Muppets, The (United States, 2011)November 22, 2011
The Muppets is a rare family film likely to appeal more to parents than to their offspring. Although it's true that most kids today know a thing or two about Jim Henson's creations (the movie's premise - that they have vanished into obscurity since the early 1980s - is an exaggeration), the Muppets are ingrained in the older generation's DNA. It's hard to imagine anyone between the ages of 35 and 50 who didn't grow up with the loveable puppets, either on Sesame Street or The Muppet Show, or in the early movies. Technically, The Muppets is classified as a "musical comedy," but this is essentially a 97-minute exercise in nostalgia. It's the Muppets as they haven't been since Jim Henson died, a throwback to the time when their TV show was popular and their first movie, 1979's The Muppet Movie, was a bona fide hit. Kids today will have the same kind of fun at The Muppets they have at all films of this kind. Adults, however, will connect in a deeper way.
The storyline, as has always been the case with the Muppets, is an excuse for singing, dancing, witty exchanges, high-profile cameos, and the magic that happens when the old school felt-and-fuzz creatures come together on screen. Like the television program, this is more variety show than traditional narrative, and it has been assembled with obvious affection by all those involved. Despite the passage of decades, the Muppets have not noticeably changed. Advances in technology have not impacted them. They have not been "enhanced" by the use of CGI. And, although two of the original "voices" are no longer participants (Henson having died and Frank Oz having retired from puppeteering), Kermit, Miss Piggy, Fozzie, and the rest of the gang sound pretty much the same. The Muppets proves that sometimes the best approach is not to tinker with a successful formula.
The thin plot focuses on Walter (voice of Peter Linz), a Muppet-like "boy" (who looks a little like Bert) whose lifelong dream is to visit the Muppet Studio in California. When his big brother, Gary (Jason Segel), heads to Hollywood for a vacation with his girlfriend, Mary (Amy Adams), Gary invites Walter to come along. While touring the falling-down remains of the Muppet Studio, Walter stumbles upon a dastardly plot hatched by the villainous Tex Richman (Chris Cooper): he's going to buy the Muppet Studio and raze it to get at the oil reserves buried beneath the land. Walter, aghast, seeks out the only one who can stop this: Kermit the Frog. But finding Kermit only solves part of the problem because, in order to stop Tex, $10 million needs to be raised. Kermit does the only thing possible - he reunites the Muppets and gets them a two-hour television slot in which to resurrect The Muppet Show as a telethon.
As one might expect, the human actors in The Muppets don't have a lot to do. The stars, Jason Segel (who also co-executive produced and co-wrote the movie) and Amy Adams, get a chance to sing and dance but, other than that, their primary function is to smile and be cheerful. Chris Cooper lets down his hair (figuratively) and goes deliciously over-the-top, especially in his one big number, "Let's Talk about Me." Jack Black plays an exaggerated version of himself and one could argue this is the best performance he has given in a long time.
The Muppets features six new musical numbers and three "classics," including "The Muppet Show Theme" and "The Rainbow Connection." Both are likely to stir memories for those who watched the television show and saw the first movie. (Since "The Rainbow Connection" received radio play in 1979 and charted in the Top 30, one didn't even need to see the film to be exposed to it.) Many of the Muppets from their heyday have at least token appearances - the only one I noticed as m.i.a. is Rizzo the Rat.
The dialogue is frequently witty and occasionally breaks the "fourth wall." Both were trademarks of the early Muppets era. Also, in keeping with the first three Muppet movies, there's a cavalcade of cameos, including Mickey Rooney, Emily Blunt, Sarah Silverman, Alan Arkin, Whoopi Goldberg, Selena Gomez, Neil Patrick Harris, and James Carville. Jack Black's role as the kidnapped host of the Muppet Show Telethon, is substantially larger than a cameo - his total screen time rivals that of Chris Cooper.
Simply put, The Muppets is good fun. The filmmakers understand not only the enduring appeal of Kermit and friends but are able to capture what they were like 30 years ago. The movie is designed for anyone who ever fell under the spell of Jim Henson's unlikely TV and movie stars. The token message - about the importance of "family" in its various permutations - is in keeping with what the Muppets have always been about. We were all like Walter and, when we welcomed them into our homes on a weekly basis in the late 1970s, they repaid us with the magic of memories. Now, director James Bobin has tapped into what made the Muppets unique and re-invigorated them not only for a new generation, but for the old one as well.
Muppets, The (United States, 2011)
Cast: Jason Segel, Amy Adams, Chris Cooper, Rashida Jones, Jack Black, and the voices of Steve Whitmire, Eric Jacobson, Dave Goelz, Peter Linz
Screenplay: Jason Segel & Nicholas Stoller, based on characters created by Jim Henson
Cinematography: Don Burgess
Music: Christophe Beck
U.S. Distributor: Walt Disney Pictures