Thursday, November 24, 2011
Ours is a time of nostalgia, of man-children, of, well, arrested development. Technology has made it ever easier to revisit the formative media of our youth, leading to a decade defined less by the new boundaries charted in popular culture as it is the repackaging of the old: the mash-up, the homage, the reboot, all of it done with a knowing self-awareness. Few pop culture sensations were ever so self-aware as the Muppets, and so they seem especially ripe for the treatment, especially considering more time has elapsed since their last movie, Muppets from Space, than the entire existence of the Spider-Man movie franchise, which is getting rebooted next summer.
The Muppets begins with an introduction to brothers Gary (Jason Segal) and Walter (voiced by Peter Linz). While Gary is a flesh and blood human, Walter is three feet high and made of felt and naturally becomes the Muppets’ biggest fan growing up. In the present day Walter still shares a bedroom with Gary, who has been in a relationship going on ten years with his girlfriend Mary (Amy Adams). Gary and Mary (wocka wocka wocka!) take a romantic trip to Hollywood, with Gary bringing Walter along so he can make a pilgrimage to the Muppet studio. Walter is horrified to find it all but abandoned and about to be turned over to scheming oil baron Tex Richman (an appropriately oily Chris Cooper). The only way to save the property is to get Kermit and the rest of the Muppets back together to put on a telethon and raise $10 million.
Obviously self-awareness and nostalgia are baked into The Muppets from the get-go. The entire premise resting on wistfulness for the good old days of Muppet domination, and many of the movie’s biggest beats—a melancholy look at a wall of photographs the gang with Jim Henson and a variety of celebrities, a spirited rendition of “Rainbow Connection” at the telethon—draws from its built-in audience’s fond memories.
Yet this is no lazy fan-service. The film hits the floor humming with an infectiously peppy musical number, “Life’s a Happy Song,” (written, as with all the other original songs for the movie by Flight of the Conchords’ Bret McKenzie), and proceeds over the next two hours to fire off a barrage of jokes, largely cheeky, fourth-wall-busting bits, such as saving time by use of a montage or ‘traveling by map,’ but also celebrity cameos, awful puns, character bits, and more besides. (My favorite is a scene that involves a thesaurus.) The rapid clip brings to mind The Simpsons Movie, another (successful) effort to bring a wayward property back to what made it work in the first place.
The Muppets strikes a fair balance in appealing to the older audience members and those less familiar with the Muppet brand. Speaking for myself, I grew up on the Muppet Babies cartoon and have fond but distant memories of the Muppet Christmas Carol. I’m not exactly unbiased, but I still have enough objectivity not to give it a pass on nostalgia alone, and I had a shit-eating grin on my face the entire time. I don’t doubt that the film appeals to everyone in all the right ways, but whether it will get a chance to is another matter, going up as it is against the insipid Twilight juggernaut. A movie that does so much so well deserves to do well, but the half-filled theater I saw it in, containing mostly adults, isn’t promising.
The movie’s not completely perfect. Most of the principal muppets get at least a cameo bit, but surprisingly Rizzo the Rat doesn’t get to do anything but appear in the background, and Kermit’s nephew Robin doesn’t appear at all. The pacing flags in the middle, perhaps due to simple laughter fatigue, but likely because of a long stretch in which there are no songs to perk things up. At two hours it is quite long for a whimsical musical comedy, and with the shuffling around of a certain Gonzo gag the mostly unnecessary epilogue could have been easily cut.
But that's picking at nits. Mostly, The Muppets is a joy, and, coming at this particular moment, it is a most refreshing joy.
For the ending, undone by the aforementioned epilogue, is actually something of a downer. Tex Richman actually manages to stop the telethon at the last minute, gets the land rights, and kicks the muppets out of their old theater. But Kermit convinces them that they have nothing to be ashamed of, that they gave it their all, and then they go outside to find they’re famous anyway and everybody loves them again.
It’s a bit much, but it’s nice to see a movie that tries to surmount disappointment and failure, amid an ongoing economic malaise that have brought so much disappointment and failure to so many people. That this should be delivered by talking puppets that are aware they’re in a movie but not that they’re puppets is sort of ridiculous, and sort of sublime, but it’s always been so. The awareness that is equal parts sad-clown struggle and silly, anarchic boundary breaking, the adult wisdom and child-like optimism; these were Jim Henson's trademarks. They're what make Big Bird singing "It's Not Easy Being Green" at Henson's funeral, something that sounds ludicrous in concept, as incredibly moving as it was. It's what the world needs, more now than ever before.
The progress of our culture--currently consuming and reworking the past--is as uncertain as the economy on which it rests. With that in mind, one could scarce hope for a better examplar than a group of muppet chickens doing a buck-and-cluck cover of Cee Lo's obscenity-laden Motown throwback "Fuck You." To be able to get away from news on the impending collapse of the European Union, and settle briefly into The Muppets' company, is something for which we ought be thankful.