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The Muppets (PG) Reviewed

Gary Ryan enjoys himself in a material world

Published on February 9th 2012.


The Muppets (PG) Reviewed

THERE are some movies that are so deliriously joyous as to render them almost critic-proof, and it’s fair to say that The Muppets – Disney’s $45 million-budget revival – bounds along with such a relentless sense of giddy optimism that nit-picking any element of it feels like pissing remorselessly into the innocent, wide eyes of a child on Christmas morning. 

As Kermit the frog – secluded in a Bel Air mansion with only (admittedly, singing) portraits of his former colleagues for company – laments: “I guess people sort of forgot about us.” 

Put it this way: when a film begins with its stars gambolling down the street trilling “Life’s a happy song and there’s someone by my side to sing along”, you know it hasn’t been directed by Roman Polanski. 

Arriving 12 years after the Muppets last cinematic outing, the odds were understandably against Jason Segel, the comic actor (How I Met Your Mother, Forgetting Sarah Marshall) who devised, co-wrote and stars in the reboot. 

For starters, Frank Oz – the semi-retired original voice of porcine diva Miss Piggy – was critical of the script, refusing to participate. Then there was the general sense of obsolesce regarding the franchise – it had been running on fumes for the last 20 years. 

They’d tried pillaging classic literature plots for the sterling The Muppet Christmas Carol – the first film produced following creator Jim Henson’s death – and less successful Muppet Treasure Island (at least we were spared The Muppets Angela’s Ashes), before the textile-based icons descended into made-for-TV purgatory. 

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As the final insult, poor old Beaker even got compared to Treasury minister Danny Alexander, which is grossly unfair. I mean, one is an easily-manipulated puppet and the other has nothing to do with the Liberal Democrats (although I would like to take this opportunity to pitch my idea for an erotic thriller starring him  - Beaker, not Danny – called Nine ½ Meeps). 

In the age of Pixar – which has picked up the baton for innovative family entertainment that is savvy without being cruel, and sweet without being saccharine – how is The Muppets relevant to today’s under-10s? 

Cleverly, that’s the premise upon which the film is nailed: the Muppets are washed-up has-beens, the team disbanded and discarded by a society that’s moved on: less Sesame Street, more Sunset Boulevard.

As Kermit the frog – secluded in a Bel Air mansion with only (admittedly, singing) portraits of his former colleagues for company – laments: “I guess people sort of forgot about us.” 

Segel plays Gary, an ordinary joe from Smalltown, who is protective of his younger brother, Walter (Avenue Q’s Peter Linz), essentially Gonzo et al’s biggest fan and also – in a DNA quirk that, brilliantly, is never explained in the film – himself a three-foot orange puppet. 

Together with Gary’s girlfriend Mary (Amy Adams, delivering the kind of adorably winsome performance that suggests the producers forgot to superimpose a bluebird onto her shoulder), they make a pilgrimage to the Muppet Studios in Los Angeles, but are horrified to discover that the oil baron Tex Richman (Chris Cooper) is poised to purchase and demolish the site.

The only way to save it is to trace down the old gang and convince them to hold a telethon to raise the $10m required to buy back their old theatre. 

In a self-conscious nod to the plot of 1979’s The Muppet Movie, Walter and co head out on a reuniting-the-band road trip. Ursine comedian Fozzie is in Reno, fronting The Moopets, a thuggish Muppets tribute act from the wrong side of the sock drawer; Gonzo is a powerful plumbing magnate while Piggy has fallen on her bespoke Christian Louboutin heels as the editor of Vogue.

Animal, meanwhile, is staying in a state-sponsored anger management retreat. There’s a touching undertow of sadness about their dogged perseverance and use of singing to drown out society’s cynicism. Despite having ping-pong balls for eyes, the Muppets somehow manage to communicate more genuine emotion than Keanu Reeves has in his entire acting career. 

In an era when the technological thrill of CGI is starting to wane, The Muppets – still a loveable, hand-operated low-tech combination of fabric and charm – look visually arresting. 

The script (co-helmed by The Hangover’s Nicholas Stoller) is a riot of terrible puns, slapstick, and forth-wall-breaking gags that wisely eschews smirking nudge-wink irony. 

Unlike the likes of Shrek, it never feels embarrassed by the fact it is first and foremost a kids film. Enlisting Bret McKenzie, one half of surreal musical comedy duo Flight of the Conchords, to provide the new songs – including a hilarious Oscar-nominated power ballad, ‘Man or Muppet?’ -   is inspired; his offbeat humour a perfect match for the vaudevillian style of the 70s TV show. 

Ultimately, Segel is to The Muppets what Russell T Davies was to Doctor Who – a fervent fan who possesses a precise understanding of and faith in why the series works,  treating it with complete, unblinking sincerity and reverence. 

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Even the smattering of guest cameos – Jack Black, Emily Blunt (reprising her Devil Wears Prada alter-ego as Miss Piggy’s assistant whose snark is worse than her bite), and best of all, Foo Fighters drummer Dave Grohl as an Animal impersonator – crucially don’t feel shoehorned in or opportunistic. 

In an era when the technological thrill of CGI is starting to wane, The Muppets – still a loveable, hand-operated low-tech combination of fabric and charm – look visually arresting. Indeed, it’s impossible to suppress a grin when witnessing the barely-marshalled chaos of Nirvana’s ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ reinterpreted as a barbershop quartet number. A hug for the soul. 

Rating: 9/10. The Muppets is released on February 10 everywhere.

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Richard HJFebruary 9th 2012.

Yes.

AnonymousFebruary 10th 2012.

No.

Charlie BFebruary 10th 2012.

Maybe

HulmePixMay 4th 2012.

"Sock drawer"? "Textile based icons"? Surely you're not implying that The Muppets are not real? Blasphemer! I just wish I knew what moisturiser Miss Piggy uses as she's not aged a day.

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