The Muppets (2011) – cinema review
Here’s my review of The Muppets, most star-laden movie of the year. Seriously, look at that cast list: Kermit, Miss Piggy, Fozzie, Gonzo, Scooter, Rowlf, Bunsen & Beaker, the Swedish Chef, Uncle Deadly and – last but not least, my son’s favourite – Crazy Harry. Nothing else out this year has starpower like this!
(James Bobin, 2011)
Better than nostalgia, a film about nostalgia that sizes up the pros and cons of feeding on past glories and votes with its big Muppety heart
It could all have gone so horribly, horribly wrong – which is why it’s such a pleasure that The Muppets gets more or less everything right. This reclaims both the uncynical sweetness and the counter-cultural, experimental wit of Jim Henson’s creations, as well as creating its own fiendish intricate genre, a mash-up of reboot for the kids and nostalgia trip for their parents.
The Muppets have been big-screen stars before, of course, but somewhere along the way they lost the anarchic edge that made The Muppet Show only tangentially for kids. That’s why it’s all the more amazing that Disney greenlit superfans Jason Segel and Nicholas Stoller’s conception that it had to be done old-school, a tragi-comedy of interlaced hope and regret that reflects the threadbare stitching of Henson’s puppets.
The film’s theme and plot sit side-by-side: is there a place for the Muppets in this day and age, when telly has got much more cruel and cynical (a state of affairs the film sums up in one spoof show, ‘Punch Teacher’) and everything is all CGI and 3D? The answer is a glorious yes, with the film becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy that the Muppets simply need to get back together and everything will be right in the world.
In-jokes abound – Sweetums has to find his own way to the Muppet Theater, a la The Muppet Movie – and there is much meta-contortion of the characters’ realisation they are in a movie, but this succeeds because a huge amount is played straight. The linear plot withholds introducing Kermit, Fozzie et al for the longest time. Until then, our only Muppet is fan-surrogate Walter, living an everyday life in Capra-esque Smalltown. That’s the kind of fantasy Henson never really bought into (don’t forget, Sesame Street was deliberately an urban show) and the anthem Life’s A Happy Song is staunchly at the Disney end of the Muppets’ musical spectrum. Surely, the Muppets haven’t lost their bite?
Nope. After the sunny opening, things get darker, fast. The film rests on hitting the narrowest of targets, the one that Henson invariably nailed. Too kind and this would be anodyne and lifeless; too cruel, and it’s no longer the Muppets (a theme that becomes felt in shadowy tribute act-cum-bizarro nightmare The Moopets; somebody here has definitely seen Peter Jackson’s Meet The Feebles). More importantly, once you get past the Macguffin of pantomime villain Chris Cooper – maniacal laugh – wanting to destroy the Muppet Theater to drill for oil, there’s an undercurrent of existential crisis, too, because his plans mean that the Muppets would cease to exist.
This core of sadness is expressed most clearly in Pictures In My Head, Kermit’s bittersweet ballad in which paintings of old pals burst into life, briefly, to sing along, only to then be trapped on canvas once again. The film is hauntingly ambiguous on the subject of whether these old pop-culture favourites should be regarded as historical curios or living, breathing, relevant concerns. The plot about a fan bringing the team together is pure wish-fulfilment on Segel’s part, but he interrogates it with real insight, nowhere more so that in Brett McKenzie’s standout song Man or Muppet, which is acutely concerned with whether a grown-up should still be playing with childhood toys.
Look to the marketing – the chat shows, the bloggers’ Q&As – and it’s obvious that a lot of this is pitched way over kids’ heads. This is a film for, and about, a generation that doesn’t see anything wrong in laughing at a puppet frog into their thirties and beyond. But the film earns its right to say: so what? The film’s boldest gambit is to create 80s Robot, a symbol of all that is wrong with today’s vacuum-packed, pre-recorded nostalgia. In contrast, the character, personality and joie de vivre of the Muppets is an altogether different prospect. It’s good to have them back.