Saturday, November 26, 2011

The Muppets (2011)

I've been a fan of the Muppets for as long as I can remember. A true child of the 70's, I grew up watching Sesame Street, and some of my earliest memories involve Big Bird, Cookie Monster, Bert and Ernie, Grover and Kermit the Frog. Ah, Kermit. When people ask me who my favorite Muppet character is...a question that comes up more often for me than it probably does for you--my response is usually something along these lines:

"Well, I love Gonzo. Gonzo's like a brother to me. I understand him, I love him. But Kermit is what I aspire to become. A leader, a friend, a kind, generous, loving person." Those of you that know me know that I have a long way to go to becoming more Kermitlike, but that's my aspiration. I literally look up to a puppet. Part of that is the role Jim Henson had in taking the puppet-television format and folding into something both educational and entertaining; part of it is his larger vision of peaceful harmony with people (and species) that are different from you, so evident in Sesame Street, The Muppet Show, and Fraggle Rock; part of it is simply that I think the Muppets are funny and make me happy. So when Jim Henson passed away two decades ago, I think I probably took it harder than was psychologically good for me. And it's taken some time to get over that loss. It's only been since getting married and having kids of my own that I'm able to watch A Muppet Christmas Carol without spiraling into a period of mourning (good thing I don't drink)(yet) for both Jim Henson and performer Richard Hunt, who died shortly after Jim did.

Each new Muppet project after Jim passed away moved me a little more into accepting a "new" Kermit, and eventually a new Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear, etc. If I want the Muppets to continue being "alive," then I need to accept new performers for old favorite characters...but I want them to be performing something good--something I want to see, and recommend to friends without couching it in "well, it's good for me, because I'm a Muppet fan." And even though each new project--Muppet Treasure Island, Muppets From Space, It's a Very Merry Muppet Christmas Movie, and even Muppets Wizard of Oz--had moments that were great, on the whole, they're weaker than any of the "Jim Henson era" movies. Until now.

The Muppets opened about 72 hours ago, and I've already seen it twice. I'm sure I'll see it at least one more time in theatres before it's off the big screen. Most people who see movies or watch television have seen trailers or commercials for this movie over the last few months, but obsessed Muppet fans like me have known about the pitch and planning and making of this movie for four years now. The anticipation, excitement, and fear has been building for that long. Which can make the first viewing more an exercise in checklists than anything else. "How many lines will Rowlf have?" "Will Janice say something inappropriate about nudity?" "Will Crazy Harry get to blow something up?" ...when it's twelve years between Muppet movies, there are a lot of pent-up lists.

To get to the review part of things, I loved it. I loved this movie. I don't think it was perfect (for some reasons I'll get to in a minute), but I loved it. It made me happy. It reminded me of all the many reasons I love the Muppets. I laughed out loud, I was moved, it made me reflect on my own life in ways that I didn't think a Muppet movie would.

I loved that instead of playing pirates or Dickensian urchins or Munchkins, the Muppets are themselves. They're back. And that incldues characters that haven't been seen much since Jim Henson and Richard Hunt passed away. Scooter, Rowlf, Janice, Sweetums, Dr. Teeth--they've all been relatively mute for about twenty years. Seen in the background, but mostly absent. They're back, and they have new performers, and Scooter in particular has as much to do here as he's ever had in any Muppet movie. Even though those characters aren't, and will never be, as high profile as Kermit the Frog, Fozzie Bear, or Miss Piggy, they're part of the family, and to have them missing in action for twenty years was sad. Having them back is a major win for Muppet fans.

Even more remarkable is the incredibly obscure characters that writer/co-star Jason Segel got rebuilt and back into the movie that haven't been seen since the earliest days of The Muppet Show: Uncle Deadly, a blue dragon-like character is a major villain in the movie; the singing duet Wayne and Wanda get a big laugh when the power goes out; even the freakishly enormous (bigger than Sweetums) Thog. After every Muppet movie/tv special up until this point, I've found myself saying, "yeah, it would have been better--more Muppety--with this character, or that character..." Not this time. I was amazed at how many characters were worked into this production.

The songs, written by Bret McKenzie (from Flight of the Conchords) are fun, funny, and very...Muppety, even when the Muppets aren't the ones singing them. My favorite new song is probably "Life's a Happy Song," which both opens and closes the movie. Others are the heartbreaking "Pictures in My Mind" that Kermit sings, and the song "Man or Muppet," which hits the nail on the head a little too precisely for my comfort. Which made me laugh at myself, and Jason Segel, and Walter. More on him in a second. There are also versions of some of the Muppets' greatest songs: "Rainbow Connection," "The Muppet Show Theme," and "Mahna-Mahna" are all in the movie, so there's a good chance there'll be something there for any Muppet fan, old or new.

There's one new Muppet character worked into the mix, and I was prepared to hate him. Walter is Gary's (Jason Segel) brother in the movie, and he's a Muppet fan. Like...a huge Muppet fan. And my weirdo internet friends. He has Muppet stickers on his bed, and posters on his wall, and a Kermit watch, and shelves full of Muppet toys. He has dreams about Muppets, he wants to be a Muppet. And holy crap, it's like Jason Segel (who seems a bit like Walter himself in interviews I've seen with him)(frog bless him) gets what it's like to be that guy. I was waiting for a joke to go too far, or for a dig to be too personal, but man. Walter IS me. And even if you're not a Muppet fan, you understand that level of love and fandom for whatever it is that you love--through Walter. He's a sweet, well thought-out character who seems as real and human as anyone else, but still as silly and fun as the Muppets themselves are. He's got a simple design, but it's really the writing, and the amazing performance by Peter Linz that makes Walter live. I went in with a big chip on my shoulder, because how DARE they try to push some new kid into my Muppet family, but I ended up loving him. And it didn't take long.

My only real problems with the movie are things that I think are so nitpicky and obsessive and fannish that they wouldn't be noticed by, or wouldn't annoy, your average moviegoer/casual fan of the Muppets. And that's just that several elements of the plot are recycled. "Let's get the gang back together and put on a show" is part of The Muppet Movie, The Muppets Take Manhattan, and It's a Very Merry Muppet Christmas Movie. And that's an enjoyable part of those movies. I didn't feel like I needed to see it again. That said, the way they handle it in The Muppets, and the twelve years since they've been on the big screen, make it a little more poignant. And doing it via montage made it pretty darn funny. Then there are things on my own personal checklist, like me wanting Janice to say something inappropriate, or Gonzo being a little wackier, or wanting Link from Pigs in Space to have a line or two...things that don't matter nearly as much as the big picture.

That big picture is that the Muppets finally feel like they're back. For possibly the first time ever, I don't think I ever thought, "well, this isn't the Jim Henson Kermit, this is the Steve Whitmire Kermit." He was just Kermit. And it didn't matter that Frank Oz wasn't involved, because Miss Piggy and Fozzie Bear and Animal are in good hands, and they are funny, and poignant, and loved. This is the Muppet movie I've been waiting for. Not just for four years, but for twenty. I'm so glad Jason Segel pushed for it. I'm glad Disney made it. I'm glad the performers did such an amazing job with it. They put everything they had into this one, and it shows. I'm proud to be a fan of such a great movie. Thanks guys.


  1. Really enjoyed your review, Quinn! Pretty much summed up what I thought of the movie (which I've also seen twice).

  2. Well said! I was prepared to hate the new Muppet, too, but he was really likable.