November 18, 2011

A Not-Very-Spoilery Review of The Muppets

Filed under: Feature,Reviews — Ryan Roe @ 4:50 pm

Okay, then, here it is: My 2,000-word review of the Toy Story short Small Fry, which opens in theaters everywhere on November 23rd.

First of all, I must say I greatly appreciated the depiction of the relationship between Zurg and the belt buckle, which I believe was intended as a symbolic reminder that language need not be a barrier to finding common ground, regardless of the circumstances in which the — what’s that you say? The Muppets? Oh yeah, I saw that too. I guess I could talk about it.

Going in, I was completely prepared to like the movie, but I was also wary of the intoxicating “new Muppets smell” that has occasionally led me to overrate things in the past. When I spoke to Grace Randolph for the Beyond the Trailer web show immediately after seeing the film, she asked me to rate it on a scale of 1 to 10, and I said something like, “It’s a 9 as a movie, and a 7 or 8 as a Muppet movie!” In the harsh light of day, I’m already wondering if that was a bit hyperbolic.

So let’s start with the basics. In a post earlier this week, I boiled my hopes for The Muppets down to a list of three. Let’s revisit those and see how each one turned out. And let’s revisit each one in the form of a question:

1. Did I laugh a lot? Yes, I did. The jokes were funny, with a nice combination of genuinely clever comedy-movie jokes and bad-but-worthy-of-the-Muppets jokes.
2. Were the musical numbers good? Yes, they were, although none of them ever lived up to the wonderful opening number, “Life’s a Happy Song.” That one is so catchy and full of fun moments and good ol’ movie-musical choreography, it rendered me downright giddy despite not featuring any of the main Muppet characters.
3. Did the Muppets act like themselves? Yes, mostly. Gonzo doesn’t have a ton of screen time, but it’s so great to see him back in action doing Gonzo stuff. Fozzie probably hasn’t been so Fozzie-like since Very Merry Muppet Christmas Movie. And the creative team absolutely nailed the characterization of the Mutations. The most glaring exception to this, I would say, is Sam the Eagle’s willing participation in a musical number that hardly seems up to his usual standards of cultural value.  And then there’s Kermit, but I’ll get to that later.

I’m pretty happy to be able to answer all of those questions in the affirmative.  Honestly, even!  This is a good Muppet movie, and I think Muppet fans are going to like it pretty universally.  And speaking of Muppet fans: Walter, the Muppet geek with big dreams, turns out to be the real heart and soul of the film.  His character arc may be the most satisfying aspect of the whole movie, and he proves to be a lovable new Muppet in a movie full of Muppets we love doing what we love to see them doing.

Here are some other things I liked about it (another list!)

1. Uncle Deadly. Matt Vogel’s been doing a bang-up job with all of the characters he’s taken over, but Uncle Deadly is especially scene-stealing here, just by being Uncle Deadly.  And props to James Bobin for managing to get Deadly’s little-seen tail into a shot.
2. The stuff where the characters know they’re in a movie.  The Muppets did it a lot in the first two Jim Henson-era movies, so it’s another throwback to the classics.  It could have easily been overdone, but it’s subtle enough to still seem funny.
3.  The multitude of minor but familiar-to-us Muppets running around the theater. Wayne and Wanda, Behemoth, Quongo the Gorilla.  We’ve seen them all in the trailers, but it’s still fun to keep an eye on the background to see who pops up.

All of which is not to say The Muppets is perfect.

As I said, all the Muppets were mostly in character, but Kermit was kind of a downer. I’m sure he had a few jokes in the movie, but I can only think of one or two right now. Most of the emotional weight of the Muppets’ story is on Kermit’s shoulders, and Steve Whitmire gives one of his best performances ever, but I found find myself wishing Kermit got to be funnier. I don’t have a problem with him living alone in a Hollywood mansion, or even with the premise that he gave up on the showbiz dream and has to find it again, but man, the frog gives a lot of somber and/or heartfelt speeches in this movie.

The whole film bows a little under the pressure of trying to cram so much into its running time. The whole story is really just a device that allows the Muppets to put on a show, which is fine, because it’s what we want to see, but there’s a lot of stuff that’s not given the screen time it needs. It’s obvious that Chris Cooper’s Tex Richman is a bad guy, but if I hadn’t already known that his evil plan was to destroy the Muppet Theater to get at the oil underneath, I don’t think I would have picked up on it, as it’s never explained in great detail.  And if this movie is supposed to be the first Muppet movie of a new era, the Muppet Movie for a new generation, it does a good job… but where The Muppet Movie introduced each of the major Muppets in a way that told you exactly who they were even if you had never seen The Muppet Show, the new movie frequently assumes that the viewer knows who these guys are.

And the ending — well, I’m not going to give it all away, but when the words THE END appeared on screen, I went, “Wait… That’s how it ends?”

But what am I doing complaining?  The Muppets is a delightful time at the movies, and I spent exponentially more time with a grin on my face than I did with an eyebrow raised.  I can’t think of anyone I know whom I would not recommend it to.  And I can’t wait to see what the Muppets do next.

Keep an eye on Tough Pigs for second-opinion reviews, with more spoilers!  Click here to have everything you need, right in front of you, on the Tough Pigs forum!

by Ryan Roe – Ryan@ToughPigs.com



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