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‘The Muppets’ – honors both the fans and the legacy

The Muppets

Directed by James Bobin

Written by Jason Segal and Nicholas Stoller, based on characters created by Jim Henson

imdb USA 2011

The central difficulty with reviving a beloved franchise like The Muppets is that what you gain in brand recognition, you lose in the established fan-base’s resistance to change. Keeping the older fans happy while pleasing new fans is a tricky tightrope to walk. The Muppets one big advantage over a franchise like Star Trek is that it is something that today’s parents loved as kids and that they are really looking forward to introducing to their children. That was certainly the case at the preview screening that I attended.

The Muppets come to theatres boasting the best marketing of any film this year. The clever, parody Muppet movie trailers have excited long-time fans of the Muppets and created new fans. At the same time, older fans are concerned about Jason Segal being too heavily featured in the film and by Frank Oz publicly complaining about the script. For an old school fan, it’s a bit like being strapped to a roller-coaster, soaring with excitement one second, despondent with fear the next.

Believe me, I understand that combination of fear and excitement and I share it. One of my most prized childhood possessions is a Kermit with a zipper on his stomach that you can unzip to reveal his guts…

Maybe I should explain.

This is not a prop from the Muppets Saw parody trailer. When I was 9, about the same time that The Muppet Show was just starting to air, I had appendicitis, but I was misdiagnosed as only suffering from the flu. By the time the mistake was corrected, it was almost too late. My appendix burst on the operating table and I nearly died. Fearing that an infection would finish me off, I was isolated in the hospital for 3 weeks – an eternity for a 9 year old. When I finally returned home, with two large and grizzly scars on my abdomen, so that I wouldn’t feel like a freak, a friend of the family gave me a Kermit who had also had his appendix removed – with the zipper scar to prove it!

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I was already a Kermit fan and “Being Green” was the unofficial anthem of my childhood, but Appendix Scar Kermit pushed it to another level.

Maybe it’s not fair for fans like me to put so much pressure on The Muppets to be great, but we can’t just stop loving something that we have loved all of our lives.

So is The Muppets good? Does it get it right? Or is it, as a friend of mine described, The Jason Segel Experience featuring WALTER!!! guest starring The Muppets?

It’s good. It’s great. It’s right.

Yes, Gary (Jason Segal) has a big part in the film, as does his long-suffering girlfriend Mary (the fantastic Amy Adams) but the focus is on Gary’s brother Walter, the biggest fan of the Muppets, acting as our viewpoint character, living out the dreams of so many – meeting his Muppet heroes and then helping them get the band back together and put on a show.

Putting on a show is at the heart of so much that is great about the Muppets from their very beginning. In a sense, the Muppets have always been a puppet version of the Judy Garland/Mickey Rooney “Backyard Musicals” trilogy (Babes in Arms, Babes on Broadway, and Strike Up the Band). It is amazingly appropriate that Mickey Rooney makes an early cameo in the film. It is only surprising that it has taken so long for Mickey Rooney and the Muppets to share the screen. (Rooney’s son Michael Rooney choreographed the opening song and dance number Life’s a Happy Song that his Dad pops up in.)

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The plot of the film is a weird blend of The Muppet Movie and the tv film It’s a Very Merry Muppet Christmas Movie. While on a tour of the decrepit Muppets Studio, Walter sneaks into Kermit’s abandoned office and overhears oil tycoon Tex Richman (Chris Cooper) plotting with his henchmen Uncle Deadly (the Vincent Price muppet) and Bobo (the other bear muppet) to bulldoze the studio and drill for oil underneath.

Cooper is fantastic as the scenery-chewing villain – and an easy match for Doc Hopper (Charles Durning) the french-fried frog leg tycoon from The Muppet Movie. Cooper plays Richman as though the oil tycoon has his evil soliloquies pre-written by a screenwriter, only when Richman delivers them he includes the scriptwriter’s action notes as dialogue.

In order to save the Muppets Studio and the Muppets Theatre from being demolished, Walter has to find Kermit and help him put the gang back together. Kermit deliberately hangs a lampshade on the fact that the getting the gang back together bit is a call back to The Muppet Movie: when Walter asks him how they will do it, Kermit asks him, “Didn’t you see our first movie? We do it by car!

Once the gang is back together, the solution to saving the studio and theatre is to put on a telethon in the hopes of raising the money before Richman’s deadline, which echoes the plot of It’s a Very Merry Muppet Christmas Movie. (In the TV film, a loose adaptation of It’s a Wonderful Life, they have to get money to their evil banker before a capricious and changing deadline, while putting on their Christmas show. Fozzie loses the money and Kermit wonders if the gang might be better off without him.)

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The Muppets delivers we expect from a Muppets movie: great cameos, a lot of corny jokes, casual and continual destruction of the fourth wall and a moral lesson about believing in yourself that is simultaneously pure sap and pure Muppets.

We also get another Muppets trademark: weird songs that seem to violate all rules of composition, but somehow get stuck in your head. While the movie frequently calls back to older songs from the Muppets past and songs by other musicians, it also features a number of original songs written by Bret McKenzie of The Flight of the Conchords, including the opening number Life’s a Happy Song and the brilliant “Man or Muppet”, which includes the film’s best and funniest cameo.

Frank Oz and the old guard’s concerns that this film is too racy ignores how sneakily racy that the Muppets always were. Carmela’s performance of Cee Lo Green’s “Buck You” is no more racy than Kermit and Rowlf’s duet of “I Hope That Somethin’ Better Comes Along” which saw its second verse cut from The Muppet Movie by nervous studio executives. And if Fozzie’s fart shoes are a big problem, someone probably should have mentioned that to Leslie Neilsen when he appeared in the music video for Kermit and Miss Piggy’s “She Drives Me Crazy” and whoopie-farted along to the song.

What makes The Muppets work is Walter’s story of growing up loving the Muppets (as so many of us did) and then one day miraculously finding himself part of the Muppets. In a meta-sense, it’s the story of virtually all the performers bringing life to the Muppets in this film. They grew up idolizing Jim Henson and Frank Oz and loving the Muppets… and now they are the Muppets, putting on a show, because as Kermit said at the end of The Muppets Celebrate Jim Henson, “That’s the way the boss would want it.

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And that’s the way that we would want it.

Welcome back Muppets. Sing us a song.

– Michael Ryan