Film Review: “The Muppets”

by Gordon Elgart on November 23, 2011

Jason Segel, Amy Adams, Kermit, Walter and Rowlf in THE MUPPETS

starring: Jason Segel, Amy Adams, Chris Cooper, Rashida Jones

written by: Jason Segel and Nicholas Stoller

directed by: James Bobin

MPAA: Rated PG for some mild rude humor

The new Muppets movie (not to be confused with The Muppet Movie) is crowd-pleasingly anachronistic. It’s designed for people who already know they love the Muppets, and I’m not sure it will reach people who aren’t already familiar with the characters. It preaches to the choir — often in an overly treacly way — and although you may laugh yourself silly, the incessant pulling on your heart strings does become somewhat tiresome.

The basic premise of the film — one that works brilliantly — is that Jason Segel’s character Gary has a puppet for a brother. And this puppet, Walter, is obsessed with the Muppets beyond what some might consider healthy. Why is this the case? Is it because he’s a Muppet himself? Stay tuned to find out. And Gary has a girlfriend, Mary, played by Amy Adams in full-on Enchanted mode. And for their anniversary, he’s taking both Mary and Walter to Los Angeles to see the world-famous Muppet Studios. Yet when they arrive, the studios are no longer the beloved paradise they expected, and instead are about to be taken over by an evil developer unless the Muppets can raise ten million dollars in two weeks. But where are the Muppets, and how will they raise the money?

From there, the movie has your basic “get the gang back together to perform one big show” plot that is definitely not new to The Muppets. Since the movie lacks a fourth wall, there’s plenty of commentary on the hackneyed nature of the plot, lots of little musical callbacks to earlier films, and plenty of visual gags. Don’t blink or you’ll miss them.

Of course there are plenty of celebrity cameos, and while I expected to see lots of A-listers from The Muppet Show days, we’re mostly dealing with sitcom stars and friends of the filmmakers. There’s one cameo that had a teenage girl gasping loudly, and I have to admit that because several people appeared onscreen simultaneously, I have no idea who this person was gasping for (pick one: Selena Gomez, Whoopi Goldberg, or Rico Rodriguez). They’re mostly “Hey, that’s nice” cameos as opposed to “Holy crap!” cameos, but if you’re getting gasps from the audience, you must be doing something right. Revealing the cameos in the movie feels like ruining the surprise, so don’t check IMDB. It’s best to go in cold.

Also present are the musical numbers often associated with the Muppets. Some of these are absolutely inspired; in fact, if “Man or Muppet,” written by Flight of the Conchords’ Bret McKenzie, is not a contender for Best Original Song at the Oscars this year, I’ll be very annoyed, although “Life’s a Happy Song” seems to be the one they’ll push for awards. Other songs aren’t quite so hot, although there’s a surprise musical number by the cast member you least expect to burst into song that is both awkward and silly. You’ll know it when you see it. There’s a soundtrack to the movie, and listening to it (or even reading the track listing) pretty much gives away the entire movie, so once again: it’s best to go in cold.

Allow me to Muppet-nerd out for a bit and talk about the performances of the Muppets themselves. Steve Whitmire has the biggest shoes to fill as Kermit the Frog, and he totally knocks it out of the pond here. He’s really got Kermit’s personality down after years of playing the rich and famous frog. And Dave Goelz, still doing Gonzo after all these years, remains pitch perfect. The disappointment to me is Miss Piggy and Fozzie the Bear, both played by Eric Jacobson. Where is Frank Oz? Why is he “too cool” to do his classic Muppet voices? It took Steve Whitmire years to get Kermit right, so I imagine it will take a similar amount of time for Mr. Jacobson to do the same for Fozzie and Piggy. It feels odd to say this, but Kermit and Piggy really didn’t have much screen chemistry.

While the movie is often laugh-out-loud funny, it does wander into sappy territory a little bit too often. Early in the movie, Kermit sings a song about how much he misses the old Muppet days, and I felt a little choked up, but then there’s more and more of the same reminders about how much you miss the Muppets. “Hey everyone — don’t you remember how much you LOVED the Muppets! You still do! You do love the Muppets! You DO! LOVE! Muppets! Love! Don’t forget how much you LOVE them!” And this part feels a bit forced, like it’s trying to deal with the actual universe in which the Muppets have been sold to Disney, and they are a somewhat forgotten property, and this is Disney trying to turn them into a cash cow again. I get it, but when the violins swell up again, and we’re supposed to be touched again, it’s a little much.

Of course, this all may affect you, and you may weep constantly. When you watch a near-perfect representation of what an old episode of The Muppet Show was (including celebrity guest), you may have to fight back tears. There’s no doubt that if you grew up with the Muppets and love them like old childhood friends, this is the movie for you.

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The Muppets opens nationwide today. Also note that a new Toy Story short, “Small Fry,” runs before the main feature starts. This short will be very funny for anyone who ever got a toy in their fast food meal as a kid, and mildly amusing for anyone who doesn’t understand the utter crappiness of these toys. Don’t show up late.

Gordon Elgart

A music nerd who probably uses that term too much. I have a deep love for bombastic, quirky and dynamic music.

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

DJKuulA November 23, 2011 at 8:01 am

Frank Oz didn’t like the script, apparently. So much for that Yoda cameo. . .

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Ben November 28, 2011 at 7:30 am

We saw it yesterday with the kids and everyone liked it. I agree that some bits were a little overly sentimental, and that this was very much as you said a movie for folks who already love the Muppets. There were definitely parts where you laugh out loud.

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