Thursday, November 24, 2011

Inspirational Celebrational Muppetational: THE MUPPETS

Now this is the Muppets! Jim Henson’s cast of lovable, furry misfits, oddballs, and weirdoes from The Muppet Show and several delightful feature films, haven’t been seen on the big screen for twelve years, languishing all this time in a couple TV specials and a handful of YouTube videos. They haven’t been gone, not exactly, but they haven’t been a cultural presence the way they once were. Since Henson’s untimely death in 1990, the characters have seemed every-so-slightly lost. This new feature, called simply The Muppets, reintroduces them in the biggest, funniest, loveliest, way possible. This is a hugely satisfying film that scrambles all definitions of kids’ films and grown-ups’ films, a giddy nostalgic reunion with old friends, and an unmitigated success.

The Muppets have found a great new voice, one that sounds as close to their old voice as possible without Henson, in co-writers Jason Segel and Nicholas Stoller. You might remember their Apatow production Forgetting Sarah Marshall in which the main character wants to produce an all-puppet Dracula musical. That film’s grand finale was that production, complete with sweet song-and-felt numbers. Of course, that film was most definitely R, but their love of G-rated Muppetry was obvious in that sequence. The Muppets have an earnest and earned innocence, a broad delight in vaudevillian antics, puns, slapstick, heartfelt musical numbers and staying true to yourself while sticking by your closest friends. Segel and Stoller get that perfectly in a splashy, witty musical with great numbers written by Bret McKenzie of Flight of the Conchords, who knows a thing or two about funny songs. Together they create a film that starts by acknowledging that the world has seemingly left the Muppets behind, but, even if unexpressed, the world is desperately in need of their return.

At the film’s start we’re introduced to Gary (Segel), a human, and his brother Walter, a Muppet in Smalltown, USA. They’re big fans of The Muppet Show and plan a trip with Gary’s girlfriend, Mary (Amy Adams), to Los Angeles, the main attracting being the Muppet Studios. They set off to L.A. on a bus by way of a musical number. When they arrive at their destination, they’re disappointed to discover the place run down, an unenthused tour guide informing them that the Muppets haven’t been seen in years. Poking around the rundown buildings on his own, Walter overhears the property’s owner, Tex Richman (Chris Cooper), explaining to Statler and Waldorf (the old heckling duo) his plans for bulldozing the place to drill for oil. The Muppets would need ten million dollars to buy back the old theater.

Horrified, Walter sets out determined to save the Muppet Theater. Luckily, he eventually runs into Kermit the Frog and convinces him to try and raise the money by getting the old gang back together and putting on a show. Why not? After all, it was Mickey Rooney himself who helped see Gary, Mary, and Walter off at the Smalltown bus stop. So, Kermit his new pals set off to gather up all the Muppets they can find, all of whom have long since gone their separate ways. Some are struggling, singing in a Muppet tribute band at a shady hotel lounge, for instance. Others are doing reasonably well for themselves, like working at Vogue’s Paris bureau. Regardless of circumstance, though, most are more than happy to jump back into their old variety show ways. It’s an utter delight to see the Muppets reunite one by one: Fozzie Bear, Gonzo, Animal, Rowlf, and Miss Piggy. And what would a Muppet movie be without Dr. Bunsen Honeydew and Beaker? Sam Eagle? The Swedish Chef? Dr. Teeth? They’re all here and more besides, including some ingenious celebrity cameos I wouldn’t dare spoil.

What makes the movie so very entertaining is the nonstop hilarity that comes from a sweet, good-natured desire to do nothing more bring joy and laughter to the world. The script is filled with funny meta flourishes that comment on the Muppets’ faded cultural status and extended absence as well as the film’s very nature as a film. In an opening sequence, a terrific Broadway-style musical number, there is a pause in the music and the dancing townsfolk are seen lounging around, waiting for their cue to start up again. Later, plot points are resolved through literal movie magic. How to drive to Europe? Let’s go by map! How to pick up all the rest of the Muppets in a timely manner? Use a montage! Director James Bobin, veteran of TV comedy, brings an effortless cinematic quality to such playful filmmaking, allowing these gorgeously simple piece of felt to find their footing once again without ever once letting it feel dated or quaint. He wrangles the production well. The familiar felt faces (performed and voiced by Steve Whitmire, Eric Jacobson, Dave Goelz, Bill Barretta, David Rudman, and Matt Vogel) mix well with the game human cast, who are entirely unselfconscious in the face of such broad and varied, smiling wit and whimsy. The film’s hip, clever, and witty without feeling edgy or contemporary. It has the timeless feel you’d want.

What makes the movie somewhat moving is the way it uses new Muppet Walter to illuminate that which has always made the Muppets so singularly special. They’re all misfits in some way. They’re too loud, too corny, and too musical. They try their hardest and seem unfazed when they fail. They’re not afraid to get mad at each other, but they’re even less afraid of forgiving each other. They’re friends and colleagues who have come together in spite of their weirdness, united by their desire to bring happiness into the world and to celebrate the weirdness, the boundless hope and enthusiasm that makes them so wonderful. Walter doesn’t fit in. But with the Muppets, he can find acceptance. The Muppets have always communicated this message. It gets better. All you have to do is be yourself and there’s a chance that you’ll find just the right group of misfits who love the same things you do, who support you every step of the way, and who will pick up a friendship right where it left off, even if it’s been years. The humor and the wisdom of the Muppets come from their unwavering consistency of personality. They are who they are.

I hadn’t seen these guys on the big screen since 1996’s Muppet Treasure Island. So, I was somewhat surprised to find that, as I waited all day to see an evening show of The Muppets, I felt a rare anticipation of the kind I associate only with childhood Christmas Eves. The film was a present worth waiting for. It’s the funniest movie of the year, the best movie musical in many a year, and a film so purely, warmly enjoyable that I had a smile on my face from the first scene to the last credit. It’s a joyous return for these characters, a generous, contagious, blast of effervescent exuberance and fun that recaptures the old magic. The film’s working title was The Greatest Muppet Movie Ever Made. I’d imagine a humble deference to the characters’ legacy caused the change, but now having seen it, that original title would have barely been hyperbole. This is as good as these iconic characters have ever been and certainly their best feature film since 1979’s The Muppet Movie. It’s truly a rekindled rainbow connection. Welcome back, Muppets!

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