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The Muppets: A Completely Biased and Nostalgic Full-Blown Rave

By roughly the fifteen-minute mark of the new Muppet movie, I had tears running down my face. They had done it. Jason Segel, Nick Stoller, James Bobin, and the exceptional crew of puppeteers had resurrected my favorite characters of all-time in a film that is hilarious, charming, moving, and ultimately a wildly successful reboot of the Muppet franchise. I spent the entire run time with a massive grin on my face, convinced that everyone else in the world will share my love for these characters– it’d be a box office smash, inspire sequels, force ABC to bring back The Muppet Show to television, and all would be right with the world. Even though I’m overwhelmingly biased, I firmly believe that The Muppets is a restoration of a brand of family entertainment we’ve been missing in today’s society: earnest, clever, and hopeful. Regardless of nostalgic impact, it’s a must-see.

We’re introduced up front to a new Muppet, Walter (performed by Peter Linz). Walter lives with his brother Gary (Jason Segel), who has been dating a schoolteacher named Mary (Amy Adams) for the better part of a decade in an American smalltown named, appropriately, Smalltown. Walter’s never felt he had a proper place in the world until he discovered The Muppet Show. When Gary and Mary plan their anniversary trip to Los Angeles, Gary invites Walter along to tour the Muppet Studios. When they arrive, they find it in a state of disrepair: the Muppets haven’t performed together in decades, and the old studio is about to be purchased by Tex Richman (Chris Cooper), an evil tycoon hellbent on bulldozing the studio to dig for the oil underneath it. Gary, Mary, and Walter set out to find the Muppets, gather them together, and find a way to raise the money to buy the theater back.

Most of the joy of the film for those familiar with the Muppets is discovering who shows up, what they’ve been up to, what gags they’ll get to have in the film, etc., so I won’t go into even the smallest details. I will address merely the barebones: the script is a bit slapdash but incredibly funny and charming, the songs are memorable and a couple of them are quite touching, and the resolution feels right. There are a large number of jokes in this movie that nail the tone of the original show and film perfectly, to the point where the nostalgic side of me was filled to the brim with joy. Segel and Adams do nice earnest work with sweet energy while never overshadowing the real stars of the film. After some mild concern that Walter wouldn’t be nearly as interesting as the original Muppets, he endeared himself to me after the first ten minutes or so, and his storyline held its own with those of Kermit, Miss Piggy, et al.

There’s very little to complain about: my complaints all stems from wanting more. For example, a couple of the songs, written by Bret MacKenzie of Flight of the Conchords, feel too short– I wanted them to build more and go longer, but they stayed on the level of, well, Flight of the Conchords songs, remaining cute and diversionary rather than soaring to epic heights. Disney has also included in places billboards of Cars 2 and Winnie-the-Pooh, this year’s Disney films, in conspicuous locations in the film, which actively angered me. The Muppets are timeless, and this film is a timeless entry into their canon, so why soil it with ads for movies that no one will remember a year from now (I barely remembered Cars 2 five minutes after it ended). This is nitpicky and is in no way the fault of the filmmakers, but rather the suits at Disney doing what corporations do: sullying things that are great with hacky product placement. Finally, for the diehard Muppet fans… Miss Piggy’s voice is noticeably not the voice of Frank Oz. I got over it pretty quickly, but for the first couple of scenes, the Muppet nerd in me was thrown.

None of the above “complaints” come close to removing the film from its four-kernel status– I merely felt obligated to try to criticize in the most objective way possible. The bottom line is I can’t be fully objective about this film. I grew up on The Muppets. My mother made a VHS tape of episodes of The Muppet Show that aired on TV and I watched them ad nauseum as a child. Elton John, Danny Kaye, Milton Berle, Ben Vereen, Rudolph Nureyev, George Burns, Madeline Kahn, Zero Mostel. These were the movie stars to me growing up. Kermit, Fozzie, Miss Piggy, Gonzo, Statler and Waldorf, Sam the Eagle, Swedish Chef… these were my heroes. Still are, really. These are immaculately crafted and executed characters, a lexicon so deep and startlingly original that no show, not even The Simpsons or South Park, has come close. When I see one of the Mahna Mahna guys, I laugh. When Rowlf plays the piano, I feel warm. When Dr. Teeth and the Electric Orchestra start jamming, my toe starts tapping instinctively. I’ve done bad impressions of Bunsen Honeydew and Beaker more often than my dignity care to admit. It’s like asking me to objectively comment on a film about the lives of my best friends: I simply find myself unable.

Does that mean I’m unable to criticize a Muppet film? Absolutely not: if anything, I hold them to higher standards. Muppets From Space was scattershot at best, and the made-for-TV Muppets Wizard of Oz is an embarrassment to the Muppet name. This newest film and the critical accolades it’s receiving isn’t even close to the accolades that, say, Indiana Jones 4 got upon arrival. People just wanted to see Indiana Jones again– they’d only seen him three times. Here, we’ve had four seasons of Muppet Show, more Muppet films than I can count on one hand, and endless appearances by the characters in pop culture. It wasn’t enough to simply see them… we had to *feel* them. Could a post-Jim Henson original Muppet story ever achieve the bliss and the heart of the Henson era? Despite grumbles from old school Hensonites about the script for the new film, I firmly believe that this film is not only a love letter to the Henson era, but it desires to build on that good feeling. It acknowledges the great amount of time that has passed since the heyday of the Muppets, and it truly believes that even in this cynical day and age, contemporary children and the adults who watched them in the first place are ready for the Muppet brand of humor: sharp but never mean, aware but never fully ironic. At a time when the economy, politics, and society as a whole seems to be viewed by increasingly pessimistic eyes, I argue that now more than ever is a time for a Muppet revival. The new movie gives us the perfect vessel to usher this era back in, and I pray that we take it. But what do I know? I’m biased.

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~ by russellhainline on November 23, 2011.

2 Responses to “The Muppets: A Completely Biased and Nostalgic Full-Blown Rave”

  1. […] 21. A Separation 20. Everything Must Go 19. Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol 18. Melancholia 17. Muppets 16. Midnight in Paris 15. 50/50 14. Attack the Block 13. Warrior 12. Rise of the Planet of the Apes […]

  2. Words fail. That piece was beautiful, man.

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