There are those of you who will see The Muppets as nostalgia for characters from your childhood, old friends you’ve lost touch with over the last 20 years. And then there are those of us who stayed in touch with our furry friends ever since we first met them on The Muppet Show. However, even the most ardent fans can admit that it’s been far too long since the Muppets were given their proper cinematic due. Recently they’ve been relegated to made-for-TV movies and Muppetized versions of storied fiction (The Wizard of Oz, Treasure Island) and seem to be constantly grasping for modern mainstream popularity.
With the wide release of The Muppets, the franchise is finally being positioned with a serious widespread marketing push and better casting conditions than Whoopi Goldberg. And more importantly, it has gone back to its genre-bending, witty roots and muscling out the overt cuddliness of the last few endeavors. Here is a Muppet newsflash: The Muppets are back and better than, well, a long time in forever!
The film’s plot is fairly paint-by-numbers with a rather predictable romance and a cookie-cutter scenery-chewing villain as antagonist. But this allows the film to focus on the music, character interactions and general Muppet lunacy to fill in all the spaces. You can’t over think a Muppets film and risk undercutting what people are there to see. Certainly if they wanted high drama, they could’ve gone next door to see J. Edgar. However, the character of Walter allows the film to take a unique path, by linking the protagonist’s own nostalgia for The Muppets with the audience’s and thus amplifying our emotional investment in not only the plot of the film, but our support of the Muppets as a franchise even long after we leave the theatre. Quite simply, WE are Walter.
Though self-reference is not foreign territory to the Muppets. The plot links this new film directly to both The Muppet Show and The Muppet Movie. On The Muppet Show, we were very much a part of the Muppets efforts TO PUT ON A SHOW. With their first cinematic venture, The Muppet Movie, we watched the Muppets endeavors to make a movie. This film is a direct descendant of that era, essentially retconning their recent exploits by creating a world where the Muppets have long gone their separate and ultimately lonelier ways. Enter: Walter
Walter is the traditional protagonist that appeals to a very fundamental desire for children and adults: a desire to fit in. He’s very clearly a Muppet living in a human world that readily views him as a Muppet, though he recognizes something is missing in his life. The Muppets have always been a collection of outcasts, the Freaks and Geeks of their world, and that has always been a source of powerful empathy in cinema and television, whether it was at the twilight of the hippie era they were birthed from or throughout the modern era where programming around them was technologically maximized yet often minimized in terms of endearing content. (On another level, The Muppets help prove that we don’t NEED The Adventures of Tintin or Mars Needs Moms.)
Walter is surrounded by three key humans: Jason Siegel as Gary, Amy Adams as Mary, and Chris Cooper as villainous Tex Richman. They all play it simple and straight, with highlights coming in the form of song. The musical numbers, composed by Bret McKenzie are a mix of traditional, ironic and progressive. “Life’s a Happy Song” is both a gleeful homage and a wink-wink satire of classic Hollywood musicals, where the entire town joins in the performance. (It’s also reminiscent of Adams’ performing “That’s How You Know” in Enchanted.) On the opposite side of the spectrum, “Man or Muppet” is a somber and absurd tale of identity crisis, and a veritable descendant of Segel’s Muppet-inspired work in “Forgetting Sarah Marshall.” The Muppets themselves join in on other numbers (including some longtime classics) but their funniest moments come in the unlikely takes on “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and Cee-Lo Green’s “F@#$ You.” Watching chickens cluck a modern pop song is just so far out of left-field and yet completely befitting a Muppet movie. You’d have to be some kind of heartless to not giggle like a little kid watching these scenes.
My one complaint about the film is that many characters are truly stuck in the background, with few lines or gags (if any at all). This was certainly done at the service of the plot of the film and to keep certain Muppets at the forefront. It also enabled more screen time for the lead human characters. As such, you get weird situations where Rowlf gets less dialogue than Bobo the Bear. Admittedly it would be difficult to tell a specific family-friendly story while also allowing performance time for all the Muppets, playing to their strengths. That’s the key there because the strengths (and legacy) of many of these characters were skit performances. That was evident with their recent success in a series of viral online videos the last few years, most notably including a cover of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody.” It’s a minor complaint and probably points more towards a void on the television landscape than in movies. (Certainly the movie shows us that the time is ripe for a modern resurgence of The Muppet Show.)
Hollywood is chockfull of remakes, sequels, muscle-flexing action flicks and repetitive computer-animation that often result in very prosaic creations, where art has long given way to the gold-plated fist of commerce. The Muppets proves that you can not only go home again, but that in 21st century Hollywood, you can still make good family fun with old-fashioned Muppetry.
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