Thursday, November 24, 2011

Professional Puppet Productions

Well, what's a decade between friends?

It's 2011, a dozen years since the Jim Henson-created puppet characters known as "Muppets" appeared on the big screen, in 1999's Muppets from Space. The franchise, which began as a variety show and had been most popular in the seventies and eighties, was hitting popularity canyon around that time, as Muppets from Space was a financial failure and a signal to the entertainment industry that the franchise as a whole was no longer popular enough for mass entertainment. What followed was less than thrilling, as the puppet troupe pulled out a couple more made-for-television movies, and the Muppets themselves slowly faded into obsolescence. Well, that wasn't enough for How I Met Your Mother and Forgetting Sarah Marshall star Jason Segel, who along with running buddy Nicholas Stoller pitched a new entry to the series, a tall order considering the aforementioned lack of presence in today's pop culture. Still, that persistence (and a fiercely loyal fan base) paid off, and this Thanksgiving weekend became host to The Muppets, the first appearance of our favorite cast of misfits and divas on the big screen in twelve years.

Kudos for fitting them all into one station wagon
Gary (Jason Segel) and Walter (a new Muppet) are brothers, living in the small town of Smalltown, USA. Always feeling like an outcast, Walter has survived mainly thanks to the love and care of Gary and his fascination with the old Muppets television show, the characters of which are his idols and heroes. When Gary and his girlfriend Mary (Amy Adams) bring Walter along on a trip to Los Angeles with the intent of seeing the renowned Muppet Studios, they unwittingly set off a chain of events that sees them get a group that hasn't performed together in over a decade back into show business. The Muppets are constantly told that they are no longer popular, but they hope to shock the world in their big comeback that will include wisecracking bears, pig and frog duets, a barbershop quartet, and perhaps even Walter as the troupe's newest performer.

Animal! We LOVE Animal!
I was surprised to discover that The Muppets was in fact a full-blown musical, a fact that could have been suspected had I actually paid attention to the trailers but still somehow caught me unawares. Naturally I expected there to be a few songs from the Muppets themselves, and the film doesn't disappoint, especially when you have Kermit the Frog singing the original song "Pictures in My Head" and later on playing a duet with Miss Piggy of the classic Muppets' tune "The Rainbow Connection". And of course the original Muppet Show theme is still around, as delightfully cheer-inducing as ever. Only a couple of songs fail to entertain, though that isn't entirely the music director's fault (okay, some of it is, but we'll get to that later). Even though these specific song-and-dance numbers don't quite work out as planned, they still contain a ton of charm, and don't detract much from the film.

Seriously, who's that big blue guy in the back? Why is he there??
What does detract unfortunately is the human element that has almost ungraciously inserted itself into the narrative. Oh, I'm not talking about Amy Adams. Adams, for whom the part was specifically written, is the perfect actress to take on this kind of light parody of a real human being. As an elementary school teacher who fixes cars and speaks in a consistently high-pitched accent, there's no actress I can imagine besides Adams in the role. And of course when it comes time to actually sing, Adams' pipes come in handy for fending off critics of the relative simpleness of the songs themselves. I am also not dissing Chris Cooper, who but for an ill-advised albeit short hip-hop scene is perfectly at home as sleazy businessman Tex Richman, the film's main antagonist. And I'm not speaking of the hosts of guest cameos that make their way into the Muppet's latest film endeavor. The never-ending list includes Jack Black, Alan Arkin, James Carville, Whoopi Goldberg, Neil Patrick Harris, John Krasinski, Sarah Silverman, Mickey Rooney, Emily Blunt, Donald Glover, Dave Grohl and Zach Galifianakis, and those are just the interesting ones.Well used, the constant stream of cameos makes for at the very least an interesting ride and at best shows how influential the Muppets are among the current Hollywood stars. No, when I say that the film's human element is underwhelming I'm really talking about Jason Segel, which is a shame for several reasons. I hate to discredit his work because I love his role on How I Met Your Mother (no, I haven't seen Forgetting Sarah Marshall yet, sorry) and because of the obvious love he has shown in pushing this film forward, both in its creation and in its marketing. While he nails the huggable teddy-bear type for much of the film (that's pretty much HIS role...), this can't block the fact when the music numbers roll around he's not that good a singer and obviously suffers from having two left feet. When he's just called on to act he's fine, but the film would have been better with another, more musically-oriented actor in the lead role.

Uhm, yeah, you don't want to see that
Of course, the best (and perhaps only) reason to see The Muppets is... well... The Muppets! It was fun to see the film poke fun at how out of touch the characters are with the times; they constantly rock out to "We Built This City" and reference Dirty Dancing, and Kermit tries to get President Jimmy Carter to be their show's celebrity guest host. If you have a favorite character from the old show, new show or any of the movies, you likely won't be disappointed by their absence. Most of the "classics", as well as a few newer personas, make at least sporadic appearances, though you might have to hunt visually for them. The focus of the story is very top heavy, and most of the light is shone on stars Kermit, Piggy, Fozzie and Walter. Some effort is made with a few others, most notably Animal, but some fan favorites such as Gonzo and Rowlf the Dog are almost completely cast aside. This wouldn't be too bad in itself, but Walter's story of finding himself isn't always fun to watch. That some characters were pushed to the sides to make room for such a short-sighted character seems wasteful.

There's nothing like taking in The Muppets live on stage!
But perhaps I'm being a bit too critical. The fact is that if you can stand sitting in a theater surrounded by small children with short attention spans, The Muppets is a fun way to spend less than two hours of your weekend. As Jim Henson always intended, and Jason Segel dutifully followed, the film is silly enough for kids while still being entertaining for the adults who brought them there. That makes sense, as it would hardly be appropriate to alienate that nostalgic audience who made this title a reality to begin with. While not perfect, lacking perhaps the ability behind the camera to match the wit and bravado of titles earlier in the franchise's history, it's a nice opportunity to try and take this oft-neglected property as far as it can go. If people come out and support this film, good things will happen. I don't see any reason that shouldn't be, as the real crime would be to take something with this much promise and tuck it into a dark corner to stagnate and dull.


ckparker said...

I also want to know who the big blue guy in the back is? :)

ckparker said...

I found an answer to the big blue guy... "Thog actually dates back over 40 years to some of the earliest Muppet productions. Thog would pop up periodically on The Muppet Show before disappearing from the franchise until now."

Mr. Anderson said...

Thank you! I guess he was popped in for the true Muppets fans to appreciate...