Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The Muppets

Make no mistake -- I am of the "Muppet generation". I was one of those kids who grew up on Sesame Street and The Muppet Show. I remember being a little kid and endlessly watching the trailer for The Muppet Movie and impatiently waiting for the movie to come out...

It didn't disappoint me as a kid and it still doesn't disappoint me all these years later.

But somewhere along the way it felt like the Muppets lost their path. Even though I was an adult (technically) I went to see The Muppet Christmas Carol in the theatres and it made me tear up. It was a lovely story lovingly retold with the Muppets and that was fine... But then they followed it up with The Muppet Treasure Island -- which I talked a friend into going to see with me -- and there was something... lost this time. Where was the zaniness? Where was the wild and weird scripting? The Muppets needed to be themselves -- their own, established characters -- rather than playing adaptations of characters written for something else. It added an extra layer that didn't need to be there. Kermit needed to be just Kermit, not Kermit playing Captain Smollett. After that the Muppets just passed me by. They faded away -- seemingly having no place in this modern world -- only existing in the past as DVD box sets of the original Muppet Show were released.

And then came news of a new movie... The Muppets. I crossed my fingers and hoped for the best and, as the first trailers started coming out, I was heartened to think that maybe the best was not behind these felt creations.

The day before Thanksgiving I headed to the theatre with family to see if the Kermit, Miss Piggy, Gonzo, Fozzie, et. al. that I remembered were back. And the final verdict?......

It doesn't knock the first movie off it's pedestal but The Muppets gets more right than it gets wrong.

The scriptwriters and stars perfectly understand that the Muppets are about zaniness, and wackiness and breaking the fourth wall and impossible visual puns. They understand that the Muppets simply exist in the world and no one questions them. No one questions a blue-eyed, blonde haired, talking pig working as a plus size fashion editor for Vogue. No one questions a... whatever the heck Gonzo is... becoming a plumbing magnate with a chicken for a secretary. No one questions that Walter (a Muppet) and Gary (a human) are brothers. THAT is the world of the Muppets. Stuff happens. You roll with it. If you're thinking about these things then the movie isn't doing it's job.

And that's the other thing this movie gets right -- the heart. The Muppets fight and squabble and argue -- they're a family, of course they do! But the Muppets maintain a higher standard. They don't hurt people, they don't offend people, they don't call people nasty names -- it's just not in them to do those things. They turn the other cheek and when someone knocks them down they'll just pick themselves right back up again. The Muppets always win because they refuse to quit. When the going gets tough the Muppets will just keep going. It's a lovely, sweet, message that still has a place in the world today.

On top of all this the writers have crafted a number of other messages. Walter, the idealistic Muppet, discovers that sometimes reality doesn't match your dreams and that dreams also don't just get handed to you -- sometimes you really have to work for them.

He also finds his place in the world after much searching -- even if finding that place means going in a different direction than his beloved brother. It's a lesson that, sooner or later, all kids learn. It doesn't mean that family doesn't matter or that family members don't still love one another it's just that one has to make their own place in this world.

On the other side of that coin Gary (Jason Segel) has spent years sheltering and protecting his brother Walter and he must come to let go of Walter and pursue his own dreams and his own place in the world.

And on top of all of that we have Kermit -- who let his "family" slip away and now is finally realizing the scope of all he has lost. Getting them back won't be easy and it may not be possible at all. Does he have the courage and the will to take on this fight? Well... he's Kermit after all.

All of these messages weave in and around one another and strangely never overwhelm the film. And that takes a deft touch.

There are also several new songs from Flight of the Conchords Bret McKenzie and these turn out to be good additions to the Muppet song book. They don't have the lasting legacy of "Rainbow Connection" nor the surprisingly philosophical bent of "I'm Going to Go Back There Someday" but, as compared to some animated movies lately, they are invested in the movie. Unlike many movies which seem lately to just shove in some pop-style song into a sequence without the song having much to do with the movie or the characters the songs here further the plot or they tell us something about the characters or how the characters are feeling or what they are thinking. The songs are also very much in the old musical bent. "Me Party" has a disco flavor and is probably the most singable outside of context but "Life's a Happy Song" feels like something out of a Rogers and Hammerstein musical and you probably won't find yourself belting it out at karoke night. If there is a complaint it is that there aren't enough new songs and the movie pads things out by using existing songs like "We Built This City" by Starship. But honestly, this is me being a bit nitpicky.

The movie also is maybe a bit too nostalgic in that it plays a lot of tributes to the original Muppet Show and The Muppet Movie which younger viewers aren't going to get but hey, minor quibble really. Also, I have to say that the characters of Walter, Mary and Gary do seem to overwhelm the Muppets at a few points. Walter at times borders on an author self-insertion style character which can be dangerous. These are the things which hold the movie back from being quite as brilliant as the first one but, if I'm honest, I'd probably put The Muppets in above even The Muppets Take Manhattan.

If you want a wacky, zany, inventive comedy with a lot of heart and emotion and that also has a good message presented without artifice or a sledgehammer to the skull then go to see The Muppets. The kids will have a good time and so will the parents. There's something here for everyone making it a truly "Family" film.

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