If you couldn’t already tell, Jesse and I are huge fans of the Muppets. I can’t speak for Jesse on this, but in many ways the Muppet Show and the movies had a great influence on who I am today… namely the Chief Muppetologist for the state of Louisiana. If I had a nickle for every time I’ve seen “The Muppet Movie,” I’d have enough money for dinner for two at a mid-priced restaurant. I also have a comfortable sized collection of Muppet paraphernalia. It should therefore come as no surprise that I was first in the theater at a midnight showing of “The Muppets.” What follows is a quasi-review; I’ve tried to keep most of the rabid fanboy emotions at bay. The trick is that my editor (read: Jesse) is expecting a couple thousand words on the subject. That’s not an easy thing to do when you don’t want to write too many spoilers or sound to rantish.
Suffice it to say, I’ve been looking forward to the newest Muppet movie for a while. With any Muppet related news since the death of Jim Henson the enthusiasm is tempered with caution and trepidation. Athough “Muppet Christmas Carrol” came close, nothing since 1990 has fully captured the innocently insane essence of the Muppets.
“The Muppets” succeeds at capturing this spirit… for the most part. Segel and Stoller handle the muppet sensibility and variety of voices very well. And there are a ton of Muppets in this movie. The only noticable absences from the original show are Pops and Lips. The two screen writers know the Muppets and understand the characters and motivations. This goes a long way in making the movie watchable and enjoyable. There’s a lot for which to praise the duo; unfortunately, there are some criticism coming their way as well.
Praises first. While there are hues of the first Muppet movie throughout the plot, the tone leans more toward “The Great Muppet Caper.” The story is familiar and uncomplicated in the best ways possible. It balances the easy gag-laugh with a great deal of cleverness. Some of this cleverness stems from the characteristic breaking of the fourth wall through self-awareness; as always, the Muppets are blissfully self-aware. In addition to the characteristic destruction of the fourth wall, “The Muppets” has mostly inoffensive celebrity cameos spanning a wide and eclectic swath of Hollywood. It also has the characteristically non-villainous villain.
Chris Cooper’s Tex Richman isn’t as menacing and constant as Doc Hopper. His presence is reminiscent of Charles Grodin’s mustache twirling instead. The Moopets were also set up as villains. Though poorly utilized, they make hay with their time on screen with one of my favorite songs in the movie. Speaking of new characters, Walter works. Like Kermit in the original “Muppet Movie,” he is an innocent abroad, and he holds his own with the giants. We are essentially seeing these events unfold from Walter’s point of view. He presents everything as full of optimistic potential. It’s refreshing and sweet without being saccharine. I suspect Segal injected the best parts of himself into this character.
Equal praise should go to Bret McKenzie for the original songs in the movie. The song in the opening number and finale is eminently catch and Muppetesque. The lyrics are smartly funny when they need to be and heartwarming most of the time. The Moopet version of Rainbow Connection being among the strongest. In fairness though, if you’ve watched McKenzie’s Flight of the Conchords, some moments in several of the songs are going to sound highly reminiscent of that series. In addition to McKenzie’s orignal songs, are the outstanding interpretations of popular songs included during the Muppets’s telethon. The barbershop quartet especially would have fit nicely into the original show.
To the problems. The Walter/ Jason Segel dynamic is one of the biggest problems with the movie. As Michael Chabon so elegantly put it in Wonder Boys, writing is about making choices. Segel and Stoller were faced with several choices where they could have gone left or right with the story. Instead of doing either, they chose the weaker option to ride the middle passage. The first choice that the screenwriters faced was whether to set Walter or Segel’s character (Gary) as the protagonist. Because both are given the same A story (to decide who they want to be), Segel and Stoller cheat both characters out of any real deep connection to the audience or strong character arc. One or the other should have been the focus, choosing both seems ill conceived at best and self serving at worst.
The same issue arises in relation to the romantic B story. The romantic arc between Segel and Amy Adams is juxtaposed against a different sort of romantic arc between Kermit and Miss Piggy. I appreciate what was probably the intent and reasoning in doing this, but it didn’t work for me. That’s not to say that the romantic arcs in Muppet movies are typically deep and revelatory; both came off as the cheapest and weakest of low comedy.
The final problem is an overall symptom of the previous two. There is a noticeable emphasis on the Humans in this movie that we haven’t seen since the adaptation movies. It’s off putting that Segel and Adams dominate the first musical number and the first act. Adams has a song midway through the movie that she gracious shares (sort of) with Miss Piggy. Again there was an attempt to have the best of all worlds achieving the opposite.
All in all, these problems do not eclipse the care with which the Muppet voices were written orcleverness of both the script and the music. It is a good Muppet movie and probably on par with Christmas Carrol or Manhattan.