Review: The Muppets

11/29/2011

I’m torn right now. I want to toss my unreserved support behind the latest Muppets, because not only is it consistently entertaining, disarmingly sweet, and certainly up to the standard established by most entries in the franchise, but it is also an important movie for a young generation; and it is aware of that fact. Just before getting his head slammed in a door by Donald Glover, Kermit the Frog preps a speech about how kids are smarter than than their cynical culture gives them credit for being. A world where children’s entertainment has become more and more about cruel slapstick and lifeless hip hop references desperately needs The Muppets; where many of Kermit and Piggy’s contemporaries like The Smurfs, Alvin and the Chipmunks, and Transformers are being juiced for every last ounce of nostalgia by soulless adaptations that couldn’t care less about their initial charm, needs something genuinely optimistic. And The Muppets not only delivers on all of that promise and then some; it does so in a movie that is boldly about that problem. We chart the journey of the Muppets that is fascinatingly close to the actual journey the film took to the screen, with the world at first rejecting their special brand of entertainment as obsolete before being won over by its sheer enchantment. From what I’ve heard about audience reactions so far, this is a rare film that could actually change the way studio’s handle mainstream children’s entertainment, and that it’s done as part of the Muppet’s legacy is nothing short of outstanding.

So why the conflict? Why can’t I just embrace a wonderful movie, that – especially when packaged with the award-worthy Toy Story short before it – will probably make for the most fun experience at the movies this holiday season? Well – I’m just gonna have to come out and say it – I don’t think writer/star Jason Segel and his team, no matter how well-intentioned and passionate they are, are fully capable of recreating Henson’s fascinating universe. Now I understand that’s a lot to deal with in a single sentence, so I’ll unpack it a bit. Any old franchise can claim to be some grand representation of youthful innocence. Toy Story 3 used its characters as foils for the audience’s lost childhood last year, and while that adaptation was also successful, there are way more bad ones. You want to know which Disney movie this last decade runs closest, plot-wise, to The Muppets? Run a Rotten Tomatoes search of The Country Bears and see what happens.  And remember those pungent 80’s franchise adaptations I mentioned in the last paragraph? Nostalgia, a surefire draw for weary adults whose futures seem dimmer and dimmer, has become an enormous selling point for movies these days. Every studio wants to say that they’re making a movie, “for the child in all of us,” and even moreso, “for the child we used to be.”

The Muppets, like the Toy Story franchise, succeeds because of the legacy the characters had already earned. The new Muppet movie doesn’t need to be exploited as a symbol of youth because the series has always been about inner youth. In spite of all the hilarious inside jokes and pop-culture savvy these characters have exhibited, the heart of it was always the frog singing about dreams. When Kermit plays The Rainbow Connection on his banjo in The Muppet Movie, I am genuinely convinced of some lost insight that makes peace and love possible and the world a gorgeous place to be. Call it naivety, call it innocence, call it flower power, but Henson sold it. Any time I am watching anything with the Henson’s Muppets, even (or especially) their manic variety show, my outlook on the world seems just a bit more buoyant. I think Segel and company are fully aware of that spirit, and they might even have made their movie about it, but they’re not totally able to recreate it. My personal observance is that years of working in a very cynical industry have, ever-so-subtly, eroded their ability to connect on certain defining levels with these characters.

If that sounds harsh, it’s not my intention. I don’t think anyone who has taken on the series since Henson’s death has totally succeeded, and yet on some level I’ve enjoyed everything the Muppets have ever been a part of. I credit these guys for even trying, especially in our 24 hour news cycle, politically polarized, technologically overwrought, narcissistic and cynical world. Today everything is just a lot more complex, even moreso than it was in 1979 (which was not a simple year, ask anyone who was there). But I just couldn’t help myself from feeling a little uneasy as I watched the hyperbolically sunny small town dance number the movie opened with, or the hilariously sexless relationship Segel had with Amy Adams (the reference to their ten years of dating got a good laugh in my theater), or the way 80% of the film’s dilemmas were overcome with a speech about hope. It just always occurred to me that the people making this movie weren’t buyin what they were sellin; at least not wholesale.

Sure, they probably believe that kids deserve a better fairy-tale to dream about at night, and sure, they all probably grew up loving the Muppets and are pouring their hearts into this adaptation; and no, I’m not discounting the importance of growing up nor deriding its emphasis in the film. But sometimes I just got the feeling that I was watching the party animal uncle Segel, who just got back from the kegger/orgy over at Apatow’s, talk down to his little nephews about two years beneath their age. And isn’t the whole point that there’s already too much irony in the world; that it’s good sometimes to walk into the theater and see something that makes you want to try again, makes you remember that good things happen every day and great things are possible, and makes you want to find peace and love and laugh and cry? Isn’t that why everyone loves the Muppets, and isn’t that why the movie says we need them so badly right now?

So why, I ask, was so much effort put into emphasizing how hokey the premise really is? I’m not saying it’s not hokey, or that anything involving the Muppets isn’t a little hokey, but Henson never fought so hard to make me aware of that. It’s one thing to be self-aware (something the Muppets have always been) but this movie came dangerously close to being, well, disingenuous. In fact, it came only handful of winks, nods, and vacant smiles away from being pessimistic in spite of itself, and had that happened I think it could have wrecked the good thing they had going. And don’t tell me they were drawing a contrast between the simplicity of small town America and the harsh reality of the world, because even in the big world every character was overpoweringly simple.

I understand that it’s the trend in television right now to play with extremes and always operate outside a certain ironic distance; and you better believe this movie was influenced by modern television. Probably 80% of the “stars” are most famous for one TV show or another, and most of the jokes are more easily traced back to How I Met Your Mother and 30 Rock than The Muppet Show or any of the films. That’s not my problem. These guys are taking the franchise and they’re making it their own, and they’re connecting what they know with what they know worked for the franchise way back when.

And it’s all working and the movie is a hit with audiences and critics and, gosh darn it, me too. But they were headed down a slippery slope for a while there. Had the final moments not been so rewarding, or had any less time been given to the actual Muppet characters, or had I not been so in love with the way they melded real life drama with the film’s central conflict, or had Chris Cooper been any less delightful in spite of his role, then what we might have been left with was a funny but ultimately vapid exercise in celebrity self-indulgence. And the Muppets deserve better than that. Thankfully I don’t believe that happened, and this movie will join an impressive legacy of children’s entertainment that adults like me can embrace too. But as the next films come around, watch out. As we’ve seen with other reboots this last decade, the vices of the first film often become the defining traits of the sequel.

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2 Responses to “Review: The Muppets”

  1. HollyJohnson said

    Ryan, for once i think we actually are on the same page about a movie. I had a goofy smile on my face the entire time i was watching this movie, not only because it brought back memories of watching The Muppet Show reruns, but also it was just so darn happy. Even the “villain” brought a goofy smile to my face 🙂

    (btw, nice writing)

  2. CMrok93 said

    Longtime Muppet fans will undoubtedly have more fun than young ones, but for the most part, it’s a witty, delightful romp, that shows you that you can still be funny, without ever being mean still in 2011. Good review. Check out mine when you get the chance.

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