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Joseph Scarbrough is an independent producer/puppeteer from Knoxville, Tennessee, who loves to bring his menagerie of puppety oddball madness to people of all ages to enjoy.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

The Muppets (2011) Review

Fore ward

It's been a long time coming: The Walt Disney Company has had the Muppets in their possession since 2004, and the way they have handled the franchise has been anything but satisfying, but then again, what do you expect? It's another example of those Hollywood Horror Stories of these big conglomerate companies buying out the smaller guys for the sake of ownership, with little to no intentions of actually doing anything with them. Until now, under Disney's leadership, all we had gotten was a TV movie (The Muppets' Wizard of Oz in 2005) and a TV special (The Muppets' Letters to Santa in 2008), and countless other projects shelved... in fact, knowing Disney's history of shelving Muppet projects, I was doubtful that this movie would ever actually happen, so I was rully [sic] excited that this movie was indeed for real... but then I grew nervous when I read about who was in charge.

Now, I'm familiar with Jason Segel's work, and usually, his sense of humor is filthy. I know that's what comedy as a genre is mostly like nowadays, but the Muppets' brand of humor was always above that: even when the Muppets' edge got "dark" and "black", it was never done in tastelessness, so I was apprehensive about how this movie would turn out, even as I read numerous different production notes that made it sound like Segel basically wrote another one of his, "I wrote this thinking what would I do if this happened to me," kind of scenarios... which was funny back in the day of Gene Wilder and Mel Brooks, but not so much today. Even the story that Disney basically accepted the script written by Segel spoke volumes to me about just how much Disney really cared about the having the Muppets in their possession. So basically, I was excited, but nervous... I knew I had to see the movie for myself and see how it would turn out.

The Movie

I was either six or seven when I saw the Muppets in the theater for the first, and seemingly only time when I saw Muppet Treasure Island in 1996 (I even remember shouting out, "Hi Kermit!" at the screen when that classic Jim Henson Pictures logo opened the movie), so this was quite an experience to be able to see them in a theater again, even if I am all grown up, and in some cases, considered "too old" for the Muppets... but hey, who said you're too old for the Muppets? Jim Henson strived to make sure puppets weren't just for little kids, but for adults as well, that was the whole point of the Muppets... and it's nice to actually witness that I wasn't the only one who caught on with Jim's idea, as there was a surprisingly larger number of adults in the theater than there were kids... in fact, the theater was packed, and I think I only saw like maybe a couple of handfuls of kids. So, after sitting through like nearly an hour of previews, trailers, AND COMMERCIALS (I'm still surprised that we're watching commercials in the movie theaters now), the movie finally began. The first thing we're introduced to as a montage of home movies and flashbacks of two brothers growing up, who end up becoming the biggest Muppet fans in Smalltown (population 102), one brother, Gary (Segel) is human, the other brother, Walter (Peter Linz) is Muppet. Gary and Walter wake up the morning of a big trip to Los Angeles in celebration of Gary and his girlfriend Mary's (Amy Adams Still Being A Redhead Right Now Which Makes Her Look Like Jenna Fischer And I Keep Mixing Them Up) tenth anniversary (yeah, there's some serious commitment there, eh). Walter asks Gary to send him a postcard from the Muppet Studios, though Gary whips out an extra ticket, as the brothers are inseparable, which does put a strain on Gary's relationship with Mary (not to be confused with Mary from Kermit's Swamp Years). The three of them all have their own lists of what they want to do when they get to Los Angeles, but it would seem that all of the things Mary wants to do is pushed aside, the first place the three head to is the old Muppet Studio, which has fallen into a state of disrepair, much to Walter's surprise; during a tour, the guide points out what used to be Kermit the Frog's (Steve Whitmire) old office, and as the tour presses on, Walter sneaks inside to see for himself, in awe of what he finds, such as photos on the walls of Kermit with the various Muppet Show guests (and even a photo of him and Jim Henson), his old banjos, among other things, but suddenly, Walter realizes someone is about to enter the office, so he ducks out of sight, as Statler and Waldorf (Whitmire and Dave Goelz) discuss The Standard Rich and Famous Contract Kermit had signed back in 1979, with wealthy tycoon Tex Richman (Chris Cooper), and his associates Bobo the Bear (Bill Barretta) and Uncle Deadly (Matt Vogel), who claims to want to turn the Muppet Studios into a Muppet museum, but once Statler and Waldorf leave, Richman goes over his true intentions with his goons that he's discovered oil underneath the property, and actually plans to demolish the Studio to drill for oil. The only thing that can save the property is if the Muppets raise a million dollars before the contract expires; this freaks Walter out to the point that he literally spends the rest of the night screaming like a girl.

