Muppets, The

Reviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 11/22/11 20:20:36

"Deeply Felt"
5 stars (Awesome)

Like a good number of people of my generation, I have gone through life with an immoderate degree of affection for the Muppets, the beloved creations of the late, great Jim Henson. As a little kid, I religiously watched and enjoyed their groundbreaking syndicated television show for its enchanting blend of music, humor and fabulous guest stars and revisiting them as an adult, I was delighted to discover that not only did it hold remarkably well over the subsequent decades but that it was clearly designed to appeal to older viewers as well as its presumed kiddie demographic. On my 8th birthday, I remember going to see "The Muppet Movie," their 1979 big-screen debut, with a bunch of friends and sitting down in the front row because we had heard that there was a scene in which Kermit the Frog rode a bicycle and we wanted to try to figure out how that could be possible. (I also remember going out do dinner with my family that night and being horrified when my father, not giving it a second thought, ordered frogs legs for dinner, an exceptionally gauche selection when you recall the plot details of the film.) As the years went on, I would continue to see their occasional big-screen outings and even if they never quite managed to live up to that miraculous first film, they still had their moments and, with the possible exception of the dire "Muppets from Space" (1999), none of them were completely without merit. And like so many other fans, I looked upon the fate of the Muppets with a certain degree of despair as they, following the untimely death of Henson in 1990, became exceptionally fuzzy pawns in a corporate game that always seemed to be promising their glorious return but which produced relatively few results other than a brief and unsuccessful attempt to resurrect the TV show, a couple of relatively charmless TV movie exercises and the aforementioned "Muppets from Space."

As a result, when it was announced, after years of rumors and countless false starts, that the Muppets would finally make their long-awaited return to cinemas, I greeted the news with mixed emotions. On the plus side, it was a chance to see Kermit, Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear, Gonzo and the rest, including my personal heroes Statler & Waldorf, back where they belonged while entertaining longtime fans and newer generations alike. On the other hand, the post-Henson history of the Muppets was hardly inspiring and the recent revivals of other childhood favorites as "Star Wars," "Indiana Jones" and "The Blues Brothers" didn't exactly bolster ones confidence. Then there was the exceptionally bizarre-sounding decision on the part of Disney to put their return in the hands of Jason Segel and Nicolas Stoller, whose previous collaboration "Forgetting Sarah Marshall" did include a certain amount of puppetry but which was otherwise a decidedly raunchy R-rated comedy that was the absolute antithesis of what made the Muppets so special. Even as the release date grew closer, it still seemed to be a giant question mark in the minds of many people. There were a slew of Internet trailers that were quite amusing but they spent more time either spoofing other movies or trading on past glories (such as the use of the immortal ditty "Mana Mana") than in indicating exactly what the movie was supposed to be and the rumors that several of the surviving original Muppeteers, most notably Frank Oz (who himself tried to get a Muppet movie going a few years ago), were not particularly pleased with the project, especially over a bit seen in the trailer featuring Fozzie demonstrating "fart shoes," and declined to participate. (To be fair, Fozzie in the past had demonstrated a fondness for all things whoopie cushion-related.)

Because of these wildly mixed signals, I must confess that when I arrived at the screening, it was with equal parts excitement and trepidation. If it turned out to be a good film that lived up to all the elevated hopes after all the years of waiting and missteps, it would be a welcome sight indeed but if it turned out to be yet another stumble, the dashing of those hopes might almost be too much to bear. Luckily, the film doesn't keep viewers in suspense as to which path it is going to take because it is pretty much a total delight from start to finish, a hilariously funny and often touching celebration of all thing Muppet that is easily the best of their big-screen adventures since "The Muppet Movie" and the first Muppet-related endeavor since the passing of Henson that truly understands what it is that made them so special and memorable in the first place. And yet, while adults will embrace it as a shot of pure, blissful nostalgia, it is bright and colorful and funny enough to enchant little kids who have never experienced the Muppets on a first-hand basis before. This isn't just one of the more entertaining family films of the year, this is one of the more entertaining films of the year period.

The film opens by introducing us to Walter (voice of Peter Linz), an ordinary puppet who, along with his human brother Gary (Jason Segel), has grown up worshipping all things Muppet-related. (No, the film does not explain how the two can actually be related and I think that we can all breathe a sigh of relief in that regard.) Now Gary is heading off to Los Angeles to celebrate his tenth anniversary to long-time and presumably long-suffering girlfriend Mary (Amy Adams) and Walter is invited to tag along so that he can fulfill his lifelong dream of visiting the Muppet Studios and see his heroes in action. When he arrives, he discovers to his horror that the group has been disbanded for years and that the studio is a run-down wreck. To make matters worse, Walter overhears filthy rich oil magnate Tex Richman (Chris Cooper) discussing his diabolical plans to take over the property when the Muppets' 30-year lease ends, raze the studio and drill for the oil that has been discovered underneath the ground. The only possible hope for saving the studio is if $10 million can somehow be raised in less than a week.

