Sunday, February 26, 2012

The Muppets (2011): A Review (Review #342)


A Rainbow Disconnection...

If there is something I hold dear to my heart, it's the memories of The Muppets.  There was The Muppet Show, the Muppet movies such as The Muppet Movie, The Great Muppet Caper, and Muppets Take Manhattan, and Muppet Babies.  I figure that Jason Segel has similarly fond memories and given we're around the same age we appear to draw from the same well.  While Segel clearly has a great reverence and love for the Muppets, I am in the minority when I say I don't think he quite understands what exactly the Muppets are, which is not a nostalgia act.  

The Muppets, therefore, while having enchanted many people, has one too many flaws to cast a spell over me.

Gary (Segal) and his brother Walter (voiced by Peter Linz) live their sweet and innocent lives in Smalltown, U.S.A. (which I like to think is a suburb of Smallville, but I digress).  Gary and Walter love each other and especially love the Muppets.  This is especially true for Walter, who finds in the Muppets kindred spirits and beings who look just like him, unlike his very human brother Gary. 

Now ostensibly adults with minds of children, they venture to Los Angeles to visit the Muppet Studios.  They find they are a wreck: broken down and forgotten.  While taking a tour, Walter makes a shocking discovery: evil oil magnet Tex Richman (Chris Cooper) is plotting to destroy the Muppet Studios to drill for oil.  The only way to stop him is to have Kermit the Frog, who had signed the agreement with Richman, raise a million dollars to buy it back.

Image result for the muppets 2011There's a hitch: the Muppets have been forgotten by this most cynical world and are now passé.  Determined to save the Muppet Studios, Gary and Walter go in search for Kermit. 

We find our frog in his mansion, living a quasi-Sunset Boulevard life.  After making their case, Kermit as Norma Desmond decides the best thing to do is to have a Reunion Telethon to raise the money.  Thus, we get a search for the members of the Muppets. 

We find Fozzie Bear fronting The Moopets, a Muppet "tribute band". Gonzo is now the biggest plumbing magnate in the Rust Belt (yes, that's part of the funny), and quickly we gather all the Muppets save one. 

Miss Piggy, the swine Kermit left behind, has moved to head up French Vogue.  Eventually, she does come to join them.

Second hitch: nobody wants to see the Muppets, and no one cares about them.  However, they manage to finagle a two-hour special.  Richman, aware of this, is determined to stop them.  The Muppets then goes for a version of the old Muppet Show, right down to special guest host, that giant of the silver screen, that legend, that icon of stage and screen Jack Black.  Seriously: Jack Black.  Both Walter and Gary make discoveries about themselves, and we end knowing that Life's A Happy Song.

Now, I'd like you to note something in my recap of the plot.  I managed to go through the entire story without once mentioning the character of Mary (Amy Adams), Gary's perpetually waiting girlfriend.  Amy Adams once commented to Cosmopolitan Magazine that "people think I'm so innocent, but it's not true" (for the record, I didn't read the article.  That was on the cover). 

Perhaps Miss Adams might succeed in her efforts to have the public stop thinking she's so innocent by not doing her Enchanted routine that she can do in her sleep.  Her Mary is indistinguishable from Giselle, and while we know Adams can act, her Mary at times is either weak or stupid. I don't know many women who willingly wait ten years for a man to propose or keep the fact that Gary's near-pathological need for Walter so irritates her.

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I find that there is a fine, thin line between a character being innocent and a character being stupid.  Mary and Gary zigzag across that line time and again. 

At times, they appear to be thoroughly naive.  Other times, they appear mentally unstable and divorced from reality.  We see this with Gary.  He's suppose to be a sweet and loving man, but did no one else notice how insensitive he is towards Mary, regardless of how useless she is as a character?  He treats her rather badly, and if this is any indication of their ten year courtship, one wonders why any woman would wait so long for someone as dim as Gary.

A side note: I'm a firm believer that after three years tops, a couple should get engaged or end their relationship.  I don't mean they should marry in three years, but they should be engaged.  After three years, you are no longer 'boyfriend' and 'girlfriend'.  You're someone's lover/mistress. 

Segel and co-writer Nicholas Stoller missed a great deal of opportunities to make The Muppets the tribute they so yearned to make with a nice introduction of these characters to a generation that can know them only through DVDs and merchandising. 

Chief among these missed opportunities is with Adams.  Her character isn't necessary to the plot as I've pointed out, but in regards to her dealings with the Muppets.  If I know my swine (and I think I do), Miss Piggy is at heart a highly insecure being.  She has always been insanely jealous of any woman that comes within ten feet of her beloved Kermie, especially pretty young things.  Here you have Amy Adams, a most beautiful woman, and despite Piggy's mixed feelings for her frog she doesn't appear the least bit fazed by having someone like Adams near Kermit. 

Another lost opportunity came in regards to the various cameos.  I am loath to compare films, but The Muppets is determined to recall past features such as The Muppet Movie, and since both go for cameo appearances, I figure I would give them the comparison they're dying for. 

Image result for the muppets 2011 cameosIn The Muppet Movie, you had a wide variety of cameos from big stars of the time: Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy, Bob Hope, Milton Berle, Steve Martin and Orson Welles, the biggest star of them all (in the case of Orson Welles, in a literal sense; sorry, couldn't resist). 

However, unlike in The Muppets, the cameos in The Muppet Movie weren't cameos for cameo's sake: they actually had something to do with the story. 

