November 23, 2011

A Totally Spoilery Review of The Muppets

Filed under: Feature,Reviews — Tags: , — Joe Hennes @ 11:11 am

Earlier this week, I saw a new Muppet movie.  And I am giddy with excitement that I can even utter that sentence with all honesty.

Right after seeing the film, Ryan wrote his spoiler-free review.  I share most of the same opinions as him, but I’m saying screw the spoilers and I’ll be talking about anything and everything having to do with The Muppets.  So if you haven’t seen it yet, feel free to bookmark me and come back soon.  I’ll know if you don’t.

Let’s get the thumbs up/down part out of the way.  I loved The Muppets.  It was smart, funny, it had memorable character moments, the music was catchy, and I had a stupid smile on my face (and maybe a tear in my eye) the entire time.  It wasn’t perfect, but maybe we don’t need perfection.  Maybe we just need a few filled seats in the audience and a well-placed explosion to declare a job well done.  It’s how Kermit would’ve judged it, and it’s how I want to judge it too.

Okay, that’s not true at all.  We want a brilliant movie.  We want something hilarious and impressive and Oscar-worthy.  And maybe we didn’t quite get all of that, but I’d like to think we came close.

I found it hard to compare this movie to the last few Muppet movies.  Because it’s not a sequel to The Muppet Movie, The Great Muppet Caper, and Muppets Take Manhattan (references to road trips and used car dealerships aside).  It’s “The Muppet Show: The Movie”.  And as a Muppet Show film, I think it works really well.  It has sketches and celebrities, it’s about the backstage struggle of putting on a show, and it ups the ante of the tropes and traditions we’re used to, like the beautiful recreation of The Muppet Show theme song.  Because of all of this, I’m declaring it a success as a Muppet movie.  I’ll leave the review of whether or not it’s a good movie overall to Roger Ebert.

Let’s start by looking at what did and didn’t work in the plot.  I’ve heard some people say that it took too long for the titular Muppets to make an appearance, though I don’t really agree with that.  I loved watching Walter and Gary and Mary sing and dance their way through Smallville (or Tinytown or Littleton or Weehawken or whatever).  And as far as I’m concerned, the Muppets appeared as soon as they got to Hollywood.  Weren’t you picturing the Electric Mayhem in their bus?  Or Fozzie toiling away in his Joke Room?  Or Kermit wearing his tiny, tiny tuxedo?

But back to Gary and Mary for a minute.  I’m glad that they weren’t in the movie as much as the trailers led us to believe, but they were still a welcome presence.  I really empathized with Jason Segel’s Gary, who was simple (but not dumb) and funny (but not goofy) and somewhere between a real person and a fictional character (more on that later).  And his tap dancing sequence at the beginning of the film was a real highlight.  Amy Adams was really loveable as Mary, especially when we got to see her show off her singing and dancing skillz.  I do wish that she had some motivation beyond the quest for marriage, but whatever, it’s not her movie.

The first real Muppets who show up are the villains of the picture.  Statler and Waldorf make their first obligatory cameo (which is good, since overuse of the old hecklers can get real old, real fast), and Tex Richman brings Bobo and Uncle Deadly in tow, which evokes two pleasant feelings in me: We’ll get more Bobo-as-henchman hilarity (one of the saving graces of Muppets From Space), and we actually get to see Uncle Deadly again!  Not that he was the most beloved character or had a huge role in the Muppet Show days, but Jason Segel and James Bobin are actually branching out to the more obscure characters to satisfy the fans and the franchise (more on obscure characters below).

Cut to Kermit in his Sunset Boulevard house.  Some people were bothered by the fact that Kermit has become a recluse, but it really didn’t matter to me.  Why can’t he be a recluse?  He’s been a reporter, an ad man, a dish washer, an accountant, and a sea captain, and those are just from the movies.  What’s important is that Kermit acts like Kermit, which he does.  Except when he doesn’t. (Get ready, here’s gripe #1!)  Kermit spends a significant amount of time in this movie being sad.  Not that he isn’t allowed, but he’s a real Debbie Downer.  First he’s sad that the Muppets are split up, then he’s sad about Fozzie’s crappy life, then that Gonzo won’t come with them, then about his relationship with Piggy, that they need to raise the money, that Tex Richman is a dick, that they lose the theater and the Muppet name, etc etc etc.  As much as I missed the Muppets being on the big screen, I missed Kermit’s happy-go-lucky, slightly frustrated, fairly confident persona.

