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The Muppets (2011)

November 30, 2011
written by: Jason Segel and Nicolas Stoller
produced by: David Hoberman and Todd Lieberman
directed by: James Bobin
rating: PG (for some mild rude humor)
runtime: 98 min.
U.S. release date: November 23, 2011
With all the clever marketing for the first movie featuring Jim Hensen’s creations in 12 years (“Muppets in Space”), it’s hard to believe that these wonderful characters have been absent from showbiz. But in the world of “The Muppets”, Kermit and the gang haven’t been in front of a live audience or a camera since 1984’s “The Muppets Take Manhatten”. Just like Brian Singer’s “Superman Returns” disregards anything post “Superman II”, screenwriters Jason Segel and Nicolas Stoller want to convince you that our felt friends have been gone for 27 years. You know better if you’ve been to a Disney theme park within the last seven years, enjoyed “Muppets Tonight”, or found yourself addressing a room full of people with a “Hi ho!”.
Whether they have a show or not, Muppets have and always will be around. But for the sake of introduction and reunion (not a reboot, thankfully), it’s understandable that these screenwriters, along with director James Bobin (co-creator of The Flight of the Conchords) take such an approach in an effort to bring these endearing (and enduring) characters to an audience unfamiliar with their gift of laughter.
From the start of the movie, jubilant joy bounces off the screen as we meet a new Muppet, Walter (voiced by Paul Linz) and his brother Gary (Jason Segel), dancing and singing their way through their hometown of Smalltown, U.S.A. For some reason, Walter has always felt somewhat out-of-place, until he is introduced to reruns of “The Muppet Show” and becomes obsessed with all things Muppet. When Gary invites Walter to tag along with his girlfriend Mary (Amy Adams) on their anniversary vacation to Los Angeles, the little guy is thrilled to visit the famous Muppet Studios. The trio is surprised to learn that the studio is now rundown, dilapidated with nary a Muppet in sight.
As if that reality isn’t hard enough to take in, Walter is horrified when he learns that slimy tycoon Tex Richman (Chris Cooper) wants to drill for oil on the historic ground. Desperate to save the home of his heroes, Walter persuades Gary and Mary to help him find the Muppets and put on a show at the old theater and raise money to save the studios. The trio find Kermit the Frog (Steve Whitmire) leaving alone in a mansion with a ’80s robot (who serves Tab and New Coke) for a butler. After much convincing, Kermit is on board with the lofty project and the newly assembled group embarks on a global journey to reunite all the old pals.
With the help of a nifty and hilarious “Travel by Map” feature, the road trip (a wonderful Muppet staple) brings us up to speed with the current whereabouts of Kermit’s cohorts. Fozzie Bear (Eric Jacobson) is found performing in some dump in Reno, backed by second-rate impersonators calling themselves The Moopets (funny at first, but not so much after a while). Gonzo is owner and president of a plumbing company, with the help of some fine-feathered friends, of course. Then there’s Animal (Jacobson), who is found in an anger management class with Jack Black (playing himself) as his sponsor.  Particularly funny is how Sam the Eagle (Jacobson), Scooter (David Rudman), and Rowlf (Bill Baretta) have been spending their time.
It’s no surprise that Miss Piggy (Jacobson) is found in Paris, as the EIC of Vogue Paris (with Emily Blunt, playing her receptionist, recalling her role in “The Devil Wears Prada”), but what is a surprise is that almost every Muppet seems to be reluctant to get on board with this reunion. Even the usually optimistic Kermit, struggles with pessimism throughout the movie. Despite his famous warbling, he always made green look so easy – what happened?
In typical Muppet fashion, an assortment of obstacles prevents the gang from getting the show together. Kermit can’t seem to land a much-needed celebrity host, so unbeknownst to him, one is kidnapped (a hilarious scene) for him.  Meanwhile, Walter is trying to figure out if he has any talent, while he and Gary have an identity crisis (with the help of a clever musical number). Gary, being on the sunny side of slow, also has to make amends with Mary, who he’s unintentionally (albeit stereotypically) overlooked in all the excitement.
