Wednesday, 2 January 2013

The Muppets (2011)

It's official! Christmas television viewing has finally turned my brain to mush! Why else, of the various films I watched (including appreciated re-viewings of "They Knew What they Wanted" and "One Touch of Venus) should this 'new' Muppet Movie -- the first for twelve years -- be the subject of today's blog?

Up front let me admit that I thoroughly enjoyed the film as a successful exercise in nostalgia, an undertaking definitely meant to appeal to the puppet group's now aging fans. However I suspect that it will not attract many new converts to the traditional Muppet mayhem, and indeed, many youngsters may well be bored with the company of this pack of 'has-been' characters. The film is a labour of love from self-confessed Muppet-fan Jason Segel, who stars in the movie which he co-wrote with Nicholas Stoller, the director of his breakthrough role in "Forgetting Sarah Marshall" (2008). He plays a small town 'lad' who has been dating girlfriend Amy Adams for ten years, but who is equally attached to his muppet younger brother, Walter (don't ask!). When the three go on holiday to Los Angeles, the highlight of their vacation is meant to be to be a visit to the famous Muppet Theatre, scene of many magical well-loved and well-remembered shows. However they find a derelict site, about to be acquired by greedy moneyman Tex Richman (think about it) who is personified by a sneering Chris Cooper. He and his evil Muppet henchmen wish to tear the old place down and drill for oil beneath the site, making Segel and company anxious to find Kermit and the gang and to launch a rescue plan. It's the old 'let's put on a show' scenario dating back to Andy Hardy -- and of course also the plot of earlier Muppet spin-offs -- and the race is on to round-up all the familiar faces who have scattered to the winds.

A depressed Kermit reluctantly agrees to help our three new heroes and eventually all of the troupe are brought together from Fozzy Bear through the Great Gonzo through Animal and even eventually diva Miss Piggy (who has taken leave from her job as editor of French Vogue!). It is not just the old theatre that is at stake, but also their very identities which Cooper threatens to absorb and gift to a ragtag tribute troupe. Can they raise the necessary million dollars in time and is there really anyone left who cares about these 'forgotten' friends? What do you think? They are given a two-hour TV slot for their telethon, when a station's star turn implodes, and manage to kidnap the necessary 'celebrity host' in the solid shape of an uncredited Jack Black, who remains trussed up and silent during the new show, as they struggle to revive the old acts and watch the donations trickle in. They are running out of content and must rely on their latest recruit Walter to 'find his talent' and save the day. Meanwhile Cooper tries various dirty tricks to thwart their efforts. When all seems lost and they emerge apparently defeated, they find hordes of loyal fans ready to contribute to their continued existence -- shades of the last scene of "It's a Wonderful Life" it would seem. Happy ending; smiles all 'round.

The film is loaded with dozens of blink-and-you-miss-them cameos from the likes of Alan Arkin, Zach Galifianakis, Whoopi Goldberg, Selena Gomez, and even Mickey Rooney, but unlike earlier Muppet movies these appearances add very little to the plot and they are largely shadow characters or filler. It would seem to be their way of telling the world 'We love the Muppets too' and adding their voices to the group's still viable fanbase count. Some old favourite Muppet songs are revived and new ones added by the Flight of the Colchords team; new number "Man or Muppet" even managed an Oscar gong, as Segel muses that he risks losing sweetheart Adams over his Muppet obsession. The puppets' new voice cast are virtually undetectable from the old ones and we can still hear the familiar gruff, dulcet, and squeaky voices that we remember so fondly. Unlike some commentators, I hardly think that Jim Hensen is spinning in his grave.

All in all it was a welcome return to the big screen -- more of a tribute movie that an exciting adventure in itself (although I believe a sequel is somehow in the works). It's not a patch on the first and best "Muppet Movie" of 1979, but it is certainly an improvement on the last one "Muppets from Space" (1999). As I said earlier, this love letter to the old favourites may not attract a host of new fans, but in the hope that it finds even a few new converts, all is not lost. So thank you, Mr. Segel.
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