It wasn't like Martin or Milton Berle or Bergen just popped in, looked at the camera, and then left.  By and large they actually had roles that were relevant in the film that involved the Muppets themselves; if Steve Martin appeared, it's because he's playing a waiter, not playing Steve Martin, or even playing Steve Martin as a waiter.  There was a wit in having big stars show up in these tiny roles. 

In The Muppets, Segel, Stoller, and director James Bobin opted to just throw in stars of varying degrees of notoriety as themselves and leave it at that.

At the telethon scene, you have Kermit say, "Whoopi Goldberg, Selena Gomez," then grow slightly flustered that he had no idea who the chubby little Latino kid that had come with them was.  Goldberg then tells Kermit she was told that there might be a job here, Gomez tells him flat-out she doesn't know who he is, only that her agent told her to come, and the chubby little Latino boy asked if he was one of the Ninja Turtles.

Here, in this scene, we have a neat little package of how The Muppets, in their efforts to echo the sweetness and cleverness of The Muppet Movie, failed totally and despite how much euphoria my fellow critics emit over it, made The Muppets a bit of a failure. 

First, Golberg, Gomez, or the chubby little Latino boy are irrelevant to the plot.  Second, if the Muppets are so passé and forgotten, why would Gomez's agent send her to work with has-beens?  Third, unless you watch or know about Modern Family, you would have no idea who Rico Rodriguez (the aforementioned chubby little Latino boy) is.  I know critics love Modern Family, but to be honest I've never seen an episode, and if it weren't for all the orgasmic coverage of the show I wouldn't know Rodriguez from a Ninja Turtle. 

Judging from The Muppets, Kermit hasn't seen the show either. 

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Therefore, most of the appearances of big names are there just for show.  There are a few exceptions, such as Alan Arkin as the Muppet Studios tour guide, but by and large the name performers appear as themselves, and what could have been a great series of small performances are wasted because Segel and Company opted to just have his friends pop in for a lark. 

I digress slightly to take on the choices of just who is given more featured roles in The Muppets.  I have never understood the idea that Jack Black is some sort of 'comedic genius'.  It might have bene funny if due to budget reasons, they decided he was the biggest star they could afford to host The Muppet Telethon.  However, they wasted that chance too: not only did he not make me laugh but he has to comment in a near-hysterical manner on everything.  A scene where the Muppets spoof Smells Like Teen Spirit by making it into a barbershop quartet makes Black acts like it's an act of blasphemy. 

Again and again, Segel and Company decide to throw in people sans rhyme or reason.  People may have loved it, but I thought it was all a massive waste. 

Segel knows what he's doing in making Gary this amazingly overgrown man-child with a heart of gold.  Again, his affection for the Muppets comes across, though at times his character veers dangerously into making Gary a complete imbecile rather than just a sweet person. Was Gary a man with a mind of a child or a complete nut-job?

Leaving aside the rather creepy idea that humans can give birth to Muppets, I wasn't overwhelmed with Walter.  That isn't to say there weren't moments of cleverness with the character: the idea that Jim Parsons would be the human Walter was amusing even though, again, if one didn't see or know about The Big Bang Theory you'd have no idea what made the human Walter so amusing.  However, Walter isn't on the same level as a Fozzie or Rowlf the Dog.

Image result for the muppets chris cooperIt is fun to see Chris Cooper play it up for the requisite villain.  One is startled to find how well Copper can rap! I think more moments like these and a whole lot less Jack Black would have made The Muppets a much, much better film.

Finally, allow me to touch on the songs written by Flight of the Conchords' Bret McKenzie.  I'm told McKenzie is another 'comedic genius', but since I've never seen Conchords, I cannot vouch for that.  Again, I'm loath to compare The Muppets to The Muppet Movie, but they want me to. 

While The Muppet Movie had a string of memorable songs (Moving Right Along, Can You Picture That, I Hope Something Better Comes Along, Never Before-Never Again, I'm Going to Go Back There Someday, and of course, the haunting and beautiful Rainbow Connection), the only song I recall with any sense of pleasure was the self-consciously sweet Life's A Happy Song.

All the other songs are completely forgettable, though not all bad.  Me Party was pleasant and almost funny, and Pictures In My Head remarkably dark for a story marketed as family fare.  Other than that, the songs are ones people will not remember once The Muppets fades.  After watching The Muppet Movie, I could hum all the songs and felt joy at their memory.  Even after a span of over thirty years, I can still sing parts of all of them.  After watching The Muppets, the only song I could remember was Life's A Happy Song

Even with that song, I always got the sense that McKenzie was mocking the Muppets and their legacy of sweetness with his music.  It seemed a strange irony that while The Muppets celebrates the nostalgia for a pre-CGI world, the score appears to ridicule the same world. 

No song captures this better or worse than Man Or Muppet, a song I always felt was self-consciously stupid in its lyrics (if I'm a Muppet/then I'm a very manly Muppet--how I hate that line).  Truth be told, I though Man or Muppet was the worst song in The Muppets, but obviously, I'm in the minority on that point. 

The Muppets was a hit-and-miss deal for me, and I wavered fast and furious on what to score it.  The fact is that I found more things to dislike in it: the weak songs, the fact that Fozzie Bear didn't sound exactly like I remembered him (no surprise given he was voiced by current Fozzie Eric Jacobson and veteran Fozzie Frank Oz declined to participate in The Muppets), a collection of useless and unnecessary cameos, Jack Black. All those simply could not overcome all the positive aspects of The Muppets (the clear affection everyone has for them, Chris Cooper's rap). 

It certainly was a good try, done with the best of intentions, but for me, as a Muppets fan who has a deep love and affection for them, I was disappointed.  When it comes to The Muppets, I Hope That Something Better Comes Along


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