Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Movie Review: "The Muppets" by David Pretty

Let's face it: a modern Muppet movie had to be a bit of a gamble. Except for a horde of nostalgic Baby Boomers and Gen X-ers, I really didn't think that the Muppets could possibly generate enough bank to warrant a major new motion picture.

This harsh claim may require some back-up. Technically the Muppets had their rise during the tail end of the Baby Boomer era. Jim Henson certainly wasn't the first guy to use puppets to entertain but he was certainly one of the first to use them to entertain adults. Via a series of snarky commercials and memorable appearances on Saturday Night Live the Muppets began to make some inroads with grown-ups.

But Henson couldn't go as far as he wanted with the mature humor, so he tried to broaden the appeal of his characters with the aptly-named Muppet Show which made its debut on September 6'th 1976 in Britain. Thanks to the Commonwealth connection, I managed to see it not long after on CBC here in Canada. Needless to say, it made a pretty powerful impression on this eternal twelve-year-old. As soon as the five-series run was over, I'd merrily re-watch all one-hundred-and-twenty episodes all over again. And again. And again.

Even as a die-hard fan I thought that the show was oddly dated right out of the gate. Clearly Henson and company were a bunch of aging hippies. Undeniably creative aging hippies but aging hippies nonetheless. Indeed, many of The Muppet Show guests like Ethel Merman, Bob Hope and Milton Berle were waaaaaay before my time. But that didn't stop me from watching. In fact, I owe Henson and his platoon of phelt phreaks a huge debt of gratitude for giving me the very little cultural enrichment that I possess to this day.

Besides, for every Liza Minelli and Ruth Buzzi there were cool older guess like Vincent Price, John Cleese, Jonathan Winters, Carol Burnett, Johnny Cash and Spike Milligan. Even better, Henson wasn't so snooty as to ignore contemporary celebrities so, my favorite pop culture icons like Mark Hamill, Roger Moore, Christopher Reeve, Blondie and Alice Cooper also made memorable appearances.

But here's my vastly prologued point: if the hippie sensibilities, cornball humor, Boomer-era affiliations and dead-as-disco variety show format was noticeably dated to me as a pre-Internet kid in the 80's, then how could the Muppets possibly eke out an audience in this day and age of incessant distractions?

Well, if you're a super-fan like Jason Segel, you quickly own up to these deficits and turn them into a source for humor. Jason is thirty-five-years-old and, like me, he was clearly weaned on reruns of The Muppet Show. As such, he probably can't fathom why they vanished into oblivion. So, with the aid of screenwriting partner Nicholas Stoller, Segal wrote a respectful but honest script that likely got green-lit due to a combination of his own marquee value and / or the intervention of a particularly nostalgic studio head.

One of Segel smarter moves is to introduce a new Muppet that kids can relate to named Walter. Expertly voiced and puppeteered by Peter Linz, Walter represents every younger viewer predisposed to the Muppets by virtue of birth but aren't sure why. Since Walter is essentially an adoptee in Jason's human family, he also acts as a metaphor for the Muppets themselves who are searching for a place in our entertainment-soaked modern world.

Segel also plays Gary, Walter's good-natured, incessantly-cheerful, man-child of a brother. Together they're inseparable, especially when they discover their mutual love for the Muppets. That's right, folks, if you're half as amused as I am by the prospects of seeing Jason Segel and a puppet sit around in their jammies giggling over reruns of The Muppet Show then this is the movie for you.

Realizing that he's finally found his people, Walter dreams of making a pilgrimage to the Muppet theater in Los Angeles. Eventually this dovetails with Gary's plan to take his best girl Mary (Amy Adams) to Hollywood and propose to her. Of course, true to the Muppet's pedigree, this inspires the Mayberry-esque residents of the town to join in on a mass Norman Rockwell-style flash mob / song-n'-dance number.

When the trio finally get to L.A. they discover that the Muppet theater is in dire need of repair and its denizens scattered to the wind like the members of a boy band that was popular, like, six months ago. During their "tour", curiosity gets the better of Walter and he end up eavesdropping on a wealthy oil baron's nasty scheme to buy the theater and demolish it for the oil reserves underneath. Oh, and did I mention that the name of Chris Cooper's evil oil tycoon is Tex Richman?  