After Walter, Gary and Mary track down Kermit, now living in seclusion in a dilapidated mansion with only a 1980's-era robot for companionship, and give him the news, they hit upon the notion of reuniting the group and staging a telethon to raise the money. They hit the road begin a trans-continental trip to find the gang--Fozzie is laboring in a sleazy casino as a member of a Muppet tribute group, Gonzo is a plumbing tycoon and Miss Piggy is the imperious editor of the French edition of Vogue--but once they finally come together, not without a few hiccups along the way, they are informed by a TV executive (Rashida Jones) that they are no longer famous and that if they want to have their telethon on the air, they have to find themselves a big-name star to be the guest host in order to attract viewers. While the group tries to find a host and pull themselves together in time to put on the show, Kermit and Miss Piggy have to deal with their long and convoluted relationship and what led to their separation in the first place. At the same time, Gary and Mary are dealing with their own relationship problems and Walter, who has always felt (no pun intended) like a bit of an outside, is elated to be working with his heroes but is stumped when it comes to what his own contribution to the group could possibly be. If that weren't enough, the gang also has to deal with the depravations of Richman, who has gotten wind of the plan to save the property and will go to any lengths to stop it.

One of the reasons that audiences young and old first embraced the Muppets in the first place was because they weren't just a group of interchangeable characters that were differentiated only by their looks. Instead, Henson and his fellow Muppeteers made sure to infuse all of the characters with distinct and recognizable personality traits that all viewers could easily relate to--Kermit was the decent Everyfrog who brought everyone together, Piggy brimmed with self-confidence and an all-consuming adoration for Kermit, Gonzo was the oddball that people like because of his unusual quirks and Fozzie, underneath his never-ending patter of corny jokes, simply wanted to be loved--and it was these traits that were at the heart of both the TV show and the first movie. Unfortunately, that aspect drifted away in the subsequent movies as the characters found themselves stuck in increasingly familiar plots that could have been filled by anyone or anything and that is the primary reason why those films never quite worked. As longtime students of Muppetology, Segel and Stoller clearly recognized that and have crafted a storyline that is driven largely by the characters and not by the machinations of the plot. It really is a pleasure to see the gang back together again and demonstrating the quirky and endearing behavior that made them so special in the first place. This was a risky move on their part--if they had misstepped in this regard in even the slightest, it would have torpedoed the entire project--but it is a gamble that pays off beautifully in the long run. Like the best of the Pixar films, "The Muppets" is a family film that has an actual heart at its heart and that makes it more than just a collection of silliness and songs.

That said, the silliness and songs on display are nothing to sneeze at either. The jokes come in all shapes and size and range in tone from the subtle to the ridiculous to the downright corny and are delivered with the kind of verve and breathless pace that reminded me in a way of one of the most tragically underrated family-oriented films of recent years, Joe Dante's delirious and delightful animation celebration "Looney Toons Back In Action." There is a lot of gentle slapstick and goofiness to entrance the younger viewers and plenty of shout-outs and homages to the glory days to amuse adults as well. Best of all, there isn't a trace of meanness in any of the humor--the Muppets have always been inclusive and even their wildest and craziest members, such as the demented drummer Animal, have a lovability at their core that make them instantly more interesting than most characters aimed at kids these days. As has been the tradition in past Muppet films, there is also a healthy selection of cameo appearances from familiar faces (none of which I would dream of revealing) that inspire big laughs without stealing focus away from the true stars of the film. As for the music, there is one new song, "Life's A Happy Song," that deserves immediate enshrinement in the Muppet canon while another, "Pictures In My Head," does an effective and poignant job of simultaneously grappling with the past and coming to grips with the future. There are also a couple of funny covers as well, such as a barbershop rendition of "Smells Like Teen Spirit" and an inspired version of "Forget You" that will make everyone instantly forget that Gwyneth Paltrow nonsense. And while I won't reveal what tune is chosen for the big on-stage reunion of Kermit and Miss Piggy, I will hazard a guess that for most viewers of a certain age, they won't be able to get through the scene without at least contemplating the shedding of a tear or two.

Aside from a couple of minor quibbles--the chief one being the fact that Walter, although charming enough, doesn't quite have the same quirky personality as the other Muppets and it might have been nicer if the fate of the telethon hadn't fallen on his shoulders--I am genuinely happy to report that "The Muppets" is a film that truly was worth the wait. In an age when family-oriented films are now largely marketing ideas dominated by CGI animation, 3D photography and characters and stories that seem to have been devised based largely on how they might play in a video game or on a Happy Meal box, here is a proudly anachronistic work that largely ignores those tricks and relies instead on character, wit and emotion to entertain viewers. The end result is a bit of a miracle and whether it turns out to be a one-shot deal or spearheads a full-scale Muppet revival, it is a film so absolutely entertaining that even the eternally curmudgeonly Statler & Waldorf might have a couple of nice things to say about it.

NOTE: Screenings of "The Muppets" are being preceded by "Small Fry," a new short film from Pixar featuring Woody, Buzz Lightyear and the other "Toy Story" characters. In this one, Buzz is taken on a trip to a local fast-food joint where he is inadvertently replaced by a creepy mini-Buzz promotional toy. While Woody and the others try to figure out what happened to the real space explorer, Buzz winds up in a therapy group for other misfit promo items, including one sly reference to one of Disney's bigger cinematic misfires. Remember how we were all largely disappointed this past summer when Pixar's "Cars 2" turned out to be a loud, charmless and fairly pointless exercise in corporate greed that lacked even the slightest trace of the warmth and humanity of Pixar's other efforts? Well, with this inspired effort, Pixar manages to completely make up for the failings of that film in only seven minutes or so of pure, unadulterated bliss.

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