Sunday, November 27, 2011
In Theaters: The Muppets
It never really felt like the Muppets went away. Sure, they hadn't made a movie in over a decade, and the less said about the Wizard of Oz special the better, but they never really sank below the horizon. Nonetheless, we all wanted to see more of them, and The Muppets is a return to glory, as a new generation of behind-the-camera talent steers Jim Henson's creations away from after-school platitudes and back to grand irreverence. The new film hits just the right blend of silliness, self-awareness, and pure idealism, and is simply the funniest the old gang have been in some time.
The film revolves mostly around Walter, a new Muppet (handled by Peter Linz), though he's never thought of himself as such. Growing up with his human brother Gary (Jason Segel, who co-wrote the movie), Walter was an outcast, never quite fitting in, but when he and Gary discovered the Muppets, he became their number one fan. When Gary wants to take his fiancee Mary (Amy Adams) to Los Angeles, he invites Walter along so they can visit the Muppet studios. Unfortunately, since the Muppets haven't worked together in years, the studio has fallen into disrepair, and Walter discovers that evil oil baron Tex Richman (Chris Cooper) plans to buy the studio (using a clause in the "Standard Rich and Famous" contract Kermit and co. signed 23 years ago) and demolish it to drill for oil. The only way the Muppets can save the studio is to raise ten million dollars, and to do that the only thing they could do is put on a show. Gary, Walter, and Mary convince Kermit to try and get the gang back together, and they travel everywhere to find their old friends- Fozzie performing in Reno with tribute band "The Moopets", Gonzo running a multinational corporation, Animal taking anger management courses, and Miss Piggy working in Paris as a magazine editor. When the group is set up, they persuade a TV executive (Rashida Jones) to air a telethon, but a number of issues are working against them, from their complete lack of rehearsal, to Miss Piggy not being happy about her split with Kermie, to Richman's drive to get his hands on the studio and end the Muppets once and for all.
The writers, clearly Muppet devotees, have not only come up with a loving homage to their history, but also captured the sense of humor they displayed at their peak. A lot of the jokes are corny and obvious, but that's the point; the Muppets never met a bad joke they couldn't run with, and there's finesse in how they're delivered. A wise man once said "It's a very thin line between stupid and clever", and this film manages to be both at once, usually within the same bit. The fourth wall is broken with abandon, but in a way that makes us feel like we're being invited inside; the movie is, above all else, not cynical, and its good attitude is ingratiating.
Helping along is a superb soundtrack, with a lot of memorable new songs. Ranging from the chirpy "Life's A Happy Song" to the peppy and dorky "Me Party" and the epic ballad "Man or Muppet", the songs have a way of catching in your head even after hearing them only once. Like the rest of the movie they balance witty and sincere pretty well, and they allow the plot to have its dramatic moments without ever becoming too serious. There's a sense that the song numbers are designed to echo those on the original Muppet Show, with stagey presentation and framing designed to up the silliness. It's not all new stuff, though, and the return of a particular classic from the Henson vaults is sure to bring a tear to the eye.
Adding a new Muppet was perilous, but Walter strikes a balance- his main joke is that he seems intensely normal, an average guy who happens to be made out of felt, but he's prone to distinctly Muppety reactions when times get tough and, when running through a wall, can be counted on to leave a Walter-shaped outline. It helps that the human actors all play at the Muppets' level- Segel and Adams are not only charming, they're willing to make themselves look ridiculous, as is Cooper, as are the many, many guest stars who no doubt are as thrilled to be working alongside these screen icons as we would be. The cameos are a great source of comedy in and of themselves, so I won't spoil any, and we get the same spark of recognition from a lot of the more obscure Muppet faces who pop up. (There's an especially meaty role given to the gargoylish Uncle Deadly, and if the name doesn't mean anything, you may recognize the face.)
As one might expect in a movie as jam-packed with attractions as this, the plot suffers a little; it makes sense, but it's obvious it was edited with comedy prioritized over coherence. It's hard to care, though. Not only do we get the Muppets back, we get the sense that they never left, and the reassurance that time hasn't changed them that much. It's not quite the best Muppet movie (that honor probably belongs to their original, eponymous outing), but it does Jim Henson proud.
Based on characters created by Jim Henson
Written by Jason Segel and Nicholas Stoller
Directed by James Bobin