Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The Muppets

Review by Pete Roche

It’s been over three decades since Jim Henson’s Muppets first played the music, lighted the lights, and got things started on their popular variety show.  A couple feature films succeeded 1979’s THE MUPPET MOVIE, but later entries like MUPPETS TREASURE ISLAND and MUPPETS FROM SPACE were lost on the franchise’s original audience (who’d grown up) and couldn’t grab new viewers—who’d fallen under the spells of Barney and Teletubbies.  Kermit and friends weren’t entirely forgotten, but after 1990 the ensemble slipped into a sort of limbo.  It’s not easy being green.

But now the gang (who are now a Disney property) is movin’ right along again in THE MUPPETS.  When Kermit super-fan Walter (Peter Linz) overhears oil baron Tex Richman’s (Chris Cooper) plan to bulldoze the long-abandoned Muppets Theater, he embarks on a quest to find his ping pong-eyed idol and warn him.

Walter’s more than a little personally invested in this; he’s a Muppet himself—but has yet to truly embrace his identity.  It helps to put aside questions about why Walter’s brother Gary (Jason Segel) is human.  We don’t meet their parents, but it’s implied one of them must be a Muppet, too—which suggests a bizarre consummation of flesh and felt.  But the laws of biology never really applied to Kermit and his friends, who haven’t visibly aged in thirty-five years. 

Fortunately, Gary’s fiancé is human (Amy Adams).  She accompanies the brothers to Tinseltown to reunite the Muppets for one last hurrah—a telethon to raise the ten million dollars needed to save their historic home.  But wrangling the puppet posse takes time, since everyone is now off doing his own thing.  Fozzie Bear is working his waka-waka in Reno with a roughshod tribute act called The Moopets.  Animal, volatile percussionist of The Electric Mayhem, is in an anger management clinic—where he’s susceptible to a certain trigger word.  Gonzo the Great oversees a plumbing business but secretly pines for a return to showbiz.  Only Parisian fashion editor Miss Piggy is reluctant to reenlist; she’s still nursing  a broken heart from her on again-off again relationship with the frog (they were wed at the end of 1984's MUPPETS TAKE MANHATTAN).  Ah, but even the soprano swine comes round after the troupe convinces dubious, coffee-swilling T.V. exec Veronica (Rashida Jones) to broadcast their fundraiser. 

The sequel-cum-reboot is one of those musical comedies wherein the principal characters know they’re in a movie and occasionally allude to their ongoing participation in it.  For example, after picking up two or three Muppets, Kermit’s chauffeur—80’s Robot—suggests herding the rest by way of montage.  The Smalldale townsfolk collapse after Gary and Mary’s strenuous goodbye dance routine.  Rowlf the Dog quips about the presentation of his own back story, and Red Bull-chugging Richman verbally cues his cronies’ “maniacal laugh.”

THE MUPPETS is both colorful and clever enough to sustain the attention of post-millennial youngsters who are more familiar with Elmo than Gonzo.  It’ll also tug the heartstrings of parents who grew up watching the Muppets’ British-produced weekly show from 1976-81.  Henson died in 1990, but gosh darn if his banjo-plucking amphibian (voiced by Steve Whitmire) doesn’t get the waterworks pumping again with Paul Williams’ “Rainbow Connection.”  That’s no small feat for a fifty-year old glorified sock puppet, who in 2011 vies for toddler time with CGI superheroes, teenage sorcerers, love-struck vampires, and shape-shifting robots.  Hats off to co-writers Segel and Nicholas Stoller, whose script accommodates all Muppets great and small—from Swedish Chef, Dr. Bunsen Honeydew and Beaker, Sam the Eagle, to perennial hecklers Statler and Waldorf—and imparts feel-good, kid-friendly lessons about laughter, cooperation, caring, and discovering one’s hidden talents.

The soundtrack strikes a terrific balance between new and old, revisiting “Rainbow Connection” and nonsense-syllable song “Mah-na Mah-na” while offering fresh numbers by Bret McKenzie (the cheery “Life’s a Happy Song,” and Jim Steinman-esque power ballad “Man or Muppet”).  Paul Simon hit “Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard” works well during Walter’s expository speech, and the Muppet Barbershop Quartet twist on Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” is a showstopper.

 Jack Black plays reluctant special guest for the telethon (which meticulously recreates The Muppet Show opening) while Zach Galifianakis’ hobo watches from the seats.  Other cameos include Dave Grohl, Mickey Rooney, Selena Gomez, John Kasinski, Neil Patrick Harris, and Whoopie Goldberg.  But this writer wouldn’t have minded a few reappearances by old-school Muppet Show guests (Steve Martin, Julie Andrews, Alice Cooper, Elton John, etc.), to bring the affair full-circle.  But these aren’t my Muppets anymore—and many of the stars from the T.V. show have long since passed (Peter Sellers, Bob Hope, Dom Deluise, Vincent Price).  With THE MUPPETS 2011, Kermit and company are successfully given over to a new generation of joy-seekers—who will hopefully catch on to the magic they’ve been missing. 

The movie is preceded by outrageous new TOY STORY short, Small Fry, wherein Buzz Lightyear is kidnapped by a pint-sized doppelganger after Bonnie lunches at a fast food joint.  The Poultry Palace support group for discarded happy meal toys is another stellar example of Pixar comedy brilliance.

3 out of 4 stars.

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