In case you haven't guessed, most of the script is about as subtle as Fozzie's one-liners.

Anyway, Walter convinces Gary and Mary (!) to seek help from Kermit the Frog who's now living alone in a gated estate like some sort of amphibious version of Charles Foster Kane. Eventually they spur him into action and the rest of the movie is the Muppet equivalent of Iron Man yelling "Avengers, Assemble!" It's fun to sit there with a checklist as all of your old favorites reunite to mount one last prime-time variety show in an effort to raise the cheddar required to rescue their theater from Richman's nefarious designs.

Okay, let's get the obvious stuff out of the way first: the plot is ridiculously hackneyed. An evil one-percenter who wants to drill under the theater for oil? Really? If not for the fact that this sort of shit actually happens way to often in real life, this would be a game breaker for me. Even as a parody of movie clichés it's not very funny. Chris Cooper does what he can with the cartoony role but ultimately Richman is a pretty boring and one-dimensional villain.

The other thing that irritated the crap out of me is the shallow and vaguely sexist hissy fit that Mary is required to pitch. As soon as the forced Mary to lose her shit on Gary for paying too much attention to Walter I just rolled my eyes. Did you really have to depict the one and only (human) female characters as a petty, insecure, possessive, manipulative, marriage-obsessed diva? Yes, I know that the script had to give the human character some conflict to resolve but I really wish it was something a lot less hackneyed and insulting to women. Thankfully, Adams is so inherently charming that she somehow manages to make Mary unavoidably likable.

Mercifully, the rest of the script is gleefully self-aware and tackles the 800-pound Snuffleupagus in the room. Kermit's majordomo is a hideously-outdated 80's-style robot replete with screeching modem. Most of the guests in Kermit's Rolodex are either dead or long since out of show business. And in one of the most brutally honest scenes, a cynical T.V. exec shows the traumatized Muppets where they reside on the zeitgeist radar. Spoiler alert: they're about as far away from Selena Gomez as Pluto is from the sun.

On the flip side, it's actually a lot of fun watching your favorite Muppets come back into the fold. The fact that Gonzo segued from being a stuntman with a chicken fetish to a highly-efficient toilet salesman with a chicken fetish makes a lot of sense to me. Fozzie is slumming in a cheap nostalgia act calling themselves "The Moopets". Estranged from her froggy paramour, Piggy has moved on and is working as an editor for a "plus-sized" magazine in Paris. And, best of all, Animal has been roped into an anger-management class by, of all people, Jack Black.

Even though many of these classic characters are now being helmed by new puppeteers, they all acquit themselves rather well. I'm pretty sure that this was the very first time that Frank Oz didn't voice Miss Piggy but even cynical ol' me has to admit that Eric Jacobson did a stellar job capturing her voice, her character traits and her "mannerisms". Equally game are Dave Goelz (Gonzo), Bill Barretta (Rowlf), David Rudman (Scooter), and Matt Vogel (Floyd) who each voice what amounts to a small platoon of characters. Also, when Steve Whitmire started doing Kermit after Jim Henson passed away the transition was pretty rough but now he's got the character locked down cold. 

Adding to the film's ample charms is a great soundtrack featuring classic tracks from such diverse acts as Paul Simon, Starship, Gary Numan and Nirvana. Many of the original tunes written by Bret "Flight of the Conchords" McKenzie are ebola-level catchy. I've been humming "Life's A Happy Song" relentlessly for the past few weeks and I'm seriously considering the logistics of getting a lobotomy.

Thankfully, there are also some refreshing and candid twists at the end which really helps to cleanse the palate from the pedestrian set-up. Thanks to Richman's dogged, psychotic and comically-irrational hatred of the Muppets, our heroes don't exactly breeze over the finish line with flying colors. The finale is in doubt right up to the very end, which helps mitigate some of the lazier scripting choices that preceded it.

Overall, The Muppets is a frivolous, yet fun, one-hundred-and-three-minutes well-spent spent with some old friends and serves as a perfect segue into ABC's new prime time television show.

 Tilt: up.


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