Feb 11, 2012

The Muppets [U]

Dir: James Bobin
Why did you first start going to the cinema? Do you even remember? For me, the cinema has become many things; a place I go to think and to feel, to be scared and excited, to rail against villains and fall for girls. It didn't start like that though, it started as a place of pure, joyous, escapism, and that's what The Muppets took me back to.

I'm a little bit young to have grown up with The Muppet Show, but I saw the films when I was a kid, the Muppet Babies cartoon was often featured in the Saturday morning shows I grew up on and Muppets Tonight had a short lived BBC run when I was in my mid teens. Most of my affection for the gang, however, post dates creator Jim Henson's untimely death, and is connected to the peerless seasonal classic The Muppet Christmas Carol, which is a Christmas Eve tradition for me.

The Muppets takes place in a world somewhat like our own, in that the Muppets have been off TV and cinema screens for many years (their last film outing was 1999's Muppets From Space), they have been largely forgotten, except by Gary (Jason Segel) and his suspiciously muppety brother Walter (Peter Linz). When Gary decides to take his girlfriend Mary (Amy Adams) to Los Angeles for their tenth anniversary, Walter tags along so they can make pilgrimage to the Muppet Studios, where Walter discovers that unless The Muppets raise $10 million in the next week, the Muppet theatre will be razed to the ground by oil baron Tex Richman (Chris Cooper). Walter and Gary decide they have to find Kermit (Steve Whitmire), put the gang back together, and do one more Muppet Show to raise the money.

I just don't know where to begin with this movie, which thing that I loved should I tell you about first? The songs? The script? The performances? Which performances anyway, those from the films humans or from the Muppets? Before we get to that, let's just address this quickly... Fox News accused this film of being liberal propaganda because an oil baron is the villain. Okay. First off; he's clearly a cartoon villain. How can I tell? Well... he's got Muppet sidekicks, he's incapable of laughing and instead simply says 'Maniacal Laugh, Maniacal Laugh'... oh and HE'S CALLED TEX RICHMAN! It's a simple conflict for kids to identify with, also it's a JOKE, get over it. The point of The Muppets isn't to indoctrinate people, it's purely and simply there for you to have fun, and on that level it is an unqualified success.

Star Jason Segel, along with Nicholas Stoller, has written a light and witty screenplay that nods to the audience frequently, as in a lovely early exchange when Kermit says he's not getting the gang back together and Mary notes: "This is going to be a really short movie." However, it's not just about delivering the laughs, the film is solidly, if simply, plotted, and not a little moving. The early part of the film finds Kermit and the other Muppets estranged from each other, and Kermit's song Pictures in my Head manages to hit the funnybone and tug the heartstrings, and I defy you not to get just a bit choked up when Rainbow Connection comes along.

For the most part though, the film's stock in trade is fun. If you're a Muppet fan then chances are you favourite character has his or her little moment in the sun, personally I'm a big fan of Beaker and Animal, neither of whom have large parts, but both recur throughout the film and are consistently hilarious (and Animal is one of the funniest things here, with his film long quest to stay away from the drums). Of course Kermit and (eventually) Miss Piggy get the most screentime, and they fall quickly and entertainingly into their familiar roles. There are a handful of disappointments, namely that both Gonzo and Rizzo have very little to do (though that is somewhat made up for by a few very funny moments for Pepe the prawn). The remarkable thing about the Muppets is how readily you can forget that they are puppets. Kermit actually has little articulation, but Steve Whitmire uses tiny gestures, minuscule adjustments that wrest real emotion from what is, in essence, a green sock with ping pong ball eyes, and brings him to vivid life.

The other main cast members; Segel, Adams and Walter are also effective (though Adams, who is as irresistible as ever, is a bit sidelined at times). Their heaviest lifting comes in the opening twenty minutes, which, crucially, hook you in even before we've got to Kermit. The charming and funny first act develops the relationships in Gary's life, and provides the film with its best musical number, the ridiculously hummable Life's a Happy Song (and if you're not finding yourself singing it as you skip out of the cinema, check yourself for a heartbeat). There is no denying though that the film really takes off once the familiar faces arrive.

Famous faces pepper the movie with cameos, which I won't spoil other than to say that most really hit the mark. The human supporting cast is also excellent though, with Chris Cooper clearly having time of his life as Tex Richman (especially when called upon to rap), and Rashida Jones is still adorable, even cast as (this movie's version of) a hard-nosed TV executive.

I don't really know what else I can say. Every word further risks spoiling something surprising and joyous for you. Go and see The Muppets, you'll love it. Or else.

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