Moving right along (see what I did there?), the gang picks up Fozzie in a scene that reminded me very much of one from The Blues Brothers, and here is where we’re introduced to the Moopets.  I was totally looking forward to seeing what an evil version of the Muppets would be like, and I was a little let down.  Miss Poogy had a few good lines, but I really wanted to see what each of the counterparts could do other than scowl and wear angry eyebrows.  Missed opportunity or deleted scenes?  We may never know.

Gonzo’s scene was a nice one.  As he’s mellowed over the years (and Dave Goelz as well), his antics have seemed a little less manic and a little more staged.  But since we get to see him as a plumbing magnate first, his nose dive and subsequent arson (with some insurance fraud on the side, I’d wager) is all the more drastic in comparison.  And I loved it.

I’m not sure what to think of Animal’s sequence.  On the one hand, it’s nice to see him get a real B-plot.  But on the other hand, wouldn’t we all just be happy with more of his screaming and drumming and woman-chasing?  Besides, his story mimics a Muppet Show Comic Book storyline a little too closely for my tastes.

I’m glad the Muppets decided to do a montage next, because I really don’t need to devote a paragraph to every character in the car.  Obviously Bunsen and Beaker were part of a larger, edited scene (as they’re the only ones not dragged away by an oversized stage hook), and I was hoping for a little explanation (or even a befuddled comment) on why they needed Crazy Harry and Sam the Eagle.  One is overly cha0tic, the other impedes chaos, and neither make life easier for Kermit.  Still, it must’ve made for an interesting road trip.  But really, isn’t the scene with Sweetums back at Mad Man Mooney’s (and Sons) the best callback ever??  Yes.  Yes it is.

And then there was Piggy.  I think I would’ve rather have seen Piggy the fraud or Piggy the overeager and overconfident nutjob than Piggy the successful fashion magazine editor.  She’s a lot funnier when she’s trying too hard than when she proves to be capable at her job to the point where she’d have an Emily Blunt holding her calls for her.  But I digress.  My real beef is with the fact that we’re never told why she and Kermit had to split.  Or, for that matter, why the Muppets broke up in the first place.  It’s a glaring hole in the story that lingers over their heads for the entirety of the film, though it’s mostly evident when Kermit and Piggy hash out their feelings on the streets of Paris.

The Muppets (mostly) reunited, they then get started on rebuilding the Muppet Theater, and this sequence has many of my favorite scenes.  Fun puppetry tricks (Scooter sweeping, rats skating), fourth wall breaking (another montage!), more Muppet cameos (hey, is that Marvin Suggs??), Beauregard in the closet, some fantastic camerawork, and an awesome/terrible 80s pop song (though as much as I loved it, it would’ve been so much better if the Muppets actually, y’know, sang it).  That’s good stuff right there.

Meanwhile, there’s some non-Muppet stuff going on with Gary and Mary and Walter.  Mary has a good ol’ time by herself in Hollywood (good ol’ times include: Shopping, eating at a diner, singing a song about being alone) while Gary foreshadows the fact that he’ll forget their anniversary.  And Walter needs to find an act to do on stage that doesn’t involve panicking and/or fainting.  With all the Muppet fun going on around us, it was easy to forget that half of the story belongs to Gary and Walter, both of whom are trying hard to figure out what they want to be.  And actually, that’s a compelling story, especially since all of the Muppets already know who they are and rarely require a journey like this.  They’re musicians and comedians and hecklers and artist, and although they might not be successful, they’re well aware of their passions.  It’s cool to see these characters figuring it out for themselves, especially in Walter’s case, as we watch a Muppet discover his true potential.

Over at Evil Oil Barons, Inc., Tex Richman gets to tell off Kermit and his gang in the most entertaining way possible: Through hip hop (with unnecessary, distracting read-along lyrics).  Unfortunately, the soundtrack revealed a big missed opportunity in the form of some cut verses.  Tex sings about his backstory, which explains some important things: He hates the Muppets on a personal level, he is unable to laugh, he has a weakness.  Maybe the on-screen lyrics would’ve made more sense if they contained key information like that.  But hey, at least we got a good song out of it!

The next scene is one that I think most people will end up overlooking, but I liked a lot.  As Kermit sulks away, Miss Piggy takes control of the troops.  She shows the same deranged drive that had her snooping on Kermit in Muppets Take Manhattan, although this time it ended with her kidnapping a celebrity rather than roller skating after a purse thief.  I love seeing that confident Piggy, as opposed to the pig who would stow away in her dressing room until the frog fixes everyone’s problems.  She’s the epitome of the “tough pig”, and I’m glad she got to show it in a way that didn’t involve a well-placed karate chop.

