Getting the old gang back together

You can’t be 10 years old again and it turns out you can’t have the Muppets you had when you were 10 either. The new movie tries hard and its heart is mostly in the right place, but it’s about as much like the real Muppets as the movie’s fake Muppet knockoffs, the Moopets. The characters look mostly the same and they sound mostly familiar, but The Muppets is a nostalgia act through and through. There’s something vital missing – that old unpredictability and sense of gentle anarchy Jim Henson and crew thrived on. It’s the fake Beatles in Las Vegas, but the songs aren’t as good.

The real Muppets were hip in their dorky/awesome puppet ways. They were a little bit edgy. They pushed the envelope of what could be entertainment for kids by not talking down to them and they also appealed to adults without resorting to Shrek-like meta sarcasm. This new version gets credit for avoiding the latter, but the adult edge and the thrill are completely gone.

The show was chock full of guest stars who you’d never expect to be on a show with puppets: Joel Grey, Paul Williams, Lena Horne, Peter Ustinov, Charles Aznavour, Vincent Price, Juliet Prowse, Rudolph Nureyev, George Burns, Madeline Kahn, Steve Martin, Bernadette Peters, John Cleese, Elton John, Bob Hope, Julie Andrews, Peter Sellers (Peter friggin Sellers!), Petula Clark, Alice Cooper and many, many, many more. The big drawing card of this version of The Muppets? Jack Black. Are you kidding me? Jack Black?

I’m sitting here trying to remember the songs in the movie I just saw so I can rip them apart, but I honestly can’t remember what they were. I just remember disliking them when they were being sung in the film. The film’s two best moments? Kermit singing The Rainbow Connection, his old classic from the original Muppet Movie, and the end credits featuring the cast of the current film singing along to… well I won’t spoil the one tiny pleasure in the whole film, but suffice it to say it’s not a new idea either.

The story follows Gary (Jason Segel who also co-wrote) and his brother Walter who is inexplicably a Muppet. Imagine a cross between Sesame Street’s Ernie and The Muppet Show’s Scooter and then subtract all the personality and you’ll have an idea of what Walter is like. Even at that he’s 42% more interesting than Jason Segel. Anyway, as Walter grows up, he naturally feels like a bit of an outcast and he clings to old VHS copies of The Muppet Show. These are his people. When Gary decides to take a trip to Los Angeles with his girlfriend of 10 years, Mary (Amy Adams), he brings Walter along so that he can visit the old studio where his beloved show was filmed. Alas, the studio has fallen on hard times. The Muppets have gone their separate ways and the lot is going to be snapped up by an evil oil developer (Chris Cooper) unless Walter can convince Kermit to get the old gang back together and hold a telethon to raise $10 million dollars. You can fill in the blanks from there.

OK, back to Jason Segel for a minute. He’s a doughy, TV-lite version of Seth Rogen and there’s nothing in that statement meant to be taken as a compliment. He’s got the same vague stoner-doofus thing going on, but it’s much more prime-time innocuous… in other words: boring. Segel means well, and he obviously had every intention of doing right by the Muppets, but he could’ve done them a big favor by not being in the movie. Amy Adams gets by a little better on her own natural Disney charm, but overall the film spends way to much time with people and not very engaging ones at that. In the show and in the original Muppet Movie, human characters were just a sideline. It was the Muppets’ world and sometimes we just happened to be passing through it. Get somebody famous, have them show up and do their bit and then get out of the way for more Muppet-y goodness. Not here. We’re actually supposed to care about Segel and Adams. The film is as much about them as it is about Kermit and Miss Piggy and Fozzie and Gonzo and all the rest. That might be acceptable if the people weren’t so aggressively uninteresting.

As for the Muppets themselves, I can mostly accept the fact that the voices aren’t quite right, but I don’t buy for a minute the story conceit that the Muppets have split up. There’s no way Kermit would live alone in a mansion in Beverly Hills without even keeping in touch with Fozzie Bear who is left to a cheap Muppet rip-off act in Reno. Even if the world moved on, the Muppets would keep being the Muppets we all love.

