Chief Justice Michael Stailey here with a Muppet News Flash...
I'm gonna shoot straight: you guys aren't famous anymore.
"Listen everybody, we've got nothing to be ashamed of. And you know why? Well…because, thanks to Walter here, we tried. And if we failed, we failed together, and to me that's not failing at all."—Kermit the Frog
Facts of the Case
Gary (Jason Segel, How I Met Your Mother) and Mary (Amy Adams, Enchanted) are celebrating their 10th anniversary with a trip to Los Angeles. Along for the ride is their ever present third wheel, Gary's brother Walter (puppeteered by Peter Linz), who also happens to be a Muppet (go with it). One of the highlights of their trip is a stop at the world famous Muppet Studios, now merely an echo of a once great franchise. The Muppets themselves have scattered to the four corners of the earth, most living in relative obscurity. But when evil oil baron Tex Richman (Chris Cooper, American Beauty) exploits a loophole in the Muppet "Fame and Fortune" contract, it could be curtains on everything Muppet-related…unless the gang can raise $10 Million to repurchase the studio and their licensing rights. So it's up to Walter, the world's biggest Muppet fan, to convince everyone involved that The Muppets are worth fighting for; no matter what it takes.
At the age of 44, I'm a first generation fan of Sesame Street and The Muppet Show. Jim Henson and his alter-ego, Kermit the Frog, have held a special place in my heart for as long as I can remember. And so it is with a somewhat heavy heart that I begin writing this review.
I didn't love The Muppets. Disney's attempt to revitalize the franchise under the creative guidance of Jason Segel, Nick Stoller, and director James Bobin made me smile and laugh, but didn't capture my imagination the way Jim, Jerry Juhl, Jack Burns, and director James Frawley did with The Muppet Movie in 1979. Is it a fair comparison? Of course not. Today's world is completely different than it was 33 years, and so is the Muppet franchise. Jim Henson (Kermit, Rowlf, Waldorf, Swedish Chef, Dr. Teeth) and Richard Hunt (Statler, Scooter, Beaker, Janice, Sweetums) have long since left this world, while Frank Oz (Piggy, Fozzie, Animal, Sam the Eagle), Jerry Nelson (Floyd, Dr. Bunsen Honeydew, Camilla, Crazy Harry), Louise Gold, and Kathryn Mullen have gone onto other projects. That's taking nothing away from original Muppeteers Steve Whitmire (now voicing Kermit and most of Jim's characters) and Dave Goelz (still voicing Gonzo and picking up Waldorf, Dr. Bunsen Honeydew, and Zoot) who continue to carry the Muppet torch with love and pride. It's simply a fact. The heart and soul of characters I spent 30 minutes with every Saturday night from 1976-1981 is gone. The echoes of greatness still reverberate in televised repeats, DVD box sets, and theme park attractions at Disneyland and Walt Disney World—with humor just as biting and entertaining as it ever was—but today's Muppets are just not the same.
That's my heartfelt opinion. Now for an objective critical review.
The Muppets achieves its overarching goals. Segel, Stoller, and Bobin return these characters to the spotlight, with an adventure that draws on everything in The Muppetverse, infusing it with humor that keeps the franchise in step with today's comedic sensibilities ('80s robot is brilliant!). Nothing here disrespects what came before, and conspiracy claims that the script is a leftist tree-hugging agenda turning younger audiences against big business and the oil industry are ludicrous. This is Grade-A Muppet entertainment that plays to adults and kids, engaging both while talking down to neither.
There are some missteps, however.
• Walter. I know the audience needs a window into this world, someone they can connect with whose heart is pure and innocence is at stake. I get it. It works for the movie, but it doesn't sit right with me. Walter is a conceit; a Muppet born into a non-Muppet family with no further explanation. We accept it as fact and move on. It just bothers me, because without Walter we have no movie. He is the alpha and omega of this tale, the only foundational support for what amounts to a house of cards.
• Tex Richman. When establishing a villain, the stakes need to be high and continually escalating. The Muppet Movie's Doc Hopper was willing to kill Kermit for his succulent legs. The Great Muppet Caper's Nicky Holiday was framing Piggy for theft and sending her to rot in jail. Here, the threat is a loss of something The Muppets no longer cared about and hadn't used in years—their identity. Chris Cooper does his dastardly best to keep the telethon from succeeding, but the plot needs a bigger end game.
