Sunday, December 11, 2011

Upcoming Release Review: The Muppets (James Bobin, 2011)

The Muppets is scheduled for release in Australian cinemas on January 12, 2012.

Fozzie Bear exasperatedly asks during one of the funniest moments in The Muppets, “What’s more illegal, Kermit: kidnapping Jack Black, or destroying the Muppet name for good?” A horrified Kermit replies: “Kidnapping Jack Black, Fozzie!” I’m so glad that the team behind this wonderful film, including screenwriting duo Jason Segel and Nicholas Stoller, producers David Hoberman and Todd Lieberman and director James Bobin thought differently, resurrecting Jim Henson’s once-beloved but now culturally-extinct Muppets characters for another adventure. In the first Disney-produced Muppets film since 1996’s Muppet Treasure Island, the gang is brought back together when the Muppet name is threatened and they are pitted against a ruthless oil tycoon.

The Muppets is a film about two brothers who grew up watching The Muppet Show in their youth. Now as adults, Gary (Jason Segel) and Walter (Peter Linz) continue to live together as Muppet fans in Smalltown, USA. Gary plans a vacation to Los Angeles with his girlfriend Mary (Amy Adams) to celebrate their tenth anniversary, inviting Walter along so he can see the Muppet Theatre. Walter, made of felt like his idol Kermit the Frog, is ecstatic, however Mary is not – concerned that her future husband hasn’t grown out of his own “Muppet-hood”. 

In Los Angeles, the three visit the Muppet Theatre and are sad to find it in bad shape. During the tour of the facility (run by a dutifully disinterested Alan Arkin), Walter sneaks into Kermit the Frog’s old office and overhears a conversation revealing that the theatre is being sold to Tex Richman (Chris Cooper), an oil magnate. Richman explains to his associates Bobo the Bear and Uncle Deadly that he intends to tear down the Muppet Theatre and drill for oil (an amusing parody of There Will Be Blood).

Though he is distressed into hysterics Walter also learns that if The Muppets can raise $10 Million dollars they could repurchase the theatre back. Bringing the news to Gary and Mary they seek out Kermit the Frog at his mansion – who concludes that the only way to raise enough money would be to put on a show, a feat the Muppets, now estranged and barely in contact with one another, have not done in years. Kermit sets the reunion in motion, visiting Fozzie the Bear, performing with a group of Muppet impersonators, The Moopets, Gonzo, a successful businessman in the plumbing industry, and Miss Piggy, Vogue Paris’ editor in chief. The rest of the gang is recruited in a montage to “speed things up a bit”. They clean up the old Muppet Theatre and set about preparing for the fundraising telethon.

Throughout The Muppets I had a big grin permanently etched across my face. It's a lot of fun, and you would have to be petty hard to please not to find some level of enjoyment here. Full of insanely catchy song and dance numbers with great lyrics and amusing choreography, this zany modern tale remains grounded in the roots of the beloved television show, and has many self-aware winks to generic clichés. In addition to the aforementioned montage, the group decides to ‘travel by map’ to quickly make a trip to Paris. There are some great cameos; Jack Black, Animal’s anger-management sponsor, is kidnapped to appear on the show as a guest, Chris Cooper has a blast instructing his associates to laugh ‘maniacally’ and even raps on one occasion, while Rashida Jones (who agrees to air the Muppets telethon) just has to exist for me to be attentive. Dozens of other stars pop up – to name just a few, Zach Galifainakas appears as a homeless person, while Neil Patrick Harris, John Krasinski and Whoopi Goldberg make appearances during the Telethon.

Though the film is most committed to the ‘Grand Show’, which makes up the final third – there are also some compelling characters at the heart of the story. The triangle of Walter, Gary and Mary results in some pretty emotional moments. Some may claim that the necessary human involvement means that the Muppets aren’t given enough screen time, but I think the balance is quite well done. Gary, so committed to helping Walter live his dream of becoming a Muppet, forgets about his anniversary dinner with Mary – causing stress on their relationship. Walter, given an opportunity to perform, questions whether he has what it takes to be a Muppet. One of the best songs in the film is a duet between Walter and Gary – “Man or Muppet” – lamenting on their situations.

Kermit is also a wonderful creation. The range of emotions expressed through the movement of his face and mouth is really hard to believe. I dare you not to well up when he delivers his rousing climactic speech to the troops. Old fans will love being reunited with the gang, while it’s sure to be a family friendly blast for newcomers too. Segel is evidently a longtime fan of The Muppets and this film has been crafted with great respect for Jim Henson’s creations, ensuring that both loyal fans and new 21st Century audiences will have a good time. Bringing in Bret McKenzie to write the songs and act as music supervisor is also a brilliant move (and if you listen carefully the similarities to Flight of the Concords are clear). It would have been great to see Bret McKenzie make a cameo himself (in "Life's a Happy Song" - the likely Oscar winner for Best Original Song), but it was not to be. 

It feels strange to declare this, but The Muppets is one of the most enjoyable film experiences of the last twelve months. It is a little flawed in it’s narrative, sure, and it is at times a little too cheeky with it’s nudges to greed, capitalism and 21st Century culture and it cheats it's way through obstacles by resorting to tongue-in-cheek when it brings in the cliches, but it’s got a great rhythm and its brilliance as a musical cannot be ignored. Viewers even better acquainted with the original Muppets show and early films and more familiar with the timeless self-reflective humour than I am, will no doubt adore this film. I can’t declare myself a die-hard Muppets fan, but this delivered more than I could have hoped for on all fronts. What makes this experience even stronger is the Pixar short, titled Small Fry, which precedes the film. It features some of the cast of the Toy Story films. Don’t be late.

My Rating: ★★★★ (B+)


  1. I really enjoyed the hell out of this movie. I am a long-time Muppets fan and grew up with the television show. This was a nod back to those days, and I appreciated it for that. I liked that it was less about crass selling of stuff, or at least seemed to be less about that, than it was about the Muppets themselves.

  2. From my understanding, it is about reinvigorating the Muppets for old fans (by bringing back the structure and approach of the earlier Muppet films and the show), and introducing them to new fans in a new market. While I can see why the anti-capitalist messages have copped some attention - I don't think it is significant, and just found it to be consistently funny, and clever, and a delight from start to finish.

  3. Although my two favorite Muppet movies are Muppet's Christmas Carol and Muppet's Treasure Island, I really enjoyed the classic Muppet's adventures in this movie and the actors were very funny. Take the next generation of Muppet fans to this movie and watch how you're kids see why the Muppet Show was all our generations favorite!

  4. @ Portugal - If I had kids I'd take them for sure. But I'll be recommending the film to my cousins and their kids. Great way to follow up TinTin and We Bought A Zoo these holidays. I loved A Muppets Christmas Carol. Seen it so many times. Thanks for reading.