Saturday, December 10, 2011

Movie Review: The Muppets

Some years ago, during the Park Ave Fest, I was walking down the street with some friends and I noticed some guys sitting on the roof of their house, drinking beer. I pointed and joked, “Look. Drinks are on the house!” A complete stranger in front of me then turned around and told me that my joke was terrible.

What that guy didn't know was that I didn't really write that joke myself. I stole it from 1979's The Muppet Movie, which I genuinely believe is one of the greatest films of all time, and was certainly a huge influence on Saberfrog.

I learned a lot from that movie as a kid. It basically taught me the concept of the pun (at that age I didn't know phrases like “drinks are on the house” and “fork in the road”, and needed to have their double meanings explained to me) and thus has much to answer for, as my family and friends would doubtless agree. It also introduced me to the grown-up world in subtle ways – it was definitely the first film I ever saw to depict characters going on a date, or to show guys bonding over their relationship troubles.

The Muppet Movie achieved the impressive juggling act of being simultaneously a family-friendly comedy, an origin story, a work of postmodernism before that was cool, and the last of the 1970s existential road movies. Without making a big deal of it, Jim Henson and company succeeded in making a big-screen version of Don Quixote (a task that both Orson Welles and Terry Gilliam have been defeated by). While I enjoyed the jokes and slapstick as a kid, the film had some deeper themes that have only grown deeper as I get older.

If you've seen the film (and if you haven't, you owe it to yourself), you know that Kermit leaves his swampland idyll when a conversation with a displaced talent agent inspires him to go on a quest to Hollywood with the goal of “making people happy”. Along the way he assembles a gang of followers and friends, only for their car to break down, stranding them in the desert. Kermit wanders away to have a soul-searching conversation with himself (onscreen he's actually talking to another Kermit, something else I needed explained to me as a kid). “They believed in me,” says a guilt-ridden Kermit about the family he's assembled. His doppelganger replies, “No, they believed in the dream.”

As a kid, this scene was just cryptic and weird. But as an adult (and filmmaker) who's actually experienced that kind of responsibility, it hits a nerve. That's genius, but what's even more genius is that the film is able to handle such profound themes without taking itself too seriously. (Kermit and friends are set free from their dilemma by a light-hearted, breaking-the-fourth-wall gag.)

An even greater moment occurs at the climax, (sorry to give away the ending of a 32-year-old movie, but it's your own fault for not having seen it yet) when Kermit and friends finally reach the promise land and enter the office of a studio executive, played by Orson Welles. Kermit says he's come here to be “rich and famous.” There's a long, awkward pause, after which Welles tells his secretary to “prepare the standard 'rich and famous' contract for Kermit the Frog and company.” While most of the Muppet gang erupts into cheers, the camera zooms in on Kermit just looking stunned.

This ending, to me, is as mysterious as the ending of Kubrick's 2001. Did Kermit win or lose? Why did his goal change from “making people happy” to becoming “rich and famous”, and did the studio head approve or disapprove? Was the casting of Orson Welles – who so famously fell short of his early promise in Hollywood – meant to be significant in some way, or was it just another celebrity cameo?

So I'm obviously pretty hardcore about The Muppet Movie. I can't claim to be that extreme a fan of the Muppets in general, though. I was into The Muppet Show as much as any other kid, but that show didn't seem to get played on TV much after it was canceled (it never had the syndicated afterlife of, say, Star Trek or The Twilight Zone), so the Muppets kind of faded from my awareness as I grew up.

But then, I'm not Jason Segel, who has apparently spent his life obsessed with the Muppets, and has spent years' worth of energy and clout trying to get a new Muppet movie made from his own script, which has now resulted in The Muppets.

A lengthy article in Entertainment Weekly last month described how Segel had to interrupt a readthrough of the script so he could step out for a moment, because hearing Kermit utter dialogue he had written reduced him to tears. (And frankly, it chokes me up just to type that.) Yet the article also quoted some Henson-era Muppet veterans, including Frank Oz, expressing disapproval of some of the humor in Segel's script. There are plenty of fanboys who are obsessed with something and yet have no insight into what made it good – would Segel turn out to be one of them?

Begin actual review here:

I've seen almost nothing Segel has been in, so I have no prejudgment about him one way or the other – to me, he's just some dude who really, really cares about the Muppets. So I gave him the benefit of the doubt. And I have to say, I think he did a pretty good job.

The previous Muppet movies seemed to follow the approach of the Marx Brothers, Laurel and Hardy, etc. in that each installment was self-contained and had no continuity with previous installments. (As a kid, I was annoyed when The Great Muppet Caper claimed that Kermit and Fozzie were brothers who grew up together, contradicting the origin story given in The Muppet Movie.) The Muppets, on the other hand, takes the unusual – and moving – approach of recognizing the past. The Muppet Show is acknowledged as a long-cancelled TV show, and the Muppet Movie origin story is treated as canon; the “rich and famous” contract from that film plays a key role in the plot.