• Direction. James Bobin's directorial debut plays to his comedic television roots (Da Ali G Show, Flight of the Conchords). Where the early Muppet films went for true cinematic scope, The Muppets is a more intimate affair, recreating the premise of The Muppet Show, which is fine if they followed through on the setup. Unfortunately, the sheer number of Muppets they have participating in the telethon makes the second half of the film feel cluttered and unfocused. Yes, they returned the Muppet Theater to its former glory, but instead of brief musical numbers ("Cluck You"), quick cameos (Wayne and Wanda?!), and throwaway gags ("Look, Fart Shoes!"), the film would have benefitted more from restaging sketches like "Pigs in Space," "Veterinarian's Hospital," and "At the Dance."
• Music. Christophe Beck's music and Bret McKenzie's songs lack the idealistic magic of Paul Williams, Joe Raposo, and Ralph Burns. In fact, Beck's influence clearly recalls the work he did for Joss Whedon's "Once More with Feeling" musical episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. McKenzie may have won the Oscar for "Man or Muppet," but it doesn't come close to the sincerity of Paul Williams' "I'm Going to Go Back There Someday." There also doesn't seem to be a cohesive musical scheme, interchangeably using pop songs and original numbers to fit whatever the scene calls for. Although, we do get "Manah Manah" over the closing credits, which goes a long way towards redemption.
Presented in 1.78:1/1080p high definition widescreen, Disney continues its Blu-ray dominance with yet another stellar transfer. You have never seen The Muppets up this close and personal, from the color graduation on Gonzo's beak to the matted hair on Fozzie hands. The mix of interior and exterior shots, day and night, keeps everything perfectly balanced; deep blacks, vibrant colors, and not a hint of digital tampering. The same excellence carries over to Disney's now standard 7.1 DTS-HD Master Audio mix. Not a word of dialogue is lost on this vast array of Muppet voices, existing on a incredibly robust soundscape, with music that never overplays its hand. European audiences will celebrate 7.1 French and 5.1 Spanish language tracks, and hard of hearing audience members will benefit from English SDH, French, and Spanish subtitles.
That said, I'm not overly impressed with the lineup of bonus features presented here. There is so much Muppet history to explore and once again the opportunity is lost. What we do get is focused exclusively on The Muppets…
* Commentary—Jason Segel, Nick Stoller, and James Bobin often enjoy their own company more than they care to share insights into the development and production of the film. The conversation becomes grating rather quickly and you'll have to really persevere to gain small bits of valuable Muppet information.
* Deleted Scenes (10 min)—Eight extended and deleted scenes amount to very little significance. I was hoping to see some of the rumored cameo appearances that didn't make it (e.g. Lady Gaga), but they may never have been shot in the first place.
* Scratching the Surface (16 min)—The most genuine featurette gives us off-the-cuff interviews with the Muppets and their cast/crewmates, showing just how talented these Muppeteers really are.
* The Longest Blooper Reel Ever. At least in Muppet History. We think. (9 min)—More Muppeteering madness!
* Explaining Evil: The Full Text Richman Song (3 min)—Watch Chris Cooper rap. Again.
* A Little Screen Test on the Way to the Read Through (3 min)—A pre-production short captures our Muppet heroes traversing Disney's corporate offices on the way to a conference room table read.
* Theatrical Spoof Trailers (9 min)—You've seen them on YouTube, now you have them all in one place. The marketing team used their holiday release schedule to recut the film into trailers spoofing the competition. Some work great. Others fall flat.
* Soundtrack Copy—Download a copy of the film's soundtrack via a digital download code.
* DVD Copy—Standard definition version of the film on DVD.
* Digital Copy—Download a copy to your portable device.
* BD-Live—More Disney marketing material for upcoming and recent releases.
Referring back to Kermit's closing monologue, he's right; no matter how you look at it, The Muppets did not fail. The film made Disney a boatload of money, introduced an entirely new generation of kids to these beloved characters, and furthers Jim Henson's legacy of family entertainment. Though lifelong fans like myself may mourn the loss of our Muppets, there are enough of those glory days available to stoke the fires of our memories for decades to come.
"Life is like a movie, write your own ending. Keep believing, keep pretending. We have done what we've set out to do…Thanks to the lovers, the dreamers, and you!"
Not Guilty, Frog.
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