Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The Muppets Review: The Return of Everyone's Favorite Felt Friends



Reviving dormant franchises for new audiences can be a tricky thing, particularly when it comes to franchises that are based on animated characters. As in any franchise revival, there's always the tension between appealing to new fans while maintaining the interest of the original fans; very rarely do these rival tensions balance evenly. When it comes to animated characters, the common approaches to revival appear to be either dumbing down the characters to appeal to kids (for the sake of merchandising), or putting the characters in the "real world" alongside known actors (for the sake of celebrity name recognition value), or both. These strategies rarely work, but they've succeeded just enough for Hollywood to keep them in their franchise revival playbook.

On the other hand, there are the title characters of the new movie The Muppets. They aren't cartoon characters but they are closely associated with kid-friendly entertainment, and they've had a long history of featuring celebrity guest stars. With these two attributes, one would expect to see the Muppets in their latest movie suffer the same grim fate as Rocky and Bullwinkle (see The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle) and the Looney Tunes characters (see Space Jam and Looney Tunes: Back in Action). Thankfully, not only does The Muppets avoid the common revival mistakes, but it succeeds in capturing the very things that made the Muppets so entertaining in the first place. After seeing this movie, two conclusions immediately came to mind:

1. We really did lose something special when Muppet creator Jim Henson passed away back in 1990.

2. The Muppets is a fantastic tribute to what Henson left behind--which is pretty amazing, considering that it was made by the same people who brought us Forgetting Sarah Marshall and Get Him to the Greek.

Read on for my full review.

The Muppets is a musical comedy that tells the story of Gary (Jason Segel) and Walter (voiced by Peter Linz), two brothers and life-long Muppet fans, who find out that evil oil tycoon Tex Richman (Chris Cooper) plans to buy the old Muppet theater and tear it down to drill for oil. To stop Richman, they persuade Kermit the Frog (voiced by Steve Whitmire) to round up his Muppet friends and put on a show to raise money to save the theater. Of course, this plot summary barely covers The Muppets' vast amounts of in-jokes, musical numbers, parodies and guest cameos that keep the movie humming along smoothly from start to finish.



At their best, the Muppets are the embodiment of acute contradictions--they are winners and losers, goofy yet sincere, so real yet so fake, simple yet complicated--and they firmly embrace these contradictions with such exhilaration that you can't help but to go along for the ride. I honestly can't think of any other set of characters that pull off this deliberately imbalanced dichotomy so well, which is probably why parodies of the Muppets--such as Meet the Feebles, Wonder Showzen, Crank Yankers and Greg the Bunny--usually fall apart in comparison to the real thing. After all, it's hard to parody something that so readily makes fun of itself and is able to entertain adults while entertaining kids. Then again, there's nothing mean-spirited about the Muppets no matter what kind of jokes they tell, and this essential attribute is something that most Muppet imitators forget.

The Muppets remains true to the schizophrenic nature that Henson bestowed on his creations, and it mines with manic glee every absurdity that emerges from its characters and plot. Since the movie is a musical, it pokes fun at musicals; the movie is also a comeback story, so it too pokes fun at many comeback story clich├ęs. The Muppets deliver heartfelt (no pun intended) and tender speeches that are truly sincere, yet they aren't afraid to kidnap a celebrity to accomplish their goal. Perhaps the most amusing part of the movie is found in its two main characters, brothers Walter and Gary: Walter is a Muppet while Gary is not, but no one in the movie seems to notice this discrepancy at all (although it does become the punch line in a hilarious musical number, "Man Or Muppet").



There's a fart joke here and there, but that's about as "edgy" as this movie gets; otherwise, the Muppets do their kind of humor the way it's been done before and it shows little need for improvement. Come to think of it, with so many reality TV shows serving as talent contests these days, I can't think of a better time to put The Muppet Show back on the air.

Of course, a movie like The Muppets isn't content just to be a good movie with Muppets--it also contains countless references to The Muppet Show that will keep die-hard Muppet fans re-watching this film for quite some time. I spotted a few secondary Muppet characters in the film that I haven't seen since The Muppet Show went off the air in 1981. The human cast, which also includes Amy Adams and Rashida Jones, appear to be having a blast even when they're taking a back seat to the Muppets, and I lost track of how many celebrities appear in smaller roles or cameos. With that kind of attention to detail, a witty script and the attraction of celebrities for on-screen appearances that only last for a few seconds (with even more appearances winding up on the cutting room floor, no less), I can't recommend The Muppets enough to anyone who is looking for smart yet lighthearted fun at the movies.



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