Review by C.J. Bunce
With all the holiday movies hitting the theaters this season, there’s one that is sure to satisfy kids of all ages. The Muppets premiered last week and that makes this the seventh film in the Muppet franchise, based on characters first created in the 1950s by the late Jim Henson. Henson would no doubt be happy with the latest effort, a light-hearted and cheery, nostalgic mix of sillyness and a hard but subtle look at entertainment and society today. It’s cute film, not as good as the original Muppet Movie oreven the novel adaptations A Muppet Christmas Carol or Muppet Treasure Island, but it’s worth seeing to find out what the Muppet crew has been up to and catch the cameos from a motley group of comedic actors.
You probably can’t find a sweeter couple than Gary and Mary played by Jason Segel (How I Met Your Mother) and Academy Award winning actress Amy Adams in the lead human roles of the movie. Segel also serves as co-writer of the film. You can tell Segel put a lot of love into this film, it is the ultimate film of shiny happy people niceness (think Brendan Fraser’s family in Blast from the Past). Gary is brother to Walter, played by a new Muppet creation and addition to the Muppet universe. Walter has been a fan of the Muppets his entire life, and his brother invites him along on his and Mary’s anniversary vacation to Los Angeles. There they find the Muppet studio has become abandoned. Walter overhears evil businessman Tex Richman, played by Academy Award winning actor Chris Cooper, plotting to destroy the studio to drill for oil. Because of fine print in the “rich and famous” contract Kermit the Frog signed at the end of the original Muppet Movie, the contract is expiring in a few days and the Muppets will lose all the Muppet properties, including even their names, if they don’t raise $10 million to buy-out the contract.
Part of the movie becomes a play on The Blues Brothers, where the trio of Gary, Mary and Walter “put the band back together” to save an orphanage, a throwback to the plot of the original Muppet Movie. You wish this part of the movie was longer and that they had spent more time fleshing out what the characters have been doing for the past several years since Muppets in Space, but the movie rushes through this bit. They even joke about the quick montage, with a funny bit about Rowlf the dog. The self references in the film actually become the funniest moments, and these bits of not taking itself too seriously nicely cut the overflow of frothy sappiness and nostalgia.
A key storyline is the triangle between Gary and Mary and Walter–Gary isn’t spending enough time with Mary–he can’t let go of his brother’s reliance on him as his brother becomes a full-fledged part of the Muppet family–and Mary has become a third wheel. Finding out whether Gary is a Muppet or a man, and whether his brother Walter is a Muppet or a man, is the point of the whole film and the center of a good musical number. Look for even more musical numbers here than any past Muppet film.
Each Muppet gets his own share of screen-time, too. From a great throwback scene of giant Muppet Sweetums chasing after the Muppet entourage, to Fozzie having joined a Reno cover band of the Muppets called The Moopets, to successful Ms. Piggy leading up a magazine in Paris, to Gonzo the Great, now a plumbing company magnate who sounds and looks a bit like Al Pacino, to the best E Hollywood True Story type Where are they Now, that of Animal the drummer, who has been part of an anger management self-help group with sponsor Jack Black, who plays himself. Jack Black’s unabashed throwing himself into this movie is one of its highlights, and he plays every scene for all its worth.
After literally playing sweetheart roles in Enchanted, Julie and Julia, Doubt, and now The Muppets, it will be nearly impossible to see Amy Adams as Lois Lane in the next Superman movie. But acting is what actors do, so it will be fun to see her play tough and determined for once. Segel couldn’t be better for his role as supportive brother and caring boyfriend, and if anything makes this movie work it is the believability and sincerity Segel radiates, like Will Farrell in Elf.
Although it will be lost to the kids in the audience, the adult themes of a world gone cynical, to predominantly reality TV shows and shock entertainment and a world in need of something to change it for the better is a powerful theme. Chris Cooper’s villain being simply the embodiment of corporate greed as espoused via the current Occupy Wall Street movement makes the themes here particularly timely. Although it’s way over the top, Cooper’s portrayal of the villain is as evil and sinister as past Disney hives of scum and villainy.
If there is one place the show is lacking it is big name cameos, considering that the original Muppet Movie had the icons of film, like Bob Hope, Milton Berle, Mel Brooks, Orson Welles, and James Coburn, and then new comic names like Steve Martin, Richard Pryor, Elliott Gould, Carol Kane and Madeline Kahn. The latter category is covered with a handful of contemporary standup comics, yet the extra layer of big names is non-existent, except for two actors from classic Hollywood film. When it used to be an indication of whether or not you were a big name or not based on whether you hosted the Muppet Show, you’d think you could get any number of volunteers for this kind of movie. Consider the Muppet Show featured everyone from Julie Andrews, George Burns, Vincent Price, Elton John, Alice Cooper, Sylvester Stallone, Roy Rogers, Christopher Reeve, the cast of Star Wars, to Roger Moore–The Muppet Show was the ultimate bridging of all genres. It begs the question: Why not make a new Muppet Show work today? They tried and had a short-lived series back in 1996-1998 with Muppets Tonight. The difference today is that Disney now owns most of the Muppet properties, and with their various networks and influence and the marketing revenues from the characters that could come with this kind of show, this one is a no-brainer.
The cameos they did find are funny additions to the story. Don’t go to this one looking for more than chuckles, although I heard kids and adults laughing out loud throughout the show in my theater. This one was a nice break from the typical “family” film.