Sunday, January 15, 2012

The Muppets

Watching 2011's THE MUPPETS, I felt a wide variety of emotions, mostly favorable. Seeing those beloved creatures of my youth of course warmed my heart, the way any fondly remembered piece of one's past might. I was one of millions who watched The Muppet Show and saw their films back in the 70s and 80s.

When I heard of this new outing, I was immediately suspicious, and fearful. I was concerned that director James Bobin would screw this thing up a thousand ways. Honestly, there are endless possibilities to destroying the legacy of the late Jim Henson's creations. At worst, I had visions of a vulgar re-imagining ala Avenue Q. I was also curious as to Frank Oz's, long a Muppeteer, non-participation (he disagreed with an early script draft). THE MUPPETS, happily, does not in any way taint the Muppets and their charm, but is not an entire triumph, either.

If I could base my review on the opening and closing scenes alone, I would write glowing positives, sentences all ending in exclamation points. But that darned middle section, hmpf!

The Disney Studios' THE MUPPETS begins by introducing a Muppet we've never met before: Walter, a pleasant fellow who grows up in suburbia with his human brother, Gary (Jason Segel). How he was born into a human family may raise a few eyebrows, but no matter. Walter narrates a montage of his early years: the fun, the inevitable teasing from the neighborhood kids, his lack of growth spurts. It ain't easy being made of felt in a human world. Gary is always supportive and one day gives him a video of the The Muppet Show . It's a life-changing moment for Walter.

Gary meets Mary (Amy Adams) and on the 10th anniversary of their dating/courtship, surprises her with a trip to Los Angeles. Another surprise: Walter gets to tag along. Mary, a sweet, unfailingly polite young lady is visibly (and understandably) concerned but goes along with it. Before the bus trip, we get a bouncy, clever opening number with solos from everyone in town, right down to the milkman. It is a great start, worthy of the memories of all the fun tunes from 1979's THE MUPPET MOVIE et al.

Gary also surprises Walter with plans to visit the Muppets' Theater on Hollywood Boulevard (filmed at the El Capitan, where I saw Disney's TARZAN in '99). Once there, sad discoveries are made. The place is a shambles, mostly abandoned. A zombie-like tour guide (Alan Arkin) offers a drowsy walk-around. Walter steals away and hides in Kermit the Frog's old office, overhearing a buisnessman named Tex Richman (Chris Cooper) making plans to buy the old theater from those 2 crumudgeon Muppet judges, Statler and Waldorf. You remember them, with their caustic commentary from the balcony, offering scrooges in the audience who didn't like the Muppets some comic relief.

Walter stays long enough to discover that Richman not only wants to buy the theater, but also raze and tap the oil reserve beneath it. The only hope for the Muppets is for them to raise 10 million dollars to buy the theater back. But where are they? The film takes us to the Bel Air mansion of a near manic deppressive Kermit, seeming more like Eeyore than his old cheerful self. We learn he has not seen his friends in many years. Walter encourages Kermit to track down his co-horts and put on a show to raise $$$. This plot is as old as cinema itself.

It is about this point where THE MUPPETS' spirit and energy began to wane for me. The exposition of learning where each Muppet is (Fozzie's in a cheesy band in Reno, Gonzo's the CEO of a plumbing company, Miss Piggy's working for Vogue in Paris, etc.) sort of entertaining, but perhaps the malaise of the characters affects the movie itself. It is interesting to see a kids' movie deal with the disappointments of life with some insight, but everything turns sour with the realization that (seemingly) the 2010 pop culture audiences view the Muppets not even with half-remembered warm feelings but just total non-awareness. Veronica, a network executive (Rashida Jones) who reluctantly offers them a time slot for a telethon, very plainly spells it out for them: no one cares.

1984's THE MUPPETS TAKE MANHATTAN dealt with the realities of show biz in the Big Apple, but the Muppets were still in their prime. Things didn't seem so gloomy. A long stretch of THE MUPPETS seems almost catatonic. Half-hearted. Maybe the years will do that to ya? The gang regroups in the dilapadated old Theater, then begins to restore it (inexplicably and infuriatingly set to Starship's "We Built This City")and rehearse their old schtick. Gary and Mary have their inevitable squabbles; the fiance needs to decide who is his number one priority. Mary sings an embarrassing song in the middle of a diner. Gary sings his own questionable tune, "Am I a Man or a Muppet?". The Muppets kidnap a celebrity (I'm no spoiler) to host their show (in a sequence that awkwardly pays homage to Q. Tartantino) since these has-beens can't get a willing volunteer. Worst of all, Tex sings a cringeworthy rap song about how greedy he is. Gloomy going, I tell you.

But then THE MUPPETS gets back on track and delivers an upbeat, on-target third act, mainly covering the telethon, with some surprise guest stars manning the phones. Old favorites (including "Rainbow Connection") and new gags ("Smells Like Teen Spirit" set in a barber shop) abound. The absolute funniest skit? Camilla and the Chickens singing (or "bokking") Cee Lo Green's "Forget You". The original song is pop refuse; this cover is comedy gold. Walter even gets his debut on stage. Good spirits, the kind present in the productions of the Muppets of yore, prevail in the third act.

The finale, a reprise of the winning number, "Life's a Happy Song" sends you out with a smile, almost redeeming THE MUPPETS from a lackluster second act. Having "Minah Minah" sung during the credits was also a good idea. Dee dee deedeedee.
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