Walter desperately wants the Muppets to raise that money to save the Studio, so he and Gary and Mary start with the most logical place: Kermit's home, where the retired frog expresses his doubts about being able to raise that kind of money in such a short time, since the only way to raise that kind of money would be to put on a show, but he and his old friends haven't seen each other in several, several years. Walter convinces Kermit that he needs to reunite the Muppets and do that show, because the Muppets were known for giving out the third greatest gift ever: laughter (after children, and ice cream). Kermit agrees, and has his 80's Robot maid drive them around to round up the old gang, starting with Fozzie Bear (Eric Jacobson) in Reno, where he's performing with a lackluster tribute band known as "The Moopets"; Kermit talks Fozzie into coming along, especially when Fozzie realizes he really doesn't like performing with The Moopets, and is especially intimidated by the domineering Miss Poogy (David Rudman). Next stop is the Royal Flush plumbing company, as headed by CEO Gonzo the Great (Dave Goelz) who is reluctant at first, but quickly agrees to reunite with his old friends, after Walter tells him that watching his antics made him believe that he could do anything. Animal is even coaxed out of a celebrity anger management rehab facility, where he is sponsored by Jack Black, and has learned to be in control of himself, and to avoid anything having to do with drums. To speed things up, the rest of the roundup is done in the form of a montage: the Electric Mayhem is rounded up while performing in a subway, Sam the American Eagle (Jacobson) is rounded up while serving as a conservative news anchor, Crazy Harry (Vogel) is rounded up from demolishing Mount Rushmore, Scooter (Rudman) is rounded up from his job working for Google, Rowlf the Dog (Barretta) is even rounded up from sleeping in a hammock; just when it seems like the entire Muppet gang is rounded up, Kermit begins making plans for their telethon show, but the fact that Miss Piggy (Jacobson) missing is pointed out. As it turns out, Miss Piggy is now a plus-size fashion editor for Vogue in Paris, France... it's too far to drive to France, so the gang travels "by map" in old cartoon fashion to get to France, where the Muppets have to sneak in to see Piggy by appointment, in the guise of Muppet Man (the Muppets all in disguise as a large man); Piggy refuses to step back into the past, now that she has made a new life for herself in Paris, especially since Kermit never expresses any indication that he alone needs her, it's always about all of them. Needing a replacement for Piggy in the show, the gang reluctantly hires Poogy, and returns to Los Angeles to begin pitching their telethon show.

The problem is, none of the major networks, like FOX, NBC, and even CDE don't want the Muppets, because the Muppets aren't famous anymore, and are no longer a part of pop culture, but when CDE's most popular series, Punch Teacher, has ceased production due to a defamation lawsuit, and the network is left with a huge empty gap in their schedule, the executive, Veronica Martin (Rashida Jones) agrees to let the Muppets do their show, but only if they can get a celebrity host to ensure viewership. Later, the Muppets return to their old Studio, faced with the daunting task of fixing the place up, which seems nearly impossible, until Walter reminds them that they always did such things to music, so with Starship's "We Built This City" blaring in the background, the Muppets work on renovating their theater, with help from Gary, Mary, and Walter. Once the task is complete (or as complete as they possibly can), Kermit works on putting the show together, organizing the acts and numbers, and looking for a celebrity host, but suddenly, Piggy announces her return, only for the show, then afterwards, she's returning to Paris; Poogy informs her she's been replaced, but true to her diva fashion, Piggy lets Poogy know just who the real leading lady is with a swift karate chop to the chest, though Poogy tells them they haven't seen the last of her.

