Movie review: ‘The Muppets’ are sweet and subversive
You know times are tough when even the Muppets are facing bankruptcy, or worse, playing in a Muppet tribute band. What happened to the “rainbow connection”?
That and more will be answered with nostalgic charm and big, splashy production numbers in the very warm and fuzzy musical comedy of “The Muppets.” The movie stars Jason Segel, Amy Adams, Chris Cooper and pretty much every Muppet that has ever graced a screen, small or large, since the late Jim Henson first brought them to life many decades ago.
This newest Muppet fable begins in an idyllic slice of ‘50s-era Americana, Smalltown, USA, with old home movies of best friends and brothers, Gary (Segel) and Walter (Walter, in an impressive acting debut). Though no one makes a mention of it, Gary is a human and Walter is a puppet, that blended reality one of the conceits the Muppets have exploited so well from the beginning.
As you might imagine, Smalltown is a grand place to grow up: The grass is always green, kids love going to school, and universal happiness (if not healthcare) is a given. Mary (Adams) and Gary are sweethearts, getting ready to celebrate their 10th anniversary together and heading to Hollywood to do it. The romance is all very chaste, which is good because the twosome quickly becomes a threesome, with Walter tagging along.
A huge Muppets fan, Walter’s just dying to tour the troupe’s old studio. If this were a different world, right about now Mary would issue an it’s-me-or-the-puppet ultimatum, but she just sighs and makes room in the car.
The villain here is oilman Tex Richman (Cooper), a tycoon who’s about to take control of the famed Muppet theater, which has definitely gone to seed. While Walter’s savoring a few moments in Kermit’s old office, he happens to overhear the specifics of Tex’s nefarious plans and knows the only way to save the day, or at least the property, is to get the frog involved.
And that he does. Kermit’s living large but alone in his Hollywood manse. Miss Piggy’s in Paris, a plus-size fashion editor for Vogue. The others have scattered to the four winds, or Reno. But before you know it, and with a little movie magic, Kermit has rounded up the old gang, and the filmmakers have had a few laughs at Hollywood’s expense.
Segel, who’s got lovable schlub down to a science, and Adams, not quite as enchanting as she was as the fairy tale princess in 2007’s “Enchanted,” but close enough, are perfectly cast. They are completely at ease in a world filled with Muppets and Muppet problems, and totally game for the huge musical numbers.
Walter, a newcomer the filmmakers added, is adorably insecure and a good addition to the house that Henson built, which included so many iconic characters — the out-of-control Animal comes to mind among many favorites.
One of the movie’s delights is all the subversive parody slipped into its very smart script by co-writers Segel and Nicholas Stoller (“Get Him to the Greek”). The pair, self-professed die-hard fans, included a small Muppet homage in their collaboration on “Forgetting Sarah Marshall,” but thought — why not put on a whole new movie, which is not unlike the “why don’t we put on a show” idea that drives the action here.
With “Flight of the Conchords” alum James Bobin directing and one of the show’s creators/stars, Bret McKenzie, contributing three new songs, among other things, there is a clever edginess that helps keep the film afloat. That sensibility is very much a franchise tradition considering Henson called a 1975 TV pilot, “The Muppet Show: Sex and Violence,” and took a few well-aimed shots at the controversy.
You’ll bump into a famous face doing a funny cameo around nearly every corner, Jack Black’s most frequently. Many of them remain uncredited for now to keep the surprise, though I’d just suggest you keep an eye out for the most fabulous one, which hits with a big bang.
For all its sharpness, the movie has a very sweet streak. Its Technicolor gloss (director of photography Don Burgess, Oscar nominated for another fable, “Forrest Gump”) and “Leave It to Beaver” fashion sense (Rahel Afiley on costumes, Steve Saklad on production design, both outstanding) do much to create the feel of a more innocent time.
Still, the filmmakers are definitely playing around with the form, breaking the fourth wall and messing with movie conventions when it suits them. There are a few stumbles, but not too many, and by the time Gary and Walter get to a showstopping number that asks the burning question — “Am I a man, or a Muppet?” — you are completely hooked.
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