I know, The Muppets is getting positive reviews all around, and to be fair, if you’re a Gen X’er with spawn, you could do much worse than introduce the little monsters to this well-intended and (admittedly) refreshingly uncynical attempted throwback to a fondly remembered time. Having said that, the movie just made me feel stupid for being nostalgic in the first place. It was my own fault I suppose for believing I could go back 1976 again and that everything would be the same. Life has changed. The world has changed. It would be nice to think that The Muppets are still The Muppets, but they’re not. Their movie did nothing more than make me yearn for the old times and lament the fact that they’re never coming back.

★★½☆☆ 

11 Responses to “The Muppets (2011)”

  1. :(

    I have a feeling I’ll have the same reaction.

    We chose to see Puss ‘N Boots today instead of The Muppets.

  2. How was Puss?

    Honestly, I hope you see Muppets and like it Alison because I know you’re a fan. I can’t emphasize enough that the movie meant well. Also, people I’ve talked to who are a bit younger and grew up with the later Muppet movies seem happier with it. I live in a Muppet bubble that (not counting Sesame Street) begins in 1976 and ends in 1981. This movie needed less Segel and more Henson/Oz. That’s impossible so I suppose this is as good as it’s going to get, but it’s not enough for me. Just makes me want to sit down and watch the original show.

  3. I wasn’t going to see this to begin with, already kinda suspicious that it was playing to a kind of nostalgia I’m just a bit outside of, myself. I never liked “The Muppet Show”, because of the whole variety show format (the Mummenschanz episode is fun, though). I never quite cared for “The Muppet Movie” because of its ties to that show, and its outdated roster of celebrity cameos (it’s practically an extended episode of “Hollywood Squares”). The stuff I always dug was “The Great Muppet Caper” and “The Muppets Take Manhattan”– hell, I’m probably more nostalgic about “Muppet Babies” than the Muppets themselves.

    As such, I’m not emotionally connected to the things that they’re dealing with here. That means I’m not likely to get upset if they screw if up, but I also don’t really care if they do it well. “The Muppet Show: The Movie” is not a commodity I care enough about to get upset over. If they ever do something like “The Great Muppet Caper 2: Kermit’s Eleven”, I might budge.

  4. Actually Bob, as a fan of the later Muppets, you might like this one. It has more in common with those (so I’m told) than the Muppets I like.

  5. I dunno. All the talk about Segel (who I find annoying) and Adams (who I find overrated) occupying center stage puts me off, and doesn’t resemble the Muppet movies I know at all. It sounds like the post-Henson literary adaptation flicks (“The Muppet Christmas Carol”, Michael Caine as Scrooge, etc). But in something like, say, “The Great Muppet Caper”, the only real human “star” was Charles Grodin, the antagonist. I’m hard pressed to name any of the other actors in the film besides John Cleese and Peter Ustinov’s very brief cameos. Kermit & Co were still the real stars of the show, not some two-bit clown from Club Apatow.

    Eh. At any rate, Henson’s been gone a while, and without him, the Muppets don’t hold much interest to me anyway. It’s like the new “Star Trek” movie– without the original people behind it, what’s the point?

  6. Well, I hated it so I’m not going to try and talk you out of avoiding it. I’m just saying.

  7. but [Jason Segel] could’ve done them a big favor by not being in the movie.

    Ouch! At least I like Amy Adams, even when she’s in her sugary/innocent mode.

  8. I’ve got a crush on Adams too and she was adorable here as always.

    But you know, that’s one reason I thought she was the best part of The Fighter. She put on a few pounds and she was downright sexy and saucy in it. Very much different than her image and she managed to hold her own while Bale and Leo gorged on the scenery.

  9. It’s not just an era thing: I like virtually every Muppet movie and think Christmas Carol is actually the best, but this film was just wretched. Adams and Segel are every bit as awful and unwelcome as the review claims. The main story is less an actual tale than a desperately manipulative appeal to your feelings about the franchise. It also trots out more cliches than your average Shrek film, and that’s really saying something.

  10. I appreciate the validation coming from a Muppet fan Nate. I’m just trying to reconcile my reaction to the nearly unanimous praise the film is getting. I didn’t even get into the fact that the story is a horrible, boring cliche, but that wouldn’t have mattered to me if the rest of it had shown some signs of Muppety life.

  11. I don’t wanna agree with you, but sadly I do. I enjoyed the last third or fourth of it more or less, but the whole thing left a sour taste in my mouth. I’m okay with new Muppet voices, but the whole Segel/Adams/Walter framework was really offputting.

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