Monday, November 28, 2011

The Muppets

2011, James Bobin -- Theatre

For people of a certain age, let's say those currently aged 30-39, the Muppets are iconic. The Muppet Show, which ran for 5 seasons from 1976-1981 (and in re-runs for years afterwords) and the Muppet Babies cartoon (which ran even longer from 1984-1991)were defining products of our generation. The Muppet movies, TV specials, and records/cassettes all contributed the overwhelming imprint Jim Henson's not-quite-puppets had on young minds around the world. Henson was a man of magic, and since Henson's death in 1990, it goes without saying, that a large part of that magic has been lost, much in the same way that the magic of childhood dissipates as one ages.

The awe and wonder of the Muppets has waned dramatically since their heyday in the early 1980's, to the point that children these days are only familiar with the characters by way of their parents keeping the nostalgia alive. Every Muppets endeavour over the past 20 years has been a product of nostalgia, even (or especially) the award winning Muppet Bohemian Rhapsody.

But if the numbers on that youtube video (over 23 million strong) speaks to anything at all, it is the potential for the Muppets to continue to attract and entertain an audience, even if it is an aging one.

The Walt Disney Company purchased the Muppets in 2004, and the cynicism of fans was palpable especially given the name shift from Jim Henson's The Muppets to Disney's The Muppets. The expectation was that the Muppets would be commoditized and commercialized as if it weren't a commercial commodity already. At the same time there was at least some hope that perhaps Disney could do something to make the Muppets relevant again.

As the years dragged on, with only the amusing (and successful) youtube video series and a few lackluster TV movies, it seemed there wasn't much to hope for if you were a fan of the Muppets, that you'd have to take what you could get and a full-on revival/restoration of your youth was out of the question.

In 2008, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, the latest success in the Judd Apatow-produced lineup, emerged and was a fairly big success and its writer and star Jason Segal emerged from it with a surprising amount of clout. Within the film, Segal's character discussed, and realized, his dream of making a Muppet-style Broadway show out of Dracula. As Segal promoted the film he expressed both a deeply-felt love for the Muppets and a deep desire to make a new Muppets film.

With a successful sitcom (How I Met Your Mother) and another successful feature (I Love You Man) in his repertoire, as well as his earnest love for the Muppets, Segal was granted an audience with Disney to pitch a new Muppets film, which has led to the emergence of Disney's The Muppets in theatres this weekend.

With such passion, these kinds of projects can either be naturally successful or deeply misguided. I think most Muppets fans (of the 30-39 age group variety) could see the synergy between Segal, an accessible actor and a well-observed comedic writer, and the beloved characters of their youth. But the hesitation from some, given the nature of the work of most Apatow proteges, or even cynicism still stemming from the "Disney" acquisition is natural.

Segal as star and writer of the new Muppets feature, I am pleased to say, gets it. He understands that what this film needs to be is both a reintroduction to fans of old and an introduction to a new generation. It needs to be familiar without treading the same ground as films past, adhering to formula but without being too formulaic. It needs to be more comedically savvy for a modern audience without alienating children. It needs to acknowledge nostalgia without succumbing to it. It needs to be self-aware without being too arch. It needs to be both character-driven and comedy-driven. A film like this had a lot of demands upon it, and Segal adeptly rose to the challenge. It's not perfect, but it's still a pretty terrific and entertaining movie.

The Muppets is more mature than any Muppets film ever has been, yet is still exceedingly innocent and accessible in that maturity. The main players in the film are Gary (Segal), his girlfriend of 10 years Mary (Amy Adams), his brother Walter (the Muppet Walter), and Kermit, with all the other Muppets rounding out the supporting cast, and Chris Cooper as the villain of the piece.

Gary, Mary and Walter live in a small, stagnant small Pleasantville-esque town where style and etiquette haven't evolved much since the 1950's (even if gender politics and access to later-generation television programmes have) and where a song and dance sequence isn't out of the ordinary. Through a flashback montage sequence narrated by Walter, we learn how he discovered that he wasn't exactly normal and how he became one of the biggest Muppets fans ever, connecting deeply with them for obvious reasons.

