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Muppet Mania: Felt perfection? ~ The Muppets (2011)/ Review

February 29, 2012

Directed by: James Bobin

Starring: Jason Segel, Amy Adams, Chris Cooper, Rashida Jones, Jack Black, Emily Blunt, Alan Arkin, Kristen Schaal, Jim Parsons and, of course, The Muppets

Screenplay by: Jason Segel and Nicholas Stoller

US; 103 minutes; Colour; Certificate: U

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What better way to spend a cold, wintry Monday night, thought I a few evenings ago, than rolling up at the Empire Leicester Square and, once ensconced inside, watching the latest Muppet movie? What better way to spend it, indeed, you may ask. But is there? Did I find the latest Muppet movie better than, equal to or even a fitting endeavour after the first, classic Muppet movie, er, The Muppet Movie (1979)? Is it felt perfection or did it, in fact, make my fur fly?

We’ve certainly had to wait a while for a proper, fully-blown, cinema-released Muppet flick – 12 years, to be exact, given the last was the unquestionably underwhelming Muppets In Space. And, as revealed in the first of my ‘Muppet Mania’ posts here, under the Disney umbrella our favourite furry friends have been a little lost of late (arguably their biggest success has come in an Internet music video parody). To say it must have been a big challenge then for a new generation of filmmakers (and die-hard Muppet fans) spearheaded by How I Met Your Mother star Jason Segel to bring ’em back to flickatoriums in an adventure that doesn’t just make moolah, but also does them justice, is an understatement the size of Sweetums. Yet, in this final ‘Muppet Mania’ post, I can happily declare that, for the most part, they’ve pulled it off – and that’s probably most of all down to the fact they are, like so many out there, such big enthusiasts of Kermit and co.

Indeed, surely anyone’d realise The Muppets (as the movie’s not so imaginatively titled) is made by fans. All the way from its mock-sentimental but endearing opening montage to its ebullient, genuinely uplifting song-and-dance finale, it’s a nostalgia-fest harking back to the days when Jim Henson’s heroes straddled the starry showbiz firmament like fuzzy demi-gods, belittling household names in their infamous Muppet theatre for a half-hour each week on TV sets across the globe.

It’s this cartoonish, cosy but wonderfully irreverent fantasy world that The Muppets seeks to recreate; its brain-free-as-Beauregard plot revolving around the trip to Hollywood taken by Muppet fan-of-old Gary (Segel), his girlfriend Mary (Adams) and Muppet-obsessed brother Walter (who seems actually to be a Muppet), ostensibly for the former couple’s 10-year anniversary, but just as much for Walter to make pilgrimage to the now run-down Muppet Theatre. There, the latter discovers a heinous scheme by evil oilman Tex Richman (Cooper) to buy the theatre – and the Muppets brand with it – and knock the building down for greedy business interests. Of course, Walter believes there’s only person who could possibly prevent this catastrophe: yes, Kermit. And, once the legendary amphibian is sought out, he himself can only think of one solution: getting the Muppets back together and putting on a one-off Muppet Show-cum-telethon to save their former home – and themselves.

In dedicating its first act to bringing the big-time troupe members back together one-by-one (and amusingly so too: Fozzie’s now in a crap Reno Muppet-tribute act called The Moopets; Gonzo runs a toilet empire and Animal’s entrenched in anger management therapy), the story smartly and effectively echoes that of the original Muppet Movie, which, of course, told the tale of how they all came together in the first place. Aside from fourth-wall-breaking moments (again reminiscent of The Muppet Movie), such as the gang saving time on car trips by travelling ‘by map’ rather than by road, generally though this flick most references – and, in a way, arguably tries to recreate – The Muppet Show.

As such, its second act is a Muppet twist on the old showbiz ‘let’s put on a show’ tale, including the gang doing up their theatre to the tune of Starship’s We Built This City (Segel and friends are clearly fans of ’80s corn as well as all-things Henson) and its third act is the actual telethon itself, featuring utterly familiar acts delivered by Fozzie, Gonzo, Animal and the rest of The Electric Mayhem band, while Kermit and Scooter try to keep control of the totally pants, but rather wonderful production.

The sub-plots of Kermit and Miss Piggy’s and humans Gary and Mary’s mirroring relationship troubles are mixed in too (the former maybe more successfully than the latter, given this is a Muppet movie and the former sub-plot, well, involves actual Muppets), but there’s also Walter’s realisation as a Muppet himself – the Disney-esque discover-and-be-yourself/ the-best-you-can-be character arc – which is nicely done and gives rise to the flick’s best tune, the utterly Oscar-win-deserving and barmily brilliant Man Or Muppet (see below), written like all the others by Flight Of The Conchords‘ Bret McKenzie.

And talking of humans, one should perhaps note their efforts. Aside from Segel, who’s clearly loving every moment and makes for a more than adequate lead and foil to the felt players, Amy Adams hoofs and sings like a good ‘un – not surprising given her turn in Disney’s Enchanted (2007) and pre-Hollywood background in cabaret – while Rashida Jones provides effective support and both Emily Blunt and The Big Bang Theory‘s Jim Parsons give memorable cameos. Chris Cooper’s antagonist may feel like he belongs in a different movie (something aimed at under fives), but then he’s about the only thing that does.

For The Muppets certainly knows what it is, all right – a sort of updating of both The Muppet Show and The Muppet Movie for a generation of youngsters who weren’t even a figment of their parents’ imagination when the Muppets were in their prime, while at the same time an earnestly affectionate and knowing tribute to the Muppets in their prime for their parents. Co-scripted by Segel and Stoller – the former wrote and starred in Forgetting Sarah Marshall (2008) and the latter directed both that and its ‘sequel’ Get Him To The Greek (2010) – and directed by Bobin (who helped create the characters of Ali G and Brüno and with McKenzie co-created Flight Of The Conchords) it certainly is knowing, has more edge to it and is sadder in moments than any Henson-era Muppets venture was (rather like, say, last year’s Toy Story 3). But then, this is the 21st Century and, as the flick points out, it’s a world that’s moved on from the era that the Muppets took by storm.

Does it, though, prove there’s still a place in today’s cynical world for them, nay, that the world still needs them? Well, let’s just say that on that cold, wintry Monday night I saw The Muppets, I was sat next to a middle-aged chap on one side and a little boy on the other and based on their clear enjoyment of the anarchic antics they viewed on the big screen before them, they both certainly seemed to think so. Altogether now: “Mah-Nà-Mah-Nà…”

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