Thursday, December 15, 2011
By now, they're a cultural milestone. Beginning in the 70s and remaining - to a lesser extent at times than others - an earmark of American television and film, the Muppets were among the first to pioneer entertainment with both children and adults in mind. I've been a die-hard Muppet fan for as long as I can remember, and when Jason Segel announced he was working on a new Muppet movie (shortly after such things were hinted at in Forgetting Sarah Marshall) I was thrilled. Has the wait been worth it? Are the Muppets back to stay?
Up to this point in time, the last good Muppet movie was Muppets from Space which hit theaters in 1999. In between that time and The Muppets there were two feature-length Muppet movies (A Very Merry Muppet Christmas Movie, and The Muppet Wizard of Oz); both of which were adaptations/spoofs - It's a Wonderful Life and The Wizard of Oz - and both of which were just awful. That's to say nothing about the handful of straight-to-DVD or Disney channel "specials" that came out during that time, most of which were mediocre at best. So putting it mildly, The Muppets had quite a hill to climb, and thankfully achieves this feat brilliantly. The first step to doing so is with the story. Part of what made the Muppets so great to watch was a kind of self-consciousness and reflexivity that manifested itself in both pop culture references and a good deal of meta-jokes. But these alone can't make a Muppet movie good (see the last two Muppet movies for agonizing proof), the story itself also needs to be compelling. And The Muppets is most definitely compelling.
Chronicling the story of a boy named Walter (the newest member of the Muppet cast) who grew up as the Muppets biggest fan, the movie takes the familiar jump from coming-of-age to road-movie to show-within-a-show as Walter travels around the country reuniting the Muppets for one last show to save their theater from the greedy oil tycoon Tex Richman (Chris Cooper). Along for the ride is his brother Gary (Jason Segel) and Gary's girlfriend Mary (Amy Adams). It's no spoiler to say that Segel and Adams look like they're having the time of their lives and jump into the corny humor with more than adequate ease. And with the human members of the cast allowing the audience an appropriate anchor, the Muppets themselves are free to be exactly what they've been all along: just pure fun.
Another big step in making a home-run Muppet movie is, of course, the music. It's not enough just to have song-and-dance routines, they need to be catchy and well-written. And thankfully, again, The Muppets scores big time in the music department. If you don't find yourself tapping your toes or bobbing your head then you're probably in the wrong movie. But in addition to being well-written and catchy, the songs aren't complicated; quite the contrary they're wonderfully accessible. So singing right along with much of the music can happen right on your first viewing. DOUBLE POINTS.
Finally, The Muppets manages to walk that hair-thin line of not taking itself too seriously, while taking itself just seriously enough. There is an appropriate amount of meta-humor and 4th wall bending, but it never derails into "groaner" jokes or condescension. Even the truly corny jokes (courtesy of Fozzie and of course Statler and Waldorf) are still genuinely funny because of the context. Hell, they even manage to sneak in some fart humor without making it feel like a gimmick. I've always been a bit of a sucker for fart-related humor (the "film" critic in me just choked on his Earl Grey - but that's what he gets for holding his little pinky out right?) but even I can be turned off by gags and gimmicks when they're used to low-ball the audience. But fortunately, nothing about this movie low balls the audience, or talks down to us, or puts anything too on-the-nose.
There is truly precious little to be said negatively about this movie. The villain is your typical stock character oil tycoon (Tex Richman? Well at least they're not perpetuating any state-related stereotypes...) but even he fits into the overall "cliche" that the movie isn't afraid to tackle. And seeing Chris Cooper rap - and I mean REALLY rap - is too much of a treat to bear any grudge whatsoever against this movie, despite what Fox News had to say about it.
The other somewhat minor drawback to the movie is an almost complete lack of Rizzo. I almost didn't even realize it until it was pointed out to me by a friend at the end of the movie. Every other Muppet got some decent screen time, even Beauregard. But Rizzo is painfully absent from this flick. It's a little thing, to be sure, but it bears mentioning.
The Muppets are back, officially. They've been taken off the list of "indie cred" items and I think it's high time that was the case. Going almost 11 years without a decent credit to their name was really a shame - but in retrospect, The Muppets has made that 12 years completely worth the wait. And the film does a brilliant job of referencing that very fact - that the Muppets have been "gone" and now they're "back" - so watching the movie quite literally feels like being a personal part of the Muppet journey.
This movie has EVERYTHING we've come to love about the Muppets, right down to some hilarious cameos (Dave Grohl as Animal's replacement in the "off-brand" Muppet band would have been enough on its own, but there's plenty of Mickey Rooney, Jack Black, Alan Arkin, Emily Blunt, Kristin Schaal, and more to go around!) and a few vintage Muppet songs. This is the movie old Muppet fans have been waiting for, and by the look of the critical and audience response it's getting - it's what'll probably be the start of a whole new generation of Muppet fans.
Kermit, Miss Piggy, Fozzie, Gonzo, all of you, welcome back; you've been sorely missed.