of "Forget You" by Cee-Lo.

It's not a perfect film. To be honest, I could have done without the majority of Segel's work as an actor. The original three Muppet movies were done without a human star (except for cameos). Why did this one need a human main character? I found myself wishing the focus would turn away from Segel's problems with his girlfriend Mary (Amy Adams, who plays a variation on her "innocent" character) so that we could get back to Kermit and the gang. On the other hand, when Segel performs "Man or Muppet," I nearly died laughing. Same goes for Chris Cooper's oil baron Tex Richman, who despite the dry character as written turned in a very funny performance and a fantastic rap sequence. I don't know, maybe there was a better way to do it without having Segel and Adams as such major characters.

Another problem for people who remember the Muppets from their childhood is the absence of Jim Henson and Frank Oz. Henson, of course, passed away in 1990 and took the original voices of Kermit, Rowlf and many others with him. But more distressing was Frank Oz, the voice of Fozzie and Miss Piggy and others, who decided not to be a part of the film because he didn't like the script. While the new performers make a valiant effort, something about the voices of Fozzie and Piggy just feels off. It won't be a problem for new fans and it's something the rest of us are going to have to get over, but it was a bit disturbing.

The Muppets (2011) is not a perfect movie, but it is an awesome one. The humor is dead on, the music is fun and the franchise is treated with the respect and passion it deserves. If nothing else, the movie proves that the Muppets are still hilarious, still relevant and deserve to be on television every week. Bring back "The Muppet Show"!