As clichéd as it sounds – this is a delightfully fun movie for all ages. It matters not if you’re familiar with the characters, because what you get is 100% devotion to infectious musical numbers, silly deadpan zingers, and even some clever meta in-jokes. Bobin has not only populated the movie with beloved characters (it’s hard not to smile when you see everyone come together for “The Rainbow Connection”, especially The Electric Mayhem band), but also several opportunities to look back at where these Muppets are from.
If you’re thirtysomething and up, these Muppets come from your childhood and sweet recollection is what the filmmakers are counting on here. It’s a blast to see everyone backstage again scrambling to get a show together, even if there is a frenzied clean-up montage to the wretched Starship song, “We Built This City”.  At least it wasn’t “Takin’ Care of Business”, but we are subjected to the overused “Bad to the Bone” at one point.
Speaking of which, the original songs here are all wonderful. From the opening “Life’s a Happy Song” (included cameos by Feist and…Mickey Rooney!), to the comically introspective “Man or Muppet”, Segel and Walter are established as a solid sibling duo. The standout musical number is “Let’s Talk about Me”, where we see Chris Cooper rapping at our Muppet friends. These new songs are a refreshing jolt and make up for a lame rendition of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, but at least we have a cute cover of a familiar Cee-Lo song. Those tunes play for laughs, but after seeing the Muppets cover “Bohemian Rhapsody”, they fall short.
The human stars here, primarily Segel and Adams (with their appropriately sunny disposition), fit perfectly. Segel knows a thing or two about puppetry, having worked his affinity for the craft into “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” and after her work in “Enchanted”, Adams is just right for the role.
The only problem is that their roles are just too stereotypical. I get that they’re from Smalltown, U.S.A, and therefore, that’s how they’re wired, but it would’ve been nice to get a sense that there is something underneath their bubbly exteriors. Something more than sweet and clueless Gary (Segel masters a plastered smile) and sweet and neglected Mary (yet Adams sells it well), but then again I’m not expecting too much characterization in a Muppet movie, just a better arc.
Cooper is good (not great), mainly because the role seems to be so unexpected for him, but by the third act of the film, he’s seen playing a typical villain. That’s too bad since it seemed like there was a backstory there that would explain why he’s unable to smile. Any further character development for Tex Richman is unfortunately relegated to the end credits. This seems poorly thought out on the part of the screenwriters, but the overall ending is kind of rushed anyway. I’m not going to go into it all, but it seems like the thousands of fans gathering in the street at the end could’ve culled some cash to save the Muppets felt – but maybe I’m thinking too much and not feeling enough.
As expected, there is an assortment of celebrity cameos throughout the film. Just like in previous films, the cameos that work are the ones that actually serve the story and there are a few that do that here (Alan Arkin is great as a slow-moving tour guide). Other cameos seem inconsequential or just thrown in toward the end. Hopefully this can be corrected in the inevitable sequel.
Overall, the fact that there is a Muppet movie on the big-screen that embraces their nostalgia and celebrates their endearing eternal charm is a success. It may not have the magic of the Henson (both Jim and his son, Brian) or the Frank Oz films, but its heart is in the right place and it is nevertheless quite enjoyable. 
8 Comments leave one →
  1. Windi permalink
    November 30, 2011 6:47 pm

    I’m dragging the boys to see this sometime soon. Trevor says he wants to see it, but not at the theater, hahaha. I think his soon-to-be-teenager self was talking! Calvin has agreed that it looks funny and fun. I know I want to see it more than they do, but I grew up on the Muppets, so that’s not a surprise! 🙂

    • David J. Fowlie permalink*
      November 30, 2011 11:28 pm

      I think it was yesterday that my 5 yr. old walked passed me humming “Mah Na Na Mah Na”, so clearly it was her hooked. Here’s a truth: All three of you will go and have a great time.

  2. December 1, 2011 7:01 am

    Longtime Muppet fans will undoubtedly have more fun than young ones, but for the most part, it’s a witty, delightful romp, that shows you that you can still be funny, without ever being mean still in 2011. Good review.


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