The Muppets - Movie ReviewIt's Muppet day on TheVine! Check out our video interview with Jason and Kermit here, and our fashion tribute to Miss Piggy here.
Reviewing The Muppets should be a great opportunity to talk about what Kermit, Miss Piggy, Fozzie and all those other hilarious bundles of felt mean to me; how, growing up, The Muppet Show shaped my sense of humour and helped me through tough emotional times, teaching me and millions of other how to laugh (and yes, how to cry, damn you “Rainbow Connection”). Then I can segue into how my long personal history with the Muppets – I did mention I watched the actual on-television Muppet Show didn’t I, not just the johnny-come-lately movies – makes me uniquely qualified to pass judgement on their latest effort. The Muppets could never mean as much to you as they do to me, so if you don’t agree with my opinions then you’re just plain wrong.
Only one problem: this movie gets there first.
This isn’t just a movie starring the Muppets, this is a movie that’s actually about what the Muppets mean to people. Which is a pretty gutsy way to go about reviving a franchise that hasn’t really meant much of anything to anyone for a decade or more. But writers Jason Segel (yes, all those jokes about how much he loves puppets in Forgetting Sarah Marshall weren’t jokes at all) and Nicholas Stoller are determined to go for broke right out the gate by giving us a lead who a): isn’t a Muppet, and b): is completely obsessed with the Muppets.
Okay, Walter is clearly a muppet – but he’s an all-new character, not a member of the capital-M Muppets. Growing up, he always felt like an outsider (because, you know, he’s a Muppet in a human world), but the Muppets always made him feel like he had a place in the world… and if there’s a more naked and blatant audience stand-in in a film this decade it’ll be a miracle. Walter has a (human) brother Gary (Segel) who he lives with in the always-sunny Smalltown, and when Gary decides to take a trip to Los Angeles with his girlfriend Mary (Amy Adams) to celebrate their ten year anniversary he invites Walter along and… hang on, isn’t this a Muppet movie? These people aren’t Muppets!
Segel and company know that to make a revival of the Muppets work they can’t just rely on audiences simply wanting to see the Muppets back on the big screen. Thanks to a trickle of average movies and television appearances the Muppets haven’t really been gone all that long, even if it might feel like it if the last time you had anything to do with them was The Muppets Take Manhattan. So we’re given a trio of non-muppet characters – one who’s obsessed with the Muppets, one who goes along with it because he loves his brother, and one who goes along with them because she loves her boyfriend and hopes he’ll figure out it’s way past time to get down on one knee and propose – and only once it’s firmly established that these are funny, decent characters in their own right (through the power of “Life’s A Happy Song”, a hilarious musical number that sends up the Smalltown USA clichés to perfection) do the Muppets arrive to light the lights.
Walter tags along on the LA trip to check out the Muppet Theatre, former home of The Muppet Show. Turns out it’s now the seediest tourist attraction imaginable (come see the ropes and wires storeroom!) and the Muppets themselves haven’t spoken to each other in years. But when he overhears Statler and Waldorf (the two old guy muppets who’re always heckling) explaining to an evil conglomerate led by Tex Richman (Chris Cooper) that unless the Muppets come up with $10 million fast anyone evil could take over the place, Walter decides it’s time to get the gang back together. Road trip!
It’s pretty much the thinnest possible hook to hang a film on, but the Muppets have always been about bumbling along and the ramshackle approach to pretty much everything sets the tone perfectly. Travelling “by map” (you know, when a movie cuts to a dotted line on a map to show progress) in Kermit’s old Rolls with his 80s Robot behind the wheel, they collect everyone and put on a telethon to raise the money. Which means the final chunk of this film is basically a big-screen recreation of the original Muppet Show. Which, if you remember that show’s mix of vaudeville, self-referential gags and moments that were just plain strange, is also a pretty gutsy move.
The good news here is that just about everything pays off big time. The jokes walk a fine line between stupid and smart while always being fun, the musical numbers (mostly written by Flight of the Conchords’ Bret McKenzie) are both funny and catchy (if you don’t leave humming “Man or Muppet”, it’ll only be because you’re humming one of the other songs), and just about every single Muppet gets at least one moment to shine. Miss Piggy being an editor at Paris Vogue might not be as funny as Fozzie’s work with a sleazy knife-packing Muppet tribute act called “The Moopets”, but there’s never a moment where any of the cast acts out of character. And who would’ve though Animal the drummer would get his own subplot?
When you get sick of looking at muppets (not that there’s much chance of that happening) there’s an increasingly surreal parade of star cameos to check out, either as themselves or as bizarre characters (Zach Galifianakis as Hobo Joe is actually a little disturbing) which only add to the feeling of watching a whole bunch of friends getting together to mess around. And that’s all this is: a chance for a bunch of entertainers to put on a show. The only thing keeping this from getting five stars is that the ending’s a little muddled (the “happy” part of it actually arrives as a newspaper headline during the end credits), but if that’s all there is to complain about then there’s nothing left to say but “Welcome back”.
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