The planning turns out to be somewhat disastrous, the rehearsals are a train wreck, and Kermit has no luck in locating a celebrity host, which frustrates Veronica, who even goes as far to disagree with Kermit's feeling that perhaps he should host since he was a celebrity at one point. The gang continues to spruce up the theater, and tweak the show, and Walter is even invited to be a part of the show, since it was him who made this possible; Gary is happy that Walter is so happy, but Mary feels slighted since her plans for a romantic weekend with Gary have backfired, and her frustrations continue to grow as she carries on with her vacation by sightseeing and such by herself, while Gary and Walter continue to help the Muppets with their show. Time is running out, the show is still not ready, there is still no celebrity host, as the pressure begins to catch up with everyone, especially Kermit, who tries to appeal to Richman's better nature to let them have their old Studio back, but Richman refuses, because after reading over the contract, he realizes that not only will he possess the property where the Studio once stood, but he will also possess the Muppet name, which he plans to handover to his new clients: the Moopets. Like everyone else, Richman drives degradation into the Muppets that they are no longer significant, that the world has moved on, and that nobody cares about them anymore, which really dampens Kermit's spirit, as he gives up. Piggy decides to take charge, and comes up with a plan to nab a celebrity host: they partake in a black op to kidnap Jack Black from his trailer, much to Kermit's surprise, as they work feverishly to continue with the show, all the while Gary finally realizes that he's neglected the fact that he and Mary came to Los Angeles to celebrate their tenth anniversary, but when he returns to the motel to apologize to her, he finds that she has already gone home, leaving him a note asking him if he's a man, or a muppet. Both Gary and Walter search themselves, where Gary realizes that he is a man (a Muppet of a man), and Walter realizes he's a Muppet (a manly Muppet).

With time about to run out, the Muppets are finally ready to put on their show, but there are still some minor problems, such as having to hogtie a resistant Jack Black to a chair the entire time, having an audience consisting only of Hobo Joe (Zack G), Piggy refusing to perform her duet with Kermit and rehearsing with Pepe the King Prawn (Barretta) instead, and Walter lacking confidence in himself to find a talent for his act in the show. The show still goes on, much to the shock of Richman, who sees the broadcast for himself, and plans to sabotage the show at any cost when he sees that the show actually does begin to rake in pledges, and the audience actually increases. Even Mary is uncomfortable watching the program on TV, as she and Gary finally have a romantic dinner back home. The Muppet antics that we all know and love take stage, with Gonzo attempting to head bowl by chucking a bowling ball at the pin on Jack Black's head, only to find his fingers are stuck, to Sam, Rowlf, Link Hogthrob, and Beaker (Whitmire) forming a barbershop quartet to give their host a haircut, shave, and hot towel that literally shrinks his head. Jack even shares the sentiments of Waldorf and Statler, who have also amazingly shown up to see the show, as they sit through more of Fozzie's feeble attempts at stand up comedy, just like he did on The Muppet Show all those years. Even more celebrities suddenly drop by to help with the show by taking in pledges, including Whoopi Goldberg, Selena Gomez, Neil Patrick Harris, James Carville, and a host of others. Richman and the Moopets arrive at the theater, where they cut the power to the studio, bringing the show to a grinding halt, but all hope is not lost, it would seem a couple of people have snuck in back stage to trip the breakers inside the studio, thus restoring power inside so the show can go on, and it turns out, that couple was Gary and Mary, who returned to Los Angeles from Smalltown via map to help support the show. The show goes on, to Richman's anger, as he decides to ascend to the roof to destroy the building's power antenna, forcing Uncle Deadly along with him, but once on the roof, Deadly finally decides he no longer wants to be a part of Richman's scams and schemes, just because he may have a menacing name on the outside doesn't change the fact that he is still a Muppet on the inside, swiping the wire cutters away and pushing Richman off the antenna (in old comedy fashion, of course). There are still a few problems, nobody can find Walter, and Kermit's duet with Piggy is about to go on, so Kermit hands over hosting duties to a nervous Scooter while he tries to patch things up with Piggy himself, giving Scooter the age-old trick to fight stage fright: just pretend the audience is naked. Just when it seems like Piggy already left for Paris early, a saddened Kermit pulls out his ripped up half of their mock wedding photo from The Muppets Take Manhattan, which pleases Piggy to see he kept it, as she did hers; Kermit finally brings himself to tell Piggy that he really does need her, and asks her if she'll stay, not for everyone else, but for him, to which Piggy agrees, as they go ahead with their solo: a really touching rendition of the classic "Rainbow Connection", which is every bit as heart-tugging and heartwarming as the original version as vocalized by Jim Henson in The Muppet Movie, even so with the rest of the Muppet family joining in, even with Animal on the drums, though he's supposed to avoid drums at all costs to keep in control with his anger management. Back stage, Gary gives Walter a much-needed pep talk about believing in yourself and growing up, and just in time too, as the Muppets see they still have a little extra time in the show, but they have no other acts to go on stage, so while they ponder on what to do next, such as Fozzie performing with his "fart shoes" (whoopee cushions tied to his feet), they suddenly hear a fascinating whistling tune coming from on stage, and discover it's Walter carrying on a solo of "The Whistling Caruso", to which a humble Walter receives a great round of applause, and flowers thrown on stage. All seems to be going great, until the very last minutes, where Richman throws his car into reverse, knocking over the telephone pole outside the studio, cutting off the phone lines in a last-ditch effort to sabotage the show, thus, bringing the total number of pledges in at a mere one dollar short of their million dollar goal.

