Mark Reviews Movies

The Muppets


3 Stars (out of 4)

Director: James Bobin

Cast: Jason Segel, Amy Adams, Chris Cooper, Rashida Jones, the voices of Peter Linz, Steve Whitmire, Eric Jacobson, Dale Goelz, Bill Barretta

MPAA Rating: PG (for some mild rude humor)

Running Time: 1:38

Release Date: 11/23/11

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Review by Mark Dujsik | November 22, 2011

Jim Henson captured lightning in a bottle with the Muppets, a family of ragtag misfits that Henson famously explained as being a combination of marionettes and puppets (Since the description doesn't really fit, we can only assume the popular notion that Henson simply made up the word because it sounded right and came up with the explanation of its origin on the fly). With the vaudeville styling of "The Muppet Show," they could do anything, and with The Muppet Movie in 1979, the creations really jumped into the realm of magic.

For here was Kermit the Frog riding a bicycle and singing about lovers, dreamers, and the rest of us tied together by the mystery of the rainbow. There was Fozzie Bear doing a standup comedy routine in which we could see him from head to toe. It's a film that somehow made the routine road trip and chase formula fresh with incredibly catchy songs, in-jokes, and a carefree attitude all its own. The Muppets proves that, while it might be impossible to recapture magic, the right people understanding and re-implementing a workable formula can still result in ample rewards.

That formula is a simple and—the film proves—timeless one: self-effacing and sometimes self-deprecating celebrity appearances (Here, Jack Black attends anger management camp, Jim Parsons is seen as the human equivalent of a Muppet, and Kermit, met with a lineup of talent, appropriately refers to child actor Rico Rodriguez as "And you"), songs (New ones by Bret McKenzie are jolly, poignant, and, at times, both), and a medley of references to popular culture (Depending on one's viewpoint, it is either the greatest homage or the most scathing music criticism imaginable to have a flock of chickens cluck out a pop song). Perhaps the best compliment to offer screenwriters Jason Segel (who also stars, though we all know the real stars are made of felt) and Nicholas Stoller and director James Bobin is that they get it; the result is a film that is at once nostalgic and its own being.

In the small town of Smalltown, USA, life is simple. A man can walk down Main Street while singing a cheery tune, and the rest of the townsfolk will join in the chorus and perform an impromptu (yet highly choreographed) dance number in the park. Such a man is Gary (Segel), who's about to take a trip to Los Angeles with his best girl Mary (Amy Adams) to celebrate their tenth anniversary as a couple.

Gary's brother is Walter (voice of Peter Linz), and, if the "voice of" credit didn't give it away, Walter is different. Walter has never grown above three feet tall. He's also yellow and made of felt (Is he adopted, or is there a Muppet recessive gene?), so, naturally, he takes a liking to the Muppets when they first arrive on TV. His side of the bedroom is littered with memorabilia, and Gary has surprised Walter with his own bus ticket to L.A. so that Walter might visit the famous Muppets Studio.

Times have changed since the Muppets' heyday. Their studio is a shambles. The highest rated show on television encourages children to punch their teacher. Kermit (voice of Steve Whitmire) lives alone in a palatial mansion, where portraits of his old friends hang in an unvisited hallway. Fozzie (voice of Eric Jacobson) is in Reno performing with a rip-off group called "the Moopets" (They're the more modern and "hipper" versions of the characters we know and love: Their Fozzie wears a chain; their Miss Piggy eliminates whatever femininity the real one has); he sings "The Rainbow Connection" with the lyrics changed to sell tourists on the amenities of the local hotel/casino. Gonzo (voice of Dave Goelz) runs a plumbing company, and Miss Piggy (voice of Jacobson) is the editor of a fashion magazine in Paris. She's convinced herself that she no longer needs to be defined by her on-again/off-again relationship with Kermit.

Worst of all, a heartless oil baron named Tex Richman (Chris Cooper) has his eyes set on the studio, because there's oil to be had under it. The only thing that stands in his way from obtaining the studio and the names and likenesses of the Muppets (sort of a riff on Disney buying the rights to the characters) is a clause in the Standard Rich and Famous Contract: If Kermit and his former colleagues can raise $10,000,000, they can buy back the studio and, in the process, regain their professional lives.

The controlled randomness of the first two acts is the film's strongest asset. We meet the new characters ('80s Robot (voice of Matt Vogel), a useless toy that never grasps its own outdatedness, is a highlight) and become reacquainted with the Muppets as they go on yet another road trip across the globe (The only doubt the characters have about driving to Paris is that it will take too long). The screenplay constantly riffs on its simplicity (The curmudgeons Statler and Waldorf (voices of Whitmire and Goelz) can't help but point out when vital exposition is revealed) and familiarity, and a blunt television executive (Rashida Jones) shows them how far off the chart of popularity they've gotten in 30 years.

Oddly, the movie slogs just as the characters gain a second wind, preparing a telethon to save the studio (As charming as Segel and Adams are, the story of Gary and Mary's romance straining under the pressure of helping the Muppets is simply filler). Once The Muppets reclaims its focus on the characters that really matter in the climactic variety act, though, it once again feels like a comfortable visit with dear, old friends.

Copyright © 2011 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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