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TBTS Reviews: The Muppets

December 6, 2011

I don’t go into “crazy fanboy” mode often; I could care less if the Green Lantern’s suit doesn’t accurately reflect changes made to it in issue #263 or that Frodo Baggins’ rucksack isn’t tied with the appropriate type of string. I take with a grain of salt the constant meddling and re-meddling George Lucas continues to do to his Star Wars franchise, and though I was disappointed in it, I took Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull in stride, opting to look for the good than damn it altogether.

That said, I do have a very purist soft spot for the Muppets; and really, who doesn’t? Kermit, after all, debuted on television in 1955, and the Muppets have maintained a constance presence in many of our childhoods and popped up here and there again from time to time in our adult lives. It’s a beloved institution, and even though lesser Muppet films like Muppet Treasure Island or Muppets in Space diluted the proceedings slightly, there’s really nothing like the original Muppet Show or the first Muppet film trilogy — The Muppet Movie, the Great Muppet Caper and The Muppets Take Manhattan. They’re just plain wonderful pieces of entertainment. So it was with slight trepidation I went into their foray of The Muppets. I desperately didn’t want to be disappointed, but was a wee bit prepared to be. I wanted the Muppets to be just as I remembered them, no tweaking. I wanted, I suppose, to feel again what I used to feel for the characters. To recapture something. I figured it was a longshot; how many times recently has something from our childhoods actually been accurately replicated many years later?

I’m happy, then, to report today that The Muppets is as true of a Muppet film as has ever been put on screen. It’s long been storied that Jason Segel, he of the Apatow man-boy fests and How I Met Your Mother, championed the project himself, conceiving of the idea, writing the script and meeting with studios to get it made. And we should be very glad someone like Segel, a true fan, did that. The result is a very faithful throwback to not just the Muppet movies of yore, but the Muppet Show itself.

The plot is somewhat inconsequential, of course, but here it holds water: a billionaire oil magnate named Tex Richman (Chris Cooper, having some fun) has discovered oil underneath the dilapidated, forgotten Muppet Theater, and has purchased it to tear it down. The contract contains a hitch, however — if the Muppets can raise two million dollars to save the establishment, they get it back. Enter Segel as Gary (a human) and his Gary’s brother Walter (a puppet), who happen upon the plan and proceed to get the old gang back together and save their past with one last telethon performance of The Muppet Show. The question raised by the film is “are the Muppets still relevant in 2011?” No one’s quite sure.

All of this is, of course, an elaborate setup for us to rediscover the Muppets again. Kermit is haunting the halls of a huge mansion, unfulfilled. Fozzie Bear is still trading on past successes with a knock-off act in a Reno casino hotel, it’s a great casino but they recommend to practice with online slots before heading to the Casino. Miss Piggy is an Anna Wintour-esque fashion editor in Paris, Scooter works for Google and Gonzo is a toilet tycoon. As Gary and Walter round up the gang, the movie absolutely blooms. It’s such a treat to see Muppets you’ve forgotten, even if only as background players: Sam the Eagle, Beauregard the janitor, Crazy Harry and his ever-exploding TNT cannisters, the Swedish Chef, the Pigs in Space crew. There are even muppets represented that you didn’t even realize you remember, like the squad of talented babies and their hipster manager, or the flamenco-clad fellow who hits tiny furry creatures with a mallet to play his tunes. It’s nearly impossible, seeing all these characters again, not to have a magnificent smile plastered across one’s face; and as the third act — which features the telethon itself — opens up, the movie brings back a veritable flood of memories.

The Muppets is a typical Muppet film in every way. The fourth wall is broken often — as when Kermit declines a reunion, Gary’s on-screen girlfriend played by Amy Adams sighs and says “This is going to be a very short movie”. There are the musical numbers, some corny and some inspired (all are the product of Brett MacKenzie, best known as one half of the Flight of the Conchords). There’s the obligatory, inspirational “hey gang, at the end of the day it doesn’t matter if we failed because we all love each other” speech by Kermit. There are the celebrity cameos, here including Sarah Silverman, Neil Patrick Harris, and Zach Galifianakis as a cartoonish hobo, among many others. It’s all here. And it’s all a lot of fun.

Make no mistake, however, The Muppets is just as much a movie for children as adults — and adults expecting a movie which will play solely to their nostalgic sensibilities need to remember that. And Segel does the right thing; as any good human in a Muppet movie should do, he fades almost completely into the background as the movie takes on its own life and lets the Muppets take all of the spotlight. It’s damn near perfectly engineered to the sensibilities a Muppet movie should be. The 98% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, which is the best score a mainstream film has received all year, denotes the same. If you’ve ever missed the Muppets, they’re back. They haven’t changed a bit from the way you remember them. And that, perhaps, is the greatest achievement this film makes.

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