Richman, bashed up and bruised, runs up on stage and informs them that he has won, that the Muppet Studio and the Muppet name belong to him now, and forces them to evacuate trespassing on private property, as the Muppets, Gary, Mary, and Walter do so reluctantly, even to the disappointment of everyone in the audience. Once out in the lobby, another pep talk ensues, this time as Kermit assures everyone that Richman can have their old Studio, and even their name, but the most important thing is that they have each other again, as a family, and it's all thanks to Walter bringing them back together and believing in them, and if they have to start all over again and work their way back to the stop from scratch, then that's what they'll do, because as long as they have each other, and believe in themselves, they can do anything. Kermit sadly, and reluctant, prepares to leave the Studio for the last time, but is surprised beyond belief to be met with the flash of photography, as literally hundreds of fans have flocked outside the Muppet Studio, all in support of the Muppets, and to express how much they're happy they're back; Kermit, Piggy, Fozzie, Gonzo, Rowlf, and the rest of the gang are touched to see their fans are still around, as they get the full-on Hollywood royalty treatment, complete with paparazzi-esque photography. Kermit extends his invitation to Walter to join the Muppet family, though Walter isn't sure he fits in, but Gary assures him that he does, and that this is where he belongs; Walter humbly joins in with his new family, as they lift them on their shoulders in celebratory fashion, as the crowds continue to applaud and cheer at the one responsible for bringing the Muppets back together, and bringing tears of joy to Gary's eyes. The mood just wouldn't be complete without the grand finale, a reprise of "Life's a Happy Song" from the beginning of the movie, but even then, the movie isn't quite over yet, during the first little bit of end titles, a rendition of "Mahna Mahna / Lullaby of Birdland" is sung by, who else, Mahna Mahna, the Snowths, and the numerous celebrity cameos, but something even more amazing happens: the Muppets miraculously soften Richman by providing him with that third greatest gift of all, laughter, after Gonzo's fingers finally loosen from the bowling ball, and ends up striking Richman in the gut. In the end, Richman decides to give back full rights to the Muppet Studio and the Muppet name to whom they rightfully belong, and Gary finally makes Mary's wish come true when he asks her to marry him.

