TROUBLE CITY

The Muppets

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It's been rather strange to see the Muppets suddenly come back into the pop culture mainstream, especially since I never noticed they had left at all. I mean, I saw Muppets from Space when it came to theaters (I was much younger at the time, don't judge me) and I understand why that movie put the franchise on hold for so long. But did the Muppets ever really go away? Seems to me that Kermit and the gang never lost any of their popularity over the past decade. That's remarkable in itself, really. It is a truly rare and precious franchise in TV and film that can remain so relevant for so long a period with so little original content to bolster it. The only other such franchises that come to my mind are Peanuts, the Looney Tunes, and Mickey et al. from Disney. Yet there's something else remarkable about the Muppets: They're still tactile. They're a huge cast of characters, each and every one requiring its own storage, maintenance, and staff of highly trained puppeteers. I ask you: Just imagine that the Muppet franchise never existed before now. Imagine that Jim Henson went and pitched his idea to the studio heads today. Do you think his idea would ever have gotten made? If so, would there have been any chance that the characters might have been entirely practical? No, I submit to you that if the Muppets were invented today, they would have been entirely CGI creations.

But somehow, here we are. Kermit and friends have returned to theaters, and they're still as physical as ever. And man, was it a joy to watch them work again.

I'm tempted to begin with the premise of The Muppets, but the premise is really beside the point. It's ludicrous, it provides a one-dimensional villain, it gives the Muppets an excuse to put on a show, and it's simple enough that a child could understand it. In other words, the premise is so thin that hanging jokes from it becomes a very simple matter.

The meta humor comes early and it comes often. The characters never waste an opportunity to call attention to plot holes or to poke fun at each other. In a similar vein, the celebrity cameos come fast and furious, and not a one of them is anywhere near subtle. Yet this movie opens with a bright and cheery musical number in which everyone breaks into song and dance, and they all faint as soon as the main characters are out of frame. This combination of overblown cheeriness and self-awareness can mean only one thing: The filmmakers know how silly this film is, and they want you to know that they know it.

In that musical number, I could hear the filmmakers daring me to call bullshit. And I came close, only to find that I just didn't have the heart. Though there are barely any Muppets in the opening, it still captures that same tone that the Muppets and their Sesame Street brethren have been delivering for years. The song invites and encourages the older viewers to let their inner children run free, crafted in such a way that only a true asshole would dare say no. I found it very difficult to critique the film from that point on, because I'd come to accept the movie on its own terms and I was set to follow wherever it went.

Luckily, I do have the presence of mind to say that not all the musical numbers in this film work entirely. Easily the worst is "Man or Muppet," an original song which had a very clever premise and an execution that fell flat. There's also the villain's song, "Let's Talk About Me," which seemed oddly out of place even for this movie. Still, I've gotta give props to that opening number, "Life's a Happy Song," which also closes out the film. I also loved Kermit's new showcase song, "Pictures in My Head."

As for the previously existing songs, I rather enjoyed the film's use of "We Built this City" and "Forget You," in spite of myself. I also got a huge kick out of the Muppet Show theme song, which was here presented with a complete re-enactment of the Muppet Show opening, right down to Gonzo's trumpet. But by far the best musical number in the whole film is the performance of "Rainbow Connection" in the third act. I'm seriously getting tears in my eyes just remembering that moment, it was such a beautifully staged presentation of such a beautiful song. It was easily worth the cost of admission just to see the whole cast in that one scene.

Oh, right. I still haven't talked about the cast, have I?

Part of the movie's conceit is that the Muppets disbanded a long time ago, so they have to be tracked down one by one and brought back to the theater. This was a brilliant way to give several Muppets their own chance to shine, since we get to see what they've been doing in the years since. I got a particularly loud laugh out of seeing what's happened with Bunsen and Beaker, and Sam the Eagle's current profession is just brilliant. Additionally, Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem get a lot of love in this movie, though (in a very smart move), the bandmate who got the most screentime and the best jokes was Animal.

Alas, any group this huge is going to have characters fall through the cracks. Statler and Waldorf were present, though they were both horribly written. The Swedish Chef shows up, but he gets a depressing lack of jokes. As for Rizzo, I'm pretty sure he doesn't show up at all. On a slightly different note, Scooter is very prominent in the movie, yet no mention is made about his rich uncle who owns the theater. That's a very strange omission, considering how the film's entire premise revolves around ownership of the theater.