The apex of the Walter/Gary story comes with their “Man or Muppet” duet (or quartet?), and I bet every one of us felt a little something inside that related us to these two mismatched brothers.  Maybe it’s our shared love of the Muppets, or maybe it’s the fact that we feel a little out of sync with the rest of the world, but it’s nice to know we’re not alone.  We’ve got Gary and Walter.

The Muppet Telethon is just chock full of goodness.  Jack Black as the captive celebrity guest, Hobo Joe (and his trash can fire) in the audience, the recreation of The Muppet Show theme song, the very Muppet Show-esque musical numbers of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and “Forget You”, and Walter’s bizarrely entertaining whistling routine (which I liked a lot, but if that’s Walter’s “thing” from now on, it could get dull).  And then the celebrities start to show up, and I’m lost again.  There must be a ton of footage on the cutting room floor of all of these famous people doing funny things, but the end result demotes them to glorified extras.  It’s not like anyone (besides me, of course) found humor in the idea that a superstar like Judd Hirsch is just chilling in the background without any lines (feel free to replace Hirsch with Neil Patrick Harris if you’d like).  And I get it, Muppet movies have celebrity cameos, but this seemed like overkill.  There were so many celebrities, most of them were relegated to blink-and-you’ll-miss-them appearances, which is ultimately disappointing.  Among the ones that did have a good amount of screentime, they were mixed between the well-used (Zach Galifianakis, Jim Parsons, Alan Arkin) and the pointless (Sarah Silverman, Mickey Rooney, Whoopi Goldberg).  And seriously, can we please have a Muppet production without calling on Whoopi?  I think we can try one without her.

The end of the telethon harkens back to one of my favorite Muppet tropes: Try as they might, the Muppets often fail.  I loved the gag that they only raised 1% of the $10 million they needed, and I was shocked that they lost the Muppet Theater and brand name in the end, but it almost makes sense.  Especially when Kermit can prove to you that you don’t need a building or a name to realize your dreams or become a family.  But then that leads to my biggest gripe about the movie by far.

The ending!  Or rather, the lack thereof.  I couldn’t believe it when the words “The End” appeared on the screen.  Sure, Hollywood endings aren’t necessary, but this is the Muppets we’re talking about.  They always have a happy ending, and they have a status quo to get back to after the movie’s over.  The resolution comes about as an afterthought, delivered to us through newspaper clippings and a voiceover by the Muppet Newsman.  And all of it could’ve been fixed with a brief scene or two.  Like, maybe the Muppets make Tex Richman laugh, and he’s so overjoyed that he relinquishes the theater and restores the Muppet name.  Or maybe Uncle Deadly pushes him off another building and kills him.  Either way.

Let’s talk a minute about what we didn’t see in the movie.  There were certain scenes that we know were shot that didn’t make it into the final cut: The cameos by Billy Crystal, Ricky Gervais and Kathy Griffin, the Muppets in prison, Gonzo knocking the bowling pin off Gary’s head, and the extra stuff from the soundtrack.  And I was hoping for a few Muppet movie mainstays, like the obligatory Sesame Street cameo, Scooter selling popcorn, Elliott Gould… okay, I’m nitpicking.  Sorry ’bout that.

One of the biggest treats was all the character-spotting.  We knew about so many of them beforehand (Thog!), so there weren’t a ton of surprises, but it was still amazing to see memorable and hilarious scenes with characters like Wayne and Wanda, Behemoth (or are we calling him “Gene” now?), Link, and so on and so forth.  And yet.  It was weird to get big moments from those characters while practically ignoring Rizzo and Robin.  Though it’s worth it if they had to step aside for the new Muppet characters, which come about far too rarely these days.  I can definitely see a future in the Muppet franchise for Miss Poogy, 80s Robot, and of course, Walter.

Walter has been the biggest gift in the whole movie.  Because, as stated by just about everyone so far, Walter is us.  I related with his character so much, I practically expected him to say that he runs his own website for Muppet Fans Who Grew Up.  Every time he declared his love for the Muppets or fainted at the excitement of getting close to Kermit, I realized that I would’ve reacted the same way if I were in his tiny shoes.  Of course, the biggest hurdle will be finding a place for Walter among the Muppet crew now that his journey of discovery is over.  But I have faith that someone will give him a new quest and we’ll get to see more of the living embodiment of the Muppet fan in whatever the gang does next.

And that’s really what this movie was about.  What’s next.  The Muppets, in the universe of this film, are back.  (Since they never really left in our universe, you see.)  There’s a lot of old and a lot of new in that mix, and they’re just aching with potential.  I’m really happy that we got an amazing Muppet movie, but I’m happier that we finally have hope for the future.  And I bet Walter’s happy about that too.

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by Joe Hennes – Joe@ToughPigs.com



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