Friday, January 6, 2012

Let's Talk About Jason Segal's Unabashed Love Letter to the Muppets.

On New Year's Day I had the rare treat of seeing an advance screening of The Muppets (it doesn't open until the 12th here in Australia) and I'm stilled kind of stunned how a frog, a bear, a pig, and a whatever can put a smile on my face. And bear in mind that I haven't actually smiled since 1984 when I saw Muppets Take Manhattan.

After decades of mishandling/manhandling, the Muppets are finally back in a satisfying way that successfully honours the warmth and humour that made them popular in the first place. Writer and lead actor Jason Segal gets it. This isn't another tired adaptation like Muppet Robin Hood or Muppet Bible Stories, or Muppets Schindler's List - that's all thankfully in the past. The Muppets is a joyful, yet poignant underdog story about how something once loved but long forgotten can sometimes make a comeback.

The premise itself is simple - the long estranged Muppets must rally back together and put on one last show to stop a rich Texan from turning their theatre into an oil well, but underlying this is a very real threat - this could very well be the Muppets last chance to winover their audience. If their show (and the film) doesn't raise enough money then this could very well be the end. Thankfully it isn't. The film has performed well and I hope its success leads to future opportunities.

So why did it work? And what could have been even better? Join me after the jump and we'll figure it out...

Why it Works

The Characters
Forget Pepe the Prawn. Forget Rizzo the Rat. There are four core characters in the Muppets and they should always be our focus: Kermit, Fozzie, Piggy and Gonzo. You get that part right and you're gold, and Kermit has meaningful scenes with all of them (not the least of which is his surprisingly adult Paris scene where you're shocked at just how complicated things can be between a frog and a pig. Kermit seems much more serious wearing a turtleneck too). Previous movies have pushed the main characters into the background and replaced them with hideous abominations like catfish Clifford. All those new characters are gone and the majority of on-screen Muppets are from the first few seasons of the TV show.

Meanwhile your next circle of characters should be Rowlf, Scooter, Beaker, Bunsen, Sam, Chef and the Electric Mayhem. Again, the movie handles this perfectly, giving them all short but significant screentime - most of them having a few decent laughs and something to do. Rowlf's flashback is gold, and Animal's arc couldn't be better - he's used sparingly, but the anticipation of his outburst builds throughout the film.

The Premise
Beyond the whole "save the theatre" storyline, the real core is the journey of lifelong Muppet fan (and Muppet) Walter. He puts the whole thing in context - he's a super fan from the seventies who has watched in horror as the Muppets faded into obscurity, becoming an irrelevant footnote in an increasingly cynical world. It's Walter who fights to bring the Muppets back, and by openly admitting that it will be a tough battle to find a contemporary audience it grounds the whole movie and makes us really think about why the Muppets were such huge cultural icons in the first place. As each well-loved character is gradually re-introduced and brought (often reluctantly) back into the fold, it's hard not to feel a growing sense of goodwill.

What surprised me about my own reaction was that halfway through the plot became completely unimportant to me. I didn't care so much about Walter, or the relationship issues with Gary and Mary, or even the rich Texan villain. I just wanted to see their new show. I wanted to hear the songs and see the acts. To see the television show's opening recreated for the big screen was wonderful and I wanted to immerse myself in that nostalgic world for as long as I could. The Muppets had a huge impact on me as a child and all those memories came flooding back.

The Songs
It was a truly brilliant idea to bring in Brett from Flight of the Conchords, and the original songs are appropriately funny and catchy. And when they're not funny and catchy they are very sad. Kermit's Pictures in my Head is perfectly handled, from the song itself to the clever way that it is staged. And I defy anyone to not love Man or Muppet. It' impossible.

And then there's the new versions of classic songs like Rainbow Connection and Mahna Mahna. The film unapologetically punches your nostalgia button like a maniac. "DO YOU REMEMBER HOW MUCH YOU LOVED THE MUPPETS?" BAM! "HOW ABOUT NOW?" BAM! Everything you could hope for is here.