The film's probably-autobiographical opening scenes introduce Gary (Segel) and his brother Walter, who happens to be a puppet (I won't call him a Muppet, for reasons that become clear if you see the film), who grow up as huge fans of Kermit and the gang. During a trip to Hollywood with Gary and his girlfriend (Amy Adams), Walter overhears a scheme to tear down the Muppets' abandoned theater to drill for oil (due to a loophole in the aforementioned “rich and famous” contract), so the trio set out to reunite the Muppets so they can raise money to save the theater.

Perhaps the simplest way to praise The Muppets for what it is is to point out what it's not. The film was preceded by trailers for several other upcoming kids' movies. The trailer for the new Alvin and the Chipmunks movie made a big deal out of the chipmunks performing Lady GaGa's “Bad Romance” (as if mentioning a familiar song was by definition side-splitting) and also featured a group of female chipmunks doing a booty-shaking dance. The Mysterious Island trailer showed Dwayne Johnson getting hit in the face with feces from a flying monster. The trailer for a new pirate movie from the Aardman animation studios in Britain had a man raising his kilt and waving his (presumably bare) ass in someone's face while saying “Feast your eyes!”

I don't mind a kid's movie getting a bit raunchy here and there. But the fact that that kind of humor is so prominently featured in trailers indicates that this is what Hollywood thinks family entertainment should be – bathroom humor, sexual innuendo and lame pop culture references. What parent wouldn't want to take their kids to see that, right? I haven't seen a lot of the Muppet stuff made after Henson's death, but some of what I have seen seemed to fall into a similar trap: trying too hard to be risque, and being too reliant on pop-culture quoting rather than doing actual jokes.

The Muppets is making a clear effort to be more old-fashioned and wholesome, and the style of humor (especially the breaking-the-fourth-wall gags) did remind me very much of The Muppet Movie. It manages to be genuinely funny and anarchic without straining to be cynical or offensive. Segel may be more famous for his work in R-rated comedies, but he plays his role with a boyish innocence that I found entirely convincing. It's no surprise to say that Amy Adams does just as well, since her role as a live-action Disney princess in Enchanted proved that she was born for this kind of thing.

The loss of that bygone innocence in modern culture is a noticeable (if unsubtle) theme in the film, and one would almost guess that the contrasting trailers preceding it were actually designed to be part of the movie, like the fake trailers at the start of Tropic Thunder. Whatever Frank Oz and his colleagues were objecting to in Segel's script, it either didn't make the final cut or must have come across differently on the page than it did on the screen.

It was also a huge relief that the pop culture references were few and subtle. I only spotted three – to Scarface, Dirty Dancing and The Devil Wears Prada – and they were all subtle enough that someone who didn't get the reference wouldn't have noticed the joke at all. (In fact, I only recognized the Devil Wears Prada reference because I happened to see part of that film at my girlfriend's house the night before.)

That's how you do it – as a secret wink to the people in the audience who get it, while leaving everyone else to just enjoy the movie on its own terms. That's better than just re-enacting, at length, a scene from someone else's movie in the belief that this is an acceptable substitute for writing your own material. I know some audiences have a Pavlovian reaction to any quotation from something in their own DVD collection, but to me that's the nerd equivalent of a fart joke. So kudos to Segel for taking the high road.

There were some things in the film that bothered me. First, the enormous emphasis on Gary's and Walter's fannishness kind of rubbed me the wrong way. Creative people used to be role models, not just idols worshipped from afar. But ever since Generation X took over the culture, there's been more of a sense that being imaginative and creating your own characters and stories is something that other people do, not something you could do yourself. In The Muppet Movie, the old-time ventriloquist act of Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy had a brief cameo, presumably because Henson was a fan. I can't help but think that if Henson had been a Generation X-style fanboy like Segel, he would have made a film about trying to get Bergen and McCarthy to perform again, rather than being inspired to create his own family of characters. The Muppets would never have existed.

My second problem is that I found the film's premise a bit morally dubious. It's supposed to be awful that the villain (played by Chris Cooper) wants to tear down the old Muppet studio to dig for oil. But as far I can tell, Kermit just left that place to rot. I realize it's just a movie and that you gotta pick something as your MacGuffin. But when the heroes ended up arranging a telethon to raise $10 million to save the theater, to me that seemed like a lot of money to ask from the public to save a building that, again, the Muppets couldn't be bothered to take proper care of in the first place.

