Sunday, November 27, 2011

Love: The Muppets

I never outgrew the Muppets.  In reality, I've not known many people who have.  When I was very small I loved them for their enthusiasm and ebullient, no-holds barred goofiness.  They were colorful and electric, a motley crew of frogs and bears and chickens and things: walking, talking, flailing creatures I secretly believed must have been real (and in some ways still do) and which served as the partial basis for a million and one puppeted plush personalities my sister and I brought to life each day.  As I got older, I learned to see the Muppets as my parents already did.  I seem to recall my father explaining that, like the Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoons he cherished, Jim Henson's puppets were in possession of jokes that improved with age and wisdom, they reminded us that it was ok to be who we wanted to be.

The Muppets -for all their cheery idealism- are a remarkably sophisticated act which, when piloted properly, offer a rare happiness and a densely layered humor.  Their mere appearance inspires joy,  yet, on the one-hand, they're a kid-friendly puppet act, on the other a self-aware, deeply meta variety act.   Part of the beauty of the Muppets is derived from the wealth of their personalities.  For every wide-eyed innocent, there's one snarkily pessimistic critic, maniac, or narcissist. When we were very small, we loved them because we wanted to know them.  As we grew up, we loved them because we realized we did know them.   The problem that The Muppets falls victim to is one of conflicted nostalgia.  It expects that its die hard fans will want to visit (we do), but tends to revere its characters and busy itself entertaining the newbies
While I devotedly watched the resurrected "Muppets Tonight" as a happily nerdy adolescent and have watched and re-watched nearly all of the Muppet shows and features in my lifetime,  I'm afraid I'm not old enough to have seen "The Muppet Show" in its original run.  For that matter, neither is Jason Segel (though he's got a few years on me).  Segel professed his puppet love (in a way) towards the tail-end of Forgetting Sarah Marshall, and, as a result, wound up co-writing the script for The Muppets; Kermit's latest outing and "the human's" obvious labor of love.  Segel and Nicholas Stoller have wisely opted to put the Muppets back in context.  This is a movie that does not revolve around the far-flung conceits of Muppet outings of the 90's.  There are no pirate suits, space aliens, or Dickens re-tellings.  Instead, the goal here is to overcome the odds and put on a show.

In an opening montage, we meet Gary (Segel) and his brother Walter.  They're inseparable, and as they age, the two constants in their Smalltown lives are each other and a rabid Muppet fandom.  They're Bert and Ernie in adjacent bunks, smiling through the hard times with bowls of popcorn and "Muppet Show" reruns. Walter's a fanatic. He finds hope in the Muppets. He should.  He is one.  So, naturally, when big brother Gary and his schoolteacher girlfriend Mary (Amy Adams) embark on a Los Angeles vacation, they have little choice but to cart Walter along and sidestep romantic outings in favor of a trip to the holy land: Muppet Studios. Long story short: Muppet Studios is condemned, a dastardly businessman (Chris Cooper) plans on tearing it down, and Walter takes it upon himself to do the impossible...get the Muppets back together to save the studio.
In many ways, this venture feels like a companion piece to The Muppet Movie and Muppets Take Manhattan.  Specifically the latter.  Manhattan has always been my favorite.  That film beautifully captured the pain of growing up.  We watched as the Muppets travel to New York City with their handcrafted musical, just a bunch of idealistic college theater kids looking for a way to hit it big and stay together.  They fail and, penniless, they drift apart, scattered to every far-flung corner of the United States.  In that film we saw what happened when the gang was forced apart.  We also saw what they could accomplish when given a chance to stay together.  The Muppets does just that.  Here, though, there's little of the heartfelt urgency we felt with "Manhattan Melodies."  Manhattan worked because it showed us the relationships between these characters and the way they relied upon one another and loved each other.  Here, those relationships are already assumed.  Instead, the urgent need for a show is placed on our shoulders.  We are not the Muppets.  We are merely Walter.  Walter is a conduit, a relatively bland addition used to preach the gospel of Muppet greatness and remind us that we need these characters.  When the friends are gathered, this time, in one of the cleverest sequences in the film, we get the sense that they're lost, but not in the way they were then.  The focus is not on the Muppets, but on the "people" who depend on them.  In some ways, this is a tremendous burden to be placed on those cloth shoulders, and it seems that in Walter's reverence, the Muppets are forced to sacrifice some of their own vibrant personalities to repeat the same old tricks of memory.
In the theater, I was on board with this.  I'm a serious fan, and just seeing Kermit, Miss Piggy, and Fozzie together again is enough to make me enormously happy.  The Muppets is a delightful, brightly colored winter happiness that's chock full of clever jokes and relishes its own warm sincerity. Yet, as the film drew to its inevitable conclusion, I couldn't help but feel that my time with our puppet kinfolk had been too brief, that what I'd wanted from the film, or, what I wanted the most, had been present, but accidentally suppressed. Segel is in love, and he does the Muppets a definite solid.  Where he fails, though, is perhaps in not realizing that everyone wants to see as much of these long lost friends as he does, in not knowing that Chris Cooper rapping can only make us cringe, that there's no point in Camilla clucking a Cee-Lo song, and that Amy Adams is a washed-out piece of milquetoast when put in the same room as Piggy.  As brilliant as it is to see them make their triumphant return, there are just not enough Muppets in The Muppets.  I want more.  Let's hope Disney grants them a slew of sequels.   

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