Friday, November 25, 2011

The Muppets: Being green is fun again

The Muppets (2011) • View trailer for The Muppets
3.5 stars. Rating: PG, for mild rude humor
By Derrick Bang

The new Muppets film quite cleverly addresses a real-world puzzler that has vexed fans for years: Where have Kermit and all his friends been hiding?
Gary (Jason Segel, right) and Walter do everything together, as would be
expected of any two devoted brothers. But as the years have passed, Walter has
become increasingly aware that he's, ah, a bit different from Gary and their
other two-legged friends and neighbors. The solution? An unlikely road trip,
during which Walter will get to meet others of "his kind."

The colorful felt creations who ruled television with The Muppet Show from 1976 through ’81, simultaneously jumping to the big screen with an equally popular series of films, have been missing in theaters since 1999’s rather odd Muppets from Space. Occasional TV specials such as 2005’s ill-advised The Muppets’ Wizard of Oz have done little to keep the brand alive.

True, Kermit and his pals have rather mischievously — and memorably — popped up in whimsical YouTube shorts. But when it came to the movies, I’d begun to wish that Pixar’s John Lasseter would step in and exert some of his can’t-miss creative control.

Jason Segel beat him to the punch.

Yes, the Jason Segel best known for his roles in crass, numbnuts comedies such as Knocked Up and I Love You, Man, and for his ongoing run on television’s saucy How I Met Your Mother, and for rather oddly going full-frontal as the lovesick loser in 2008’s Forgetting Sarah Marshall.

Not exactly the first fella who springs to mind, when contemplating a revival of the Muppets.

But it turns out that Segel has been a fan, like, forever, and he currently wields enough industry clout to help make dreams come true. Which brings us to The Muppets, which at its best definitely captures the sweet, silly, family-friendly hijinks and unlikely adventures experienced (and endured) by a gentle frog, a feisty pig and their dozens and dozens of colorful cohorts in crime.

Credit also goes to (human) co-star Amy Adams, who brings her own trouper’s “enchanted” spirit to several of the deliberately corny song-and-dance numbers that populate this gaudy farce. Most of these tunes are wincingly inane — one hopes that songwriter Bret McKenzie intended them this way — and performed, particularly by Segel, with a wide-eyed earnestness that will elicit either hysterical giggles or gape-jawed stares of disbelief.

In fairness, this is a longtime element of the successful Muppet formula; the original TV series delighted in putting celebrity guests into unlikely production numbers, and the line of willing “victims” certainly never got shorter during the show’s enormously popular five-year run. Segel and his behind-the-scenes cronies try hard to echo that manic vibe, and at times they catch the magic.

At other times ... not so much. This film also flirts with a mean-spirited undercurrent that sometimes proves off-putting, and some of the humor strays uncomfortably close to a level of vulgarity that Jim Henson never would have considered, let alone tolerated.

The occasional crude tone will come as no surprise to those who follow credits; this film’s director, James Bobin, is best known for extremely snarky TV fare such as Da Ali G Show and Flight of the Conchords, while Segel’s co-scripter Nicholas Stoller had a hand in big-screen fare such as Get Him to the Greek and last year’s dreadful re-boot of Gulliver’s Travels.

The intent here is both obvious and understandable; if a brand is to survive, it must move with the times. But attempting to “update” classic characters by making them more “relevant” is a process fraught with peril; the moment too many people mutter “Kermit would never, ever do that,” even if such a misstep occurs only once, you’ve potentially lost decades of good will.

Segel, Stoller and Bobin hit more than they miss here ... but a few scenes still will prompt fans to exchange uneasy glances.

The clever premise opens with a montage that explores the strong but unlikely bond between brothers Gary and Walter, shown growing up in postcard-perfect Smalltown, USA. We get early indications of the film’s best running gag, as characters — and songs — occasionally break the fourth wall with a nudge and a wink.

Gary matures through childhood, adolescence and young adulthood in the usual way, while Walter — a felt creation unaware of his Muppet origins, who remains bewildered by his inability to grow any taller — becomes increasingly distressed by concerns that he may not be a real boy after all.

Then, salvation of a sort: Walter discovers the original Muppets TV show, becoming the world’s most obsessed fan. Gary, staunchly protective of his sibling, shares this devotion ... even after becoming an adult (Segel) who can’t bring himself to tie the knot with longtime girlfriend Mary (Adams).

A long-planned vacation to Los Angeles offers Walter a chance to tour the original Muppet Studios and adjacent Muppet Theater. But he, Gary and Mary arrive to find the place in lamentable disrepair, with half-hearted tours offered by a dejected guide (Alan Arkin, the first of many celebrity cameos).

Worse yet, after sneaking back to explore Kermit’s long-deserted production office, a concealed Walter happens to overhear a nefarious plan by super-rich oilman Tex Richman (Chris Cooper), who plans to raze the entire complex in order to drill for the black gold recently discovered beneath the Muppets’ former stomping grounds.

Horrified, Walter shares this dreadful news with Gary and Mary; they manage to locate Kermit, now a recluse behind the electrified fence of a massive estate. $10 million is needed to save the studio, and a telethon would do the trick ... but all the other Muppets have scattered into different careers: some successful, some decidedly less so.

Can Kermit re-assemble the troops and save the day?

This cross-country saga occupies the film’s first half; high points include Kermit’s effort to find a sponsoring TV network — Rashida Jones quite amusing as a dubious programming exec — and the team’s frustrating attempt to get Miss Piggy to abandon her career as a plus-size fashion editor at Vogue Paris (where her assistant is a hilariously frosty Emily Blunt, reprising the condescending tone she brought to her breakout role in The Devil Wears Prada).

The low point, distressingly, comes with the gang’s discovery that Fozzie Bear is “headlining” with a vulgar casino tribute band called the Moopets; this sequence, set in a sleazy section of Reno, strays too far into the aforementioned tasteless vibe.

Things improve again once the old gang assembles — the miffed Miss Piggy the lone holdout — to clean up their former theater and decide how best to follow that oldest of Hollywood fairy tales: Hey, kids, let’s put on a show!

The fan-struck Walter proves heroic throughout, both in terms of his use in the story, and his character’s adorable, unyielding optimism. His off-camera handlers deserve kudos, because Walter is by far the most engaging Muppet on the screen ... which is a bit of a problem, because he pulls focus from Kermit. Indeed, Walter’s never-say-die attitude should be Kermit’s primary trait, whereas the frog spends too much time here being sad, mopey and defeatist.

A longtime fan who sat at my side during last weekend’s preview screening observed that this film too frequently draws its emotional oomph from classic, long-ago Muppet moments, rather than attempting to create new ones. The observation is valid; none of this film’s new songs — not even the droll “Man or Muppet,” which envisions Walter as human, and Gary as a Muppet — delivers anywhere near the “smile power” of Kermit’s reprise of “The Rainbow Connection,” or the entire cast’s energetic presentation of “The Muppet Show Theme,” or the giddy goofiness of the closing-credits gags set to the iconic “Mah Na Man Na” theme.

And the less said about Cooper’s villainous rap number — “Let’s Talk About Me” — the better.

Ultimately, viewers will be mostly amused and delighted, and folks certainly will exit the theater wearing smiles. But I’m less persuaded that children will be similarly captivated; the original Muppet Show vibe never catered to youngsters the way Kermit’s cousins do on Sesame Street, and many kids at the same aforementioned preview screening were restless and bored.

So far, then, the Muppets appear to remain a baby boomer’s affectation; Segel’s enthusiasm and obvious love notwithstanding, this feels more like a short-term rescue than the beginnings of a full-blown revival.

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