Working our way up to the movie's main Muppets, Fozzie has some good moments throughout, and Gonzo gets a very funny scene in which he blows up a toilet factory (don't ask). Of course, Piggy is the same prima donna she ever was, though she of course has to develop in such a way that she gets back together with Kermit and returns as a committed member of the group. For my part, I think the development arc was pretty unevenly handled, taking one or more step back for every two steps forward.

With all of this going on, you might think that any screentime given to the green one might take a hit. Worry not. Kermit figures very prominently in the movie, with a ton of screentime and dialogue to serve as the Muppets' leader and role model. He's still unsure of himself at several points, and he's still playing the straight man -- er, frog -- to all the craziness that goes on around him. Oh, and there's also a running gag to show how Kermit has grown out of touch with the outside world since he fell out of fame. His rolodex is a perfect example, since it's filled with such A-list celebrities as Jimmy Carter and Molly Ringwald.

Having said that, Kermit isn't the protagonist. That role falls to a brand new Muppet named Walter, and the movie took a lot of great pains bringing him into the fold and developing him as a worthy addition to the Muppet stable. For my part, I'm not entirely sold. Really, there are only two noteworthy things about Walter. One of them I won't spoil here, except to say that it isn't enough to build a character around. The second thing is that he's an embarrasingly huge fan of the Muppets and he literally dreams about joining their ranks. During the course of this movie -- which, remember, is all about the Muppets coming back and rediscovering their relevance -- this starry-eyed obsession with the Muppets made Walter an ideal main character. But at the end of the movie, his dreams are realized and he's made part of the team. So now what?

Moving on to the flesh-and-blood stars, Walter is joined by Gary and Mary (Jason Segel and Amy Adams). Again, you should be seeing a very clear sign of just how silly this movie knows it is. Anyway, Gary is Walter's brother (just go with it), and he's also Mary's longtime boyfriend. So of course the film utilizes Mary's jealousy of all the time Gary spends with Walter, in addition to Gary's conflicting interests. But let's not kid ourselves.

First and foremost, Gary and Mary are there to help Walter develop. They are there to nurture this new Muppet until he's ready to join the big leagues. Though of course, they're also game for quite a few song-and-dance numbers. Fortunately, Jason Segel seems more than comfortable playing such a wholesome role, and he's great hamming it up for musical numbers. As for Amy Adams, it should go without saying that there's absolutely nothing in this film that Princess Giselle can't handle.

As for the villain of the piece, Chris Cooper plays an oil tycoon who wants to destroy the Muppet Theater so he can get to the oil underneath. As if that wasn't absurd enough, the character's name is Tex Richman. Yes, this character was clearly designed to be as arch as possible, and Cooper is good enough to act accordingly. He plays cartoonishly evil to the hilt, and he looks like he's having a great time doing it.

Finally, I know I've already touched on the celebrity cameos, but it bears repeating. Jack Black appears as himself, and he turns in the funniest performance I've ever seen from him. The beautiful and hilarious Rashida Jones also appears, playing a TV exec. Aside from them, there are cameos from the likes of Mickey Rooney, Whoopi Goldberg, Emily Blunt, Neil Patrick Harris, Donald Glover, Ken Jeong, Selena Gomez, James Carville, Zach Galifianakis, Kristen Schaal, Sarah Silverman, and those are just the ones I remember. Seriously, I don't think two minutes went by without a cameo. There's also a very sweet moment that displays photos of several Muppet collaborators from years past, and it pleased me to see Jim Henson himself given a very prominent place among them.

Nitpicks aside, The Muppets is pure concentrated joy. Jason Segel, Nick Stoller, and James Bobin all clearly display a great love and understanding of the old Muppet magic, and it's seeping out of every frame. The classic characters are all here (with only a couple of rare exceptions), and they're all exactly as you know and love them. The human actors are never at any risk of stealing the spotlight, and they're all clearly having a lot of fun.

I had an amazing time watching this movie, and I can't wait to see the next one. Highly recommended.