On Thursday night, I attended an advance screening of “The Muppets”, which is the Stallone-esque title of the new film starring The Muppets and their infinitely-growing list of celebrity friends.
I’ve been anticipating this film for a long time. I’m an almost-lifelong fan of the Muppets, and yet I’ve never seen one of their movies in a theater (though I have rewatched their classic films MANY times, loving each one more each time I watch it). I also greatly enjoy Flight of the Conchords and most of the works of Jason Segel. I tried to be cautious with my optimism, but every new bit of information just made me more and more excited for the film until I had it built up in my head as not only the greatest movie ever made, but also the cure to twelve known diseases and six unknown.
So I went into this film attempting to suppress my excitement, but not so much that I would have a bad attitude that would taint my perception of the movie, so I wanted to leave just enough optimism that I noticed the goodness of the film, but not so much that I ignored any room for improvement. And I wanted to have fun.
Man, watching movies is stressful.
In the end? The film was quite good. Not perfect by any means, but easily the best Muppets flick since “The Muppet Christmas Carol”, which until now went unchallenged as the best of the post-Henson era.
The film’s biggest flaws are related to pacing. With nearly every classic Muppet making an appearance (even Uncle Deadly, even Nigel the conductor, even Marvin Suggs, EVEN WAYNE AND FREAKING WANDA), plus four main human characters, a brand-new Muppet character, and an array of celebrity cameos, there are a lot of people to split the screentime. Much like Segel and Stoller’s “Forgetting Sarah Marshall”, some subplots aren’t developed as much as they should be, while others have too much time spent on them. (One self-playing celebrity in particular is heavily involved in one of the subplots, and while I didn’t mind his role, I’m sure there will be a faction of people who aren’t thrilled.) I almost found myself wishing the movie was longer, just to give everybody the time they deserved.
But regardless of any rushed or drawn out subplots, there’s still plenty of time for musical numbers, like in any good Muppet movie. (Take that, “From Space”!) “Life’s a Happy Song”, which has been consistently stuck in my head ever since it was first leaked to the internet not long ago, is a delightful opening number, which somehow manages to sound entirely like a Muppet song, and yet still have a hint of Bret McKenzie’s Flight of the Conchords sensibility. “Pictures in my Head” is a real tearjerker, and “Man or Muppet” manages to be both emotional and hilarious at the same time. There are several other musical moments, including various pop songs and classic Muppet tunes (and yes, I got chills seeing the “Muppet Show” theme performed on the big screen), but the funniest musical moment in the film is Fozzie’s performance with the Moopets in Reno. It will make any Muppet fan simultaneously laugh, cringe, and want to hug the poor guy.
Segel and Amy Adams are well cast as Gary and Mary, the cutest couple in Smalltown, USA (you can tell it’s a charming small town when it’s shot on the same backlot as “Gilmore Girls”‘ Stars Hollow). They are full of the naive charm fans of “How I Met Your Mother” and “Enchanted” expect from them, even though Adams in particular isn’t really given very much to do–their entire relationship subplot is only focused on in a few brief sequences (which may still be a few too many for some anti-Human Character purists), and it’s mostly used as a parallel and a motivator to the film’s real romantic relationship, Kermit and Miss Piggy.
I suspect the fact that the human characters come off as flatter and more cartoonish than the Muppets was no accident. Regardless of knee-jerk reactions to early advertising from paranoid purists, this is a Muppets movie, and any humans are mere props, just there to set up whatever the Muppets will do next.
Speaking of the characterization, that’s one of the two places the post-Henson Muppet projects have always fallen flat. Much like Mickey Mouse, Kermit the Frog has often been Flanderized to his blandest, sappiest extreme, with his stubbornness and his tendency to be stressed out often overlooked. Fortunately, Segel and Stoller know these characters. A lot of time has passed in-universe for the Muppets, with a lot of changes for the group, but they’re still true to their classic selves in a way they haven’t been in a long time. Even Walter, who isn’t very remarkable of a character by Muppet standards, has an extremely relatable internal struggle. Admittedly, his arc is fairly complete by the end of the film and it’s hard to tell if there’s really any potential for future Walter appearances, but for the purposes of the movie, he’s a fine addition.
The other place that Muppet projects have fallen flat without Henson is innovation. Jim Henson was ALWAYS trying new things. Since his death, however, there’s been a lot less creativity in Muppet projects. I don’t mean in the stories or jokes, but in the production and the artistry. And sadly, this film doesn’t do much to turn that around. In the first three films, the mere act of bicycle riding would be enough to make me shout “How did they DO that?” There are almost no scenes here that prompt that reaction. (On the plus side, it means I’m not being taken out of the movie to think about the production.)
In a way, this movie embraces the opposite of innovation by focusing almost entirely on nostalgia. There are several direct references to the original three Muppet theatrical flicks. Clips from classic Muppet Show episodes are used, including audio snippets of the introductions to the “Veterinarian’s Hospital” and “Pigs In Space” sketches. Kermit’s office is filled with pictures of him with classic Muppet Show guest stars (and one picture in the center of him with Jim Henson, the mere sight of which almost brought me to tears, as did the Henson banner outside the theater). The end credits sequence is exactly what you (probably) think it is, and it brings everything full circle to the first episode of the show.
But while the movie does get a little heavy on the “remember-when-we-did-this”, it still leaves room for “well-now-we’re-doing-this”. We get to see what The Muppet Show would look like if it were still on today–not that different from how it looked in 1976, although with younger guest stars and a few more current songs. The Muppets at their best seamlessly blended innocent kindness with just a hint of subversive-but-not-quite-cynical edginess–sometimes leaning surprisingly far on the edgy side, like in Henson’s Wilkins Coffee commercials, but far too often resorting to watered-down, insincere, “safe” blandness in the post-Henson era. But with this movie, the Muppets have their edge back, without ever losing sight of their heart.
And that brings us back to the movie’s central question: do the Muppets still fit in with the pop culture landscape? Is there still a place for them in a world of far more cynical entertainment? I think that question is answered by the people of all ages, from grandparents to teenagers to toddlers, who were sitting in that theater with me, more excited than you can imagine to spend an hour and a half with Kermit and the gang.
This is a movie about the Muppets. It’s also a movie about what it means to be a Muppet fan. Heck, it’s a movie about what it means to be a fan of anything. It’s about looking for the place where you fit in. It’s about making up for past regrets. It’s about swallowing your pride when it comes to the ones you love. It’s about growing up and moving on with your life, but it’s also about holding onto your just-slightly-edgy innocence in a world that’s gone way too cynical. It’s about warmth, laughter, tears, and hope. It’s not the best Muppet movie ever made. But as I think back on the movie, even my criticisms bug me less than less as I remember the joy the movie gave me as a whole. The scenes and gags that don’t work will be easy to skip on DVD, and the gags that DO work still make me chuckle thinking about them. The songs are still catchy, the moving parts still make me sniffle.
And this is just after one viewing. I can’t even imagine what I’ll feel after my several thousand subsequent viewings.