Wednesday, November 23, 2011

REVIEW: The Muppets

When I saw the little puppet show near the end of Forgetting Sarah Marshall a few years ago, I thought to myself, "Hey, maybe these guys could bring the Muppets back."

And so they have. Actor Jason Segel and his co-writer Nicholas Stoller, who made Sarah Marshall, have now restored the Muppets' luster. The new, self-titled movie made me smile more than any other movie I saw this year.

That's no small wonder. I'm one of the original Muppet fans from back in the Day. I'm 41, only one year younger than Sesame Street, which popularized Jim Henson's characters. I watched The Muppet Show every week. When the original Muppet Movie came out in 1979, I saw it four or five times in the theater - a record for me back then. I memorized the soundtrack to that film and amazed my friends by knowing every single word to "Rainbow Connection."

So it saddened me to see the Muppets gradually lose their luster over the past couple of decades, cranking out product that was middling (Muppets from Space) or out-and-out bad (Muppets Wizard of Oz). "The Muppets aren't hip anymore," the masses claimed.

Well, no duh. The Muppets never really were "hip." Even back in their 70s heyday, they had an ageless appeal that was rarely tied to any particular era. Unlike many movies of my childhood years, The Muppet Movie didn't scream 1970s. The Muppets of the 21st century understands this very well, since it doesn't strain to pander to irony and cynicism.

The story revolves around getting the wooly bunch back together after Kermit learns the Muppet studios are about to be sold, unless they can raise $10 million. It won't be easy.  The gang has drifted apart over the years as the Muppets faded into history. Even Miss Piggy is estranged from Kermit, having carved out a new life as a fashion magazine editor in Paris. (Of course).

The new movie employs a particular stroke of  genius: the  new Muppet character Walter, who is supposed to be Jason Segel's brother. Walter adores the classic Muppets and can't resist falling in with their crowd, but he begins to doubt himself, wondering if he can really fit in. At the same time, Segel's character has to come to grips with his own childlike tendencies, and this is wonderfully staged in a musical number called "Man or Muppet."

Given the bountiful mnostalgia at play here, it's tempting to overrate the film, especially since I've been starved for good Muppet material. The jokes clanked more often than they should have, and I was disappointed that my great crush, Amy Adams, was not used particularly well. She's perfectly fine in her part as Segel's love interest, and she's always fun to watch, but the role doesn't give her  unique comedic gifts a chance to flower. In this movie, she's basically "the girl," albeit a talented one.  The film is not as good as the original Muppet Movie, and it's not even the best post-Henson film. That's still Muppet Christmas Carol, with its great Michael Caine Scrooge performance.

But I also don't want to sell the movie short. Almost every Muppet gets a spotlight moment, and even some lesser-known ones appear, like the eternally stuffy Wayne and Wanda. It's certainly the best family film of the year. It's certainly the most moving. I defy anyone over a certain age not to shed a tear when Kermit starts plucking the melody to "Rainbow Connection."

But there's another song from The Muppet Movie that springs to mind: the very last one in that film, but it applies well to this new one too: "Life's like a movie, write you own ending. Keep believing, keep pretending, we've done just what we set out to do - thanks to the lovers, the dreamers, and you."


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