Monday, December 5, 2011

Movie Review – The Muppets

I’ve adored the Muppets ever since I can remember.
My family sat down and watched The Muppet Show together whenever it came on. Segments from that absurd variety show are indelibly stamped on my memory in a way that not many things are. The Muppet Show introduced me to Elton John, Steve Martin, John Cleese, Harvey Korman, Vincent Price, Peter Sellers, and countless others. By the time Christopher Reeve, Lynda Carter, and the cast of Star Wars hosted their episodes I was old and aware enough to have what were probably the first geek-out moments of my life. It’s funny, because Lil’ Troublemaker is the same age as I was when those shows happened, and I don’t think there’s an equivalent experience available for him. Except for watching our Muppet Show DVDs.

Of course, the guest stars were not always a high point of the show. As a matter of fact, they were more often than not distracting from the real stars – the Muppets themselves. For every Elton or Vincent you had a bunch of stars that had no meaning to me then and that even today I am hard-pressed to tell you who the heck they were or what they did. And I couldn’t wait for them to finish up their bit so we could get back to Fozzy telling jokes or Gonzo risking life and limb by performing another doomed stunt.
The Muppet albums were also an integral part of my childhood. There were a few records my parents bought that got listened to a lot. I specifically remember bugging my dad to death to record them onto audio cassettes when that magical technology became widespread so we could listen to them in the car.
Choosing your music on a car ride. Crazy.
But I digress – there were three Muppet albums in our collection. One was the soundtrack of The Muppet Movie, one was a collection of songs from the show, and the last was the very best; and I think you all know what I’m talking about here: John Denver & The Muppets: A Christmas Together. The greatest Christmas album of all time.
I still had the original copies of those records up until the flood a couple of years ago. Sorry, I’ll stop mentioning the flood when it stops bumming me out.
The Muppet movies were all great too. Now, when I talk about Muppet Movies I’m talking about the Original Trilogy – The Muppet Movie, The Great Muppet Caper, and The Muppets Take Manhattan. I don’t have anything against the later movies, per se, but they’re not even in the same league. While A Muppet Christmas Carol is very good and Muppets From Space is weird enough to be enjoyable (though I don’t think Gonzo should have ever been explained) I can do without Muppet Treasure Island entirely.
And in the intervening years we’ve also had a few Muppet TV shows or specials Muppets Tonight, Letters to Santa (blech), and of course what is probably the second-best-known Muppets property – Muppet Babies. I very specifically remember doubting the idea before the show came on – and I could do a whole other piece on Saturday Morning Cartoons and how vitally important they used to be before we had fifty different TV stations devoted to just cartoons – and I was wrong. It was a fantastic show that exemplified the very best of what the Muppets were about: the ideas of satire, creativity, diversity, and family.
So given that long and admittedly bumpy history, I was not sure what to make of this new movie being headed up by Jason Segel.
And I guess next I need to talk a bit about Jason Segel.
I’ve found the guy to be funny in the things I’ve seen him in. He has a genuine weirdness that is just short of off-putting that works really well, but he also comes off as very sincere. I guess you’ve got to be sincere and weird to pull off that opening scene in Sarah Marshall; which, by the way, was a movie I really enjoyed until the ending. I thought it was kind of abrupt and didn’t make sense. But Segel was great in it. He was also solidly weird and entertaining in I Love You, Man to the point where he stole the movie from Paul Rudd.
So I like Jason Segel, but I couldn’t imagine why anybody thought he had the credibility or talent to helm a new Muppet project. I mean, yeah, he was a puppeteer in Sarah Marshall, but he’s an actor people. If I needed somebody to smuggle me off the planet I wouldn’t go to Harrison Ford, would I? Okay, well, I would, but you get what I’m saying.
I didn’t find out until after we saw The Muppets that Segel has actually been a puppeteer since he was in high school. He was on Attack of the Show the other day and explained what a giant puppet nerd he is and it all made sense. Because I’ll go ahead and tell you right now – after seeing The Muppets I was bewildered as to how anybody could have gotten it so absolutely, perfectly right.