Thoughts

Well... where do I begin? I mean, to see the Muppets in theaters for the first time since being a little kid, and to see them being brought back together for the first time in ages gave me such a high, I don't believe there was a single person who left that theater without a smile on their faces, and even some small groups of people I heard off to the side talking shop about the movie in typical Muppet Freak fashion. Walter was brought to life in such an incredible way by Peter Linz, and it was nice to see him have a meaty role for a change after years of background/minor/one-shot character, as well, it was also nice to see the likes of David Rudman and Matt Vogel perform outside Sesame Street for a change, especially since David used to do quite a bit of non-Sesame Muppet work up until the late 90s it seems, but he did fantastically bringing Richard Hunt's characters like Scooter and Janice back to life, and likewise, Matt was excellent as Sgt. Floyd Pepper and Uncle Deadly (though I thought his Lew Zealand was a little off)... and speaking of a little off, I couldn't help but notice it seemed like Eric Jacobson had some trouble keeping Fozzie's voice throughout the movie, but his always astounding performances of Piggy and Animal, and now even Sam the American Eagle make up for it. It was even a real treat to see appearances made by other, lesser known Muppets as well, like Wayne and Wanda, Beautiful Day Monster, Thog, Boppity, Nigel the conductor, and several others as well. I was pleasantly surprised to see Jason Segel take a departure from his traditional filth fare and really capture the essence of the Muppets' brand of humor, so many elements like breaking the fourth and fifth walls, the comic mayhem, and even the concept of traveling by map all brought back the spirit of the Muppets in such a grand way. Unfortunately, as the old saying goes, there's a little bad in everything good, and I do have just some very minor quibbles regarding the movie... mainly with the songs. Music and show-stopping numbers have always been a big part of the Muppet universe, and the songs are almost always really terrific with great messages; the songs in this movie may have great messages, but they were all mostly very sappy, the show-stopping numbers were really cheesy, nowhere near as fun as say "Cabin Fever" from Muppet Treasure Island. The story flow was a bit of a roller coaster as well, being really slow and a drag in some spots, to suddenly being rushed through to get on with the plot in others. There were also a couple of notable absences from the movie as far as the Muppet cast goes: Pepe really only had one scene in the movie where he rehearses a duet with Piggy, and Rizzo the Rat was barely seen at all, which is a bit of a bummer, because the bantering between him and Gonzo had become such a big part of the world of the Muppets (though then again, I do have some inside info as to why that possibly is, but I am sworn to secrecy, so I won't tell). I think the final slap in the face was during the end titles where a disclaimer reads "Based on the properties and characters owned by Disney"... that really ticked me off, the LEAST they could have done was instead say "Based on characters developed by Jim Henson", but then again, Disney has been doing a great job (and I mean that sarcastically) at erasing Jim's name from Muppet products over the past few years, but that's show business, unfortunately. Lastly, I was also bothered by the constant use of chroma key, and I don't mean like with special effects like showing Muppet characters dancing in full body and everything, but just the fact that some scenes were simply shot with scenery edited in via chroma key bothers me: I know it's the cheap/economical way to do things in movies now, but it takes away from the warmth of realism of knowing that the characters really are in those settings.

Conclusion

I have to admit it, this movie did, indeed, turn out a lot better than I thought it was going to be; all things considered, I do believe that Jason Segel did do the Muppets a lot of respect and justice, so I give him kudos for that, I'm glad that he didn't ruin this movie with his own filthy sense of humor (though the fart shoes was still a little bit below Muppet standards), and the thrill of seeing the Muppets on the big screen is naturally a great big plus, as it's been such a long time to be able to have such an experience. Admittedly, I was about to fall asleep after 45 minutes of commercials, trailers, and previews, but in the end, it was worth the wait, and I say it's about freakin' time Disney kept one of their promises about the Muppets, and I'm glad they kept this promise, because this movie was absatively and posilutely fantastic! All things considered, despite the rough storyflow, the sappy show-stopping numbers, and the over-exaggerated hype that suggests the Muppets have literally been non-existent since the late 90s (not entirely true), I give this movie a big fat A minus and three out of four stars.

1 comment:

  1. If I may make the correction without seeming like "that guy," you say, "Walter automatically assumes he's coming along..." but as I remember it, Walter assumes he's not coming along. He asks Gary to send him a postcard from The Muppet Studios while he's there, and Gary says something like, "About that. I'm afraid I can't do that. (pause) Because I bought an extra ticket so you can come with me!"
    I think it matters to make this distinction since it means the difference between Walter being a bit of a jerk and being rather humble.

    You mention your thoughts on Jason Segel's writing, but what about his acting/singing/overall performance? Or Amy Adams's for that matter? Do they fit as humans in a Muppetty universe?

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