02 December 2011

‘The Muppets’ Redux

Once more, with felt: “The Rainbow Connection”

The Muppets is a love story, one of the best I’ve seen in a long time, but perhaps not the way you expect it to be. Sure, we do get an update on the romance between Kermit and Miss Piggy, but the real love story is between Jason Segel, a writer, producer, and star of this movie, and the Muppets themselves. You don’t need to see a single background interview to understand what’s going on here: Segel has been a Muppets fan since boyhood, and he took it upon himself to bring the gang back for another adventure. What’s more, he cared enough to get it right.

Gable and Lombard. Tracy and Hepburn.
Frog and Pig.

The Muppets is also a movie musical, of a kind that Hollywood quit making and barely remembers how to make: here again, you sense an underlying affection that compels the creative team to get it right.

The result is a joyous reunion, a group hug, full of corny jokes and almost-corny songs. It is, in short, just about everything you want a Muppet movie to be, and if you have any kind of nostalgic feeling for these characters, you can expect to wipe away a tear or two before the show is over.

Welcome back.

One of the movie’s cleverest gambits, however, is not to cast Segel himself as a Muppet-mad fan who reconvenes the fuzzy stars. Instead, that role is delegated to Segel’s brother, a new Muppet named Walter, whose quest to find others like himself doesn’t seem nearly as obsessive or creepy as a grownup’s story might. Still, Segel’s Gary is a childlike soul, whose love for his brother is not unlike one’s love for a favorite toy, even as it is solicitous and oriented toward guiding Walter to a well-adjusted, grownup future.

How I Met Your Muppet:
Somewhere in this picture, you may find
Jason Segel and Amy Adams.

Walter isn’t terribly interesting, however, and I can only hope that he helps the very youngest audiences to find their way into the Muppet universe: clearly, they’re meant to identify with him.

Gamely trying (and mostly failing) to find her place in this brotherly bromance is Gary’s neglected girlfriend. Amy Adams is thoroughly charming as Mary, smiling sunnily like Debbie Reynolds or any of the great movie-musical ingénues — and yet she’s cracking just a little teeny bit more with each successive scene.

Walter and Gary (Jason Segel)

Chris Cooper is on hand as the villainous Tex Richman, a tycoon bent on destroying what’s left of the Muppets’ career, and Rashida Jones is the television executive who takes a gamble on a Muppets telethon. Effective as these actors are, they don’t possess nearly the star wattage that Muppet movies of old engaged, and even the cameos are given over primarily to TV stars, where once they would have been A-listers.

While there’s nothing particularly wrong artistically with this parade of lesser stars, and while it was probably cost-effective, too, it does deprive an audience of some of the fun and the surprise we’ve always found in watching better-known (human) performers frolic, both on The Muppet Show and in the Muppet movies, and, for that matter, on Sesame Street.

Diabolical laughter: Cooper as Tex Richman, with his henchmen.

Still, so much is right, as I say, precisely matching the tone of the old shows, that chutzpah-fortified mix of authentic wit and grade-A corn. What’s Miss Piggy up to these days? Why, she’s the plus-size fashion editor of Vogue, of course, living in Paris (where it’s perfectly normal for her to refer to herself as moi) and scarfing down pastries when she thinks no one’s looking. And she just happens to have the same assistant (Emily Blunt) who worked for Miranda Priestley in The Devil Wears Prada. And so on.

The one and only Moi.

The voices are well-matched, too, such that I didn’t realize that it wasn’t the great Frank Oz who portrayed Piggy and Fozzy.* The exception is Steve Whitmire’s valiant attempt to impersonate the late Jim Henson as Kermit. He’s awfully good, but he doesn’t quite capture the melancholy undertone that Henson produced and that would have been most welcome in these circumstances. (In fact, Whitmire’s performance left me admiring — for the first time, really — what a good actor Jim Henson was.)

A lot of the old crowd are unavailable for one reason or another, and Joe Raposo isn’t around to write another “Bein’ Green” (though Paul Williams and Kenneth Ascher’s “Rainbow Connection” is dusted off and trotted out, with feeling). Much of the music is now in the hands of Bret Mckenzie, one half of Flight of the Conchords, whose proven skill at adapting other people’s musical styles surely didn’t hurt when it came to making a modern-day old-fashioned movie musical.

The gang’s all here.

The movie seems to anticipate that younger audiences won’t have any idea who the Muppets are. This seems improbable to me, but who knows? For those making their first acquaintance, The Muppets is a thoroughly pleasing introduction — a great set-up for younger audiences to explore the original canon. And for the rest of us, it’s a homecoming with dear friends.

*NOTE: According to the Internet, where everything is true, Frank Oz has in fact criticized the movie, as have other Muppet performers, on grounds of lack of respect for the characters and/or lack of taste in the writing. I’m at a loss to understand this. I can hardly imagine a more affectionate treatment, or one more in keeping with the Muppets’ original spirit.

Not to rub it in, but the Muppets really did hang with a starrier crowd, back in the day.


latebloomingmom said...

Kids are very much looking forward to seeing this. Only reason we haven't yet: I insisted on HUGO last weekend (because I adored the book when it was briefly a project at my studio) and also they are keen to see Arthur Christmas, which screens at the WGA tomorrow. But we may go all out for the accompanying stage show at El Capitan in Hollywood in a couple of weeks... Your glowing endorsement means a lot.

William V. Madison said...

Thanks! I'm eager to see Hugo, and the Aardman Animation makes Arthur Christmas quite tempting, too. I wonder if I'll make it to half the movies I want to see these days.