Lil’ Troublemaker has seen a lot of episodes of the old show and a few of the movies and we’ve been watching the trailers for the new one as they were released online. I have been aggressively hyping him up for the movie because there was no way I was going to miss seeing it in the theater and I was determined that my son would see it, too. Thankfully it all worked and he was really excited to go when we went last Wednesday.
The theater we had planned to go to was shut down. Despite the fact they had show times posted online. We pulled up and the parking lot was kind of bare, but we still walked up to the box office. No signs declaring their state of closedness or anything. The doors were just locked. After I tried the last set of doors some dude just walked up front and told me they had been shut down. Won’t be going there ever again.
Lil’ Troublemaker was afraid we wouldn’t get to see the movie now and was just about to get upset, but I pulled out my phone and assured him we’d be seeing the movie that day if we had to drive all over town. It turned out it was playing at the local Movie Tavern, so we went there and the place was awesome. We will be going there again.
I knew I loved the Muppets, but I didn’t realize how much until I spent the first half hour of the new movie trying not to shed tears of pure joy that they got it so right. Five minutes in I was thinking, “Oh my gosh. This is it. They did it.” and the flood of relief and happiness was almost overwhelming.
I can’t really describe what the magic element is, but an utter lack of cynicism is part of it. I guess you get the Muppets or you don’t, and if you do then this movie is for you.
Jason Segel is spot-on through the whole thing as the wide-eyed and innocent Gary, older brother of wide-eyed and innocent puppet Walter. Amy Adams practically reprises her role from Enchanted (another movie I loved up until the very end) as wide-eyed and innocent Mary, Gary’s girlfriend and almost-fiancée. Segel and Adams are absolutely perfect in the movie, as they provide an entry point for the audience. Their characters are initially more relatable than the fur and felt stars, but as the film goes on they are mostly providing support. Their story is definitely secondary to the main plot.
Gary and Walter are lifelong fans of the Muppets, a story point that is illustrated with a montage of the two watching and loving old episodes of the show. This part is done with such respect and emotion and I think is where I felt like they got it.
And the main plot is a classic, easy-to-understand trope: an executive from a big oil company wants to buy Muppet Studios and turn it into a museum, except he’s evil and really wants to tear it down and drill for oil. This may seem stereotypical, but I work for a big oil company and I assure you all oil company executives are evil. I should mention that the villain is played by Chris Cooper. He’s a character actor who has been in a ton of movies and shows that I haven’t seen. I recognized his face, but couldn’t tell you a thing he’s been in. Regardless, he did a great job and I’d like to see more of him.
Naturally the only way to save the Studio (and the Muppets name, it turns out) is to get the gang back together and put on a benefit show. It turns out the Muppets disbanded years ago and Kermit needs the help of Walter, Gary, and Mary to get them all back together.
The Muppets all look absolutely fantastic. I’m not positive they’ve been using a different model of Kermit for the past decade or so, but it seemed to me the Kermit in The Muppets was more legit. You could see the outline of the knuckles and everything in the hand operating him and I’m not sure that’s been present in a while. He just looked better somehow. Old-school, I guess. Maybe I’m wrong. But all of the Muppets just seemed to look more like I remember them looking back in the 70’s, except thankfully the Swedish Chef had felt hands instead of the creepy, bare human ones.
The voice work was outstanding as well, despite the fact that Frank Oz refused to be a part of the movie. Only in the very beginning was I jarred by the voices being different. It was a quick adjustment in the cases that were even noticeable at all. Whoever they got to do Fozzy and Miss Piggy was great. I wonder if it was the guy that does Yoda on The Clone Wars. That would be awesome.
The movie went about like you’d expect; the gang gets back together with a couple of false starts and twists along the way. Another thing the movie got right was that it was a musical. Right from the start there is a completely unashamed number that fits perfectly into the Muppet song book. And while the opener (and closer) is great, my favorite new song is the Amy Adams/Miss Piggy duet “Me Party”. That was just hilarious.
The Muppets also carries on the time-honored tradition of celebrity guests. My favorite was Dave Grohl appearing as the stand-in for Animal in a Muppets rip-off band, but also showing up were Sarah Silverman, Judd Hirsch, the guy from Chuck, Zack Galifianakis, Kristin Schall, Jack Black, Jim Parsons, and a ton of others. Jack Black managed to be entertaining despite his gross overexposure. I was seriously impressed by this. While I still have a fondness for Jables, he has been in waaay too many kid-oriented projects over the past few years and I’m kind of sick of seeing him. He really needs to go work on the next Tenacious D album. Jim Parsons was perfectly fine. I always have to fight my natural aversion to anything having to do with Big Bang Theory. I can’t stand that show, but Parsons has actually been pretty funny in interviews I’ve seen and as guest host on AOTS.
Overall The Muppets far surpassed my expectations. I can’t emphasize enough how much they got it. I will say this, though – if you’re taking kids they may get fidgety. Some of the human-centric bits and talky parts go on a bit. Lil’ Troublemaker wanted to leave about half an hour before the end at a part where Jason Segel was singing and the mood was a bit down. There were probably about fifteen to twenty minutes that he would’ve cut given the option.
The movie isn’t 100% perfect, but it is 100% wonderful.
In short, I’m not sure there is any more beautiful product of mankind than the Muppets done right. And the new movie is just that. Please support the best efforts of humanity and go see it.

4 OUT OF 5

Speaking of the best efforts of humanity, if you live in the Metro Atlanta area please take a minute and check out Clark Howard’s Christmas Kids. It’s one of the most worthwhile things that goes on around here. All you have to do is go to a local Walmart when they’re there and you’ll be provided with a foster kid’s Christmas list. You can buy however much you like from the list, but you’ll be helping a kid with maybe not the best circumstances in the world have a better Christmas.
You may be tempted to take the easier route and drop something in a Toys For tots bin. Don’t. While I’m sure a certain percentage of Toys For Tots donations actually do make it to kids, I can personally tell you of three different drop-off points over the years where the toys never even got picked up. One of the stores I worked at kept a ton of toys in a storage closet for months and despite repeated calls to the organization they just sat there. I think the manager dropped them off at some charity, but this was long past the point where they would do kids any good at Christmas.
So check out Christmas Kids and see if you can make it out.
Until next time, stay creepy
-Phantom

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