The Heart
That sounds kind of sissy of me, but there really is a lot of love in this movie. It's made by people that genuinely love the property. This isn't some shit like Madagascar 2. It's a love letter to a bygone time. I think Jason Segal truly loves The Muppets with every fibre of his being and that's why he gets it right. He wasn't afraid to get his chop out in Forgetting Sarah Marshall, and he's not afraid to wear his heart on his sleeve here.

And What Could Have Been Even Better?
Now, clearly I love the movie. And I don't want it changed. But here are some random thoughts for the future...

The Songs
The original songs are so good that I really wanted more of them. Instead we also get Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard and We Built This City. Plus, of course, we get a selection of older songs too, which are great for working out the aforementioned nostalgia button, but the new stuff was so good I also kind of wanted more of that instead. I think that's the key here - I just wanted more.

But I think the biggest crime is that the original Muppet cast don't get enough original songs - mostly it's Segal, Amy Adams and Walter who are leading the new stuff. In fact when Amy's nearly superfluous (at this stage of the movie anyway) character breaks into song by herself in a diner I'm thinking, "Really? The Muppets have just been reunited and we're dwelling on her?" Speaking of which...

Don't Cockblock the Muppets, Amy
It's kind of a thankless role for Amy Adams because all this awesome stuff is happening - Walter and Gary are all, "Holy crap! We're getting the Muppets back together again and we've cleaned up the theatre and we're putting on this great once-in-a-lifetime show! This is awesome you guys" and Amy Adams totally cockblocks Gary and is all, "But waaaaah what about me! I need to eat dinner! Me eating dinner is more important than Muppets!" DUMP HER, GARY! Janice is single!

The Cameos
Great to see a nice range of celebrities drop in and support the film, but if you really want to follow the formula from the seventies and eighties then give them something to do! I found myself going, "Oh sweet! Sarah Silverman! This will be good!" only for her to disappear after a single line. Remember Steve Martin's unpleasant waiter in The Muppet Movie? That's wonderful stuff, and I wish there was more room for some surprise guests to do some memorable scenery chewing. I really hope there's a sequel because I think the sky's the limit in this regard.

The Finale
The finale is good. I like Life's a Happy Song a lot, but it just spills into the street and is kind of messy in a way. It's just not as heartfelt or memorable as the Muppet Movie finale which is spinechilling. The 2011 film leaves us on a warm, loose happy note, but I wish it was more of a meaningful one. In 1979 Kermit leaves us with: "Life's like a movie, write your own ending, keep believing, keep pretending, we've done just what we've set out to do." Incredible stuff. The "keep pretending" kills me, because it's not a saccharine message. At the age of three I had a frog telling me that things aren't always going to work out, but we have to keep pushing forward in the hope that they will. I wanted this new film to suckerpunch me at the end. Maybe next time...

Obviously I loved the film, but I want to tell you about the special circumstances in which I saw it. We were in an outdoor cinema in a beautiful park, and I can't even begin to describe the magic of watching Kermit perform Rainbow Connection under the real stars to an audience which included hundreds of children, many of which were being introduced to the Muppets for the first time, just like I was in the late seventies. It's a feeling I won't be able to replicate in future screenings, but it was a perfect moment. And not many films can give you that these days.


  1. Agree on just about all of this. As a huge Pepe/Rizzo/second/third tier Muppet fan, I was able to sit back and let Kermit and all do their job in reminding everyone what the Muppets are all about.

    There was one slightly spine chilling scene for me. It's not really a spoiler, but I guess can be considered one..

    It was when everyone spent the night in the Muppet Theater and they hung their hammocks from the stage arches. The top view was a side of the Muppet stage that I never thought I'd see, and in the context it was really, really cool.

  2. If I reviewed this muppets movie I'd pretty much write exactly the same things. The film is definitely a love letter to the muppets and sometimes that gets in the way (lingering weird cameos)but you can't fault that genuine heart that's in the film.

    That scene you're talking about Tagmire, yeah man that broke me. Who would have thought you could get such a powerful moment out of Fozzy Bear haha

    Oh and seeing it at the outdoor screening at kings park with that crowd added so much to the movie experience.

    A great fun movie!