Perhaps both of these problems are really the same problem. The Muppets identifies more with the fanboy newcomers than with the title characters, and because of this we're given virtually no backstory as to why the Muppets left showbiz and drifted into obscurity. The film seems to regard them as victims of fate, left behind by an uncaring world rather than being capable of controlling their own destinies. For me that wasn't enough. I wanted more of an in-universe explanation for why these characters parted ways in the first place, since their reconciliation is meant to be emotionally significant.

Of course, a real-world factor in the Muppets' gradual decline was probably Jim Henson's death. I'm not saying Segel necessarily had to use that specifically (although that might have been interesting; Henson clearly exists in this film's universe, as photos of him appear in a couple of shots). But because Segel's script puts the Muppets on a pedestal instead of relating to them as heroes (as the previous films had done), there was perhaps a missed opportunity to deal with some more grown-up themes such as loss and regret and broken friendships. Giving these beloved characters real, adult problems, ones that their former child audience might find themselves relating to as grownups, might have made this film a true successor to The Muppet Movie instead of just being pretty close.

But perhaps it comes close enough. The fanboy aspect of the story does pay off emotionally through the story of Walter, who starts out wanting the Muppets to enter his world but ultimately gets to enter theirs. His climactic contribution to the story is an act of Napoleon Dynamite-esque randomness that you could actually imagine Jim Henson writing. I also liked that this film, like The Muppet Movie, had a scene in which Kermit tries to reason morally with the villain, who turns him down. There were one or two character moments that were just as moving as that desert scene I mentioned from The Muppet Movie, but I won't tell you about them (because I've already forgotten what they were).

And Segel does work the nostalgia angle pretty well. After spending my adult lifetime not thinking much about The Muppet Show, it was astonishing to see the show's title sequence and song recreated in the full glory of 35mm, and to see Scooter pop his head into the dressing room to say “15 minutes to curtain...” and to remember how deeply these conventions were ingrained in my skull through childhood repetition. There is also a performance of “The Rainbow Connection” that is perhaps a bit too obviously calculated to bring a lump to the throat of anyone who grew up obsessing over The Muppet Movie, except that it entirely succeeded at this (at least in my case) so, you know, well played.

Speaking of music, I guess I could mention that I wished the songs in the film were just a little bit better. I thought I hated musicals as a kid, but many of my favorite films – The Muppet Movie included – had musical numbers. It turns out that what I really hated wasn't the idea of people breaking into song. It was the sappy, cutesy tone of so many crappy kid's movies, plus the fact that the songs often sucked. (Whenever a new cartoon TV special aired, I was always annoyed if there was a lame song, because it meant losing precious minutes of a twenty-something-minute special that could have been spent instead on jokes, or at least storytelling.)

Anyway, the songs in The Muppets are okay (and the film tries to milk some humor out of acknowledging the strangeness of people bursting into song), but I didn't find many of them all that catchy. Although Leonard Maltin thought that the songs in The Muppet Movie weren't that great. So who knows? Maybe these new ones will also become classics with age.

I might also mention that one of the film's funniest gags – involving someone who has no desire to work with the Muppets – might have been even funnier if they hadn't picked a celebrity who, in real life, seems like someone who would jump at the chance. (I've tried to think of someone who would sell the joke better, though, and I can't do it, so maybe the filmmakers couldn't either.) And if the Muppet News Flash newscaster had had something heavy fall on his head (as happened almost every time he gave a newscast on The Muppet Show), I would have cheered out loud in the theater, so that was another missed opportunity.

OK, I'm pretty much nitpicking at this point. But the fact that I'm still digging seems like a good sign. So often we see mediocre films only to shrug our shoulders and say, “Yeah, that was OK, I guess.” If you find yourself analyzing a film to death, that probably means that it spoke to you on some level, even if you're just poking holes.

Perhaps the neatest thing about The Muppets is its absolute willingness to embrace the style and tone of its own franchise. It's rare to see this done, or even attempted. When something that was popular years ago makes an unexpected comeback, it's usually been overhauled in order to appeal to a completely different audience. Ronald Moore's Battlestar Galactica, Russell T Davies' Doctor Who and J.J. Abrams' Star Trek were clear attempts to remodel has-been brands to appeal to viewers who hadn't previously cared, and the old guard just had to get used to the changes in tone, budget, shooting style, and special effects technology.

I'm usually critical of fans who are stuck too far in the past and can't accept change. We should embrace change. But we should also embrace tradition. There is something very satisfying about seeing, for a change, something new that actually does play by the old rules, that is unashamed of the past and unafraid to be the thing you remembered. The Muppets takes the perhaps-radical view that kids today aren't that different from kids back then, that both generations can like the same thing for the same reasons, and that the values of that bygone time are still valid.

So well done, Mr. Segel, for making your dream come true, and for making an entertaining film.

Just one question, though: Where the heck was Robin? You bring back one-joke characters like Lew Zealand but you leave out Kermit's nephew? So much for trying to make a family film.