Tuesday, November 29, 2011
Here come the Muppets!
Fear not, Muppet fans, the gang is back, better than ever, thanks mostly to the Herculean effort of self-professed "Muppet geek" Jason Segel (of How I Met Your Mother fame). Segel, who in addition to starring in the film, wrote the screenplay, and fought for years to revive the franchise. He repeatedly went up against studio executives, who believed the Muppets were past their prime and "washed up." Fortunately, someone greenlit the project, and what we've ended up with is a great reintroduction to these lovable characters.
The premise of the film is not entirely unfamiliar, but in typical Muppet fashion, the whole thing gets thrown on its head 15 minutes in. No longer thought to be popular, the Muppets all have gone their separate ways and reunite when it comes out that an evil oil baron (a delightfully campy Chris Cooper) wants to tear down the Muppet Theater to drill for oil. Through a series of clever sight gags (a Muppet trademark), the gang is reunited. Once reunited, they decide to put on a show in order to raise enough money to save the Muppet Theater. Neither of these ideas are inherently original, but they work in the context of this film because their execution is so original. Segel's screenplay carefully avoids sloppy sentimentality, and just when a moment appears to be veering into that territory, he throws in a gag that completely relieves us of any cheesiness that might have been present. This is, after all, the Muppets, a franchise built almost entirely on foolishness. Another strength of Segel's screenplay is that, despite the fact that the stakes are pretty high, there's never any doubt that the gang is going to triumph and that everything will be all right. There's an earnestness and honesty to their actions that shines through, regardless of how (temporarily) dire things may be. About halfway through the film, Fozzie even asks Kermit, "Kermit, everything is going to be ok, right?" Kermit looks at Fozzie and answers simply, "Of course." This exchange is entirely believable, and pretty much sums up everything that's right with the Muppets.
Wisely remembering its roots, the film never abandons everything that makes a Muppet movie great, including tons of celebrity cameos. They're all wonderful, though special mention must be made of Jim Parsons' (of Big Bang Theory fame) cameo. He nearly manages to walk away with the entire movie. Another nice touch are the numerous homages to creator Jim Henson. In the first scene, Segel's character is watching old Muppet Show re-runs, and the voice of Kermit we hear on those episodes is Jim Henson's. Later in Kermit's office, he glances at all the photos of he and famous people up on his wall. The camera lingers for just a second longer on the picture of he and Henson.
Not to be outdone, the film's human actors all shine. Segel's kid in a candy store, fan boy grin works perfect for the film's central character. Amy Adams, playing his oft put-upon girlfriend demonstrates her range yet again, and also shows she's a more than capable singer. Together, the two of them make a sweet couple, and because of their complete lack of pretense, have no trouble fitting in to the wacky world of the Muppets. As the villain, Chris Cooper has fun being as evil as possible. Muppet villains don't require much depth, and Cooper recognizes this early on, and just goes to town, creating a delightul, completely over the top villain.
While the film is high on comedy, there are some touching moments for Muppet fans, including a goosebumps inducing moment where Kermit, possibly for the last time, appears in the famous "O" to start the Muppet Show. I also defy you not to get a lump in your throat when Kermit and Piggy are joined onstage by the entire gang for one final rendition of The Rainbow Connection. Both of these moments caused the theater, made up of kids and adults, to spontaneously applaud at my showing of the film. That honest reaction, coupled with the film's complete lack of pretense and cynicism, make this ideal viewing as we kick off the holiday season.