Gary and Walter are as tight as brothers can be, which gets in the way of Gary and Mary's relationship, to the point that Walter somewhat shanghai's the couple's trip to LA leading them to a life-altering trip to the desolate, decrepit Muppets Studios where Walter hears the plans of an Oil Baron (Cooper) to tear it all down and dig. Naturally this leads them to seek out Kermit, who has become somewhat reclusive (though not in the overtly crazy variety) in his grown-over estate home. Upon hearing the fate of his studio, he decides to get the gang back together for a last-ditch effort to save their old home.

The meat of the film is not in the story, but in the character details, the parallels in the relationships of Kermit and Piggy and Gary and Mary, as well as Gary and Walter's familial bond. Everything, naturally turns out as it so obviously is orchestrated to, to a degree anyway, but the journey is no less affecting and effective.

The third act, consisting of a Muppet Show telethon revival hosted by a reluctant Jack Black, is the films nostalgic highlight, capturing much of the gleeful, whimsical magic of the original Muppet Show, but also adding in the behind-the-scenes walk-and-talk of a Larry Sanders Show or Sports Night (without being all that dramatic about it).

The original musical numbers, largely provided by Flight of the Conchords' Bret McKenzie, aren't perhaps as infectious as Paul Williams' classics, but they're both wry like Conchords tunes and accessible, with "Muppet or a Man" being perhaps the comedic highlight of the film (for some perhaps because of, or for me in spite of Jim Parson's involvement). I'll even go so far as to say it has Oscar-winning potential.

There are aspects of the film I'm less than impressed with, key among them being the short shrift given to most of the other major Muppets in favor of Walter, Gary and Mary. Walter, more than Segal or Kermit, is the film's center, and in introducing a new Muppet of such prominence, I would have hoped for something at least more visually distinctive, more marketable. I just don't see Walter being a big part of the Muppet pantheon in the future. He's at best Scooter-level, but even then not likely to be as popular. I'm also disappointed for the film not breaking out a "Trololo Man" homage for the big finale, which would have been absolutely perfect. There are other smaller elements, like some awkward cameos (also some great cameos, what would a Muppets movie be without cameos? Zach Galifianakis as a hobo anyone?), and Chris Cooper's rap (which may be parodying this video, and if it's not let's just pretend it is), but the entertainment and warmth of the overall film makes up for the few gaffs

Yet, despite this, Segal's greatest accomplishment with the film isn't in bringing the Muppets back to big screen in a big way, but in bringing the Muppets back in the hearts and minds of the audience. Only the most jaded Muppets fan won't feel the swelling warmth as the Muppets come together, as the telethon builds, and the film's sweeping climax (Yes, that means you Frank Oz). Yes, certain key Muppets players weren't involved in this film but at the same time, this is the first step in "Disney's The Muppets" (even though I still long for it to be called Jim Henson's The Muppets for infinity), the Muppets for a new generation as well as the old generation. (The whole cynicism around the "big company" acquiring the rights to the Muppets and turning them into something else is even addressed head on in the film... Meet the Moopets, everyone).

The film puts the best case together for a Muppets Show revival, a Saturday Night Live for the entire family, one that entertains on all levels. There's likely a long list of celebrities that would clamor to appear on it. That is, of course, if the Muppets is successful (but that won't likely be decided until it hits the aftermarket. It did respectable numbers this weekend but was still overshadowed by Twilight, though if it has strong legs throughout the holiday season it may be a solid hit).

Disney, to its credit, promoted the film smartly, with a healthy build-up using parody trailers emulating hit films rather than relying upon peoples' fondness for Kermit and co. They also kept rather quiet that there was a ridiculously entertaining Toy Story short before the film, another property which has proven increasingly enduring and endearing (but I'll have more on that soon).