Friday, November 25, 2011

Reel To Reel: The Muppets

It's time to raise the curtain... again.

Going Rate: Worth full price admission for Muppet fans
Starring: Jason Segel, Amy Adams, Chris Cooper plus oodles of cameos
Rated: PG (but really should be a G)
Red Flags: Two very mild adult jokes, one of which is referenced below

I don't think Muppet founder Jim Henson would've gone for Fozzie Bear showing off, to put it kindly, flatulent shoes. But he would have loved the rest of this heartfelt reunion and tribute film to his puppet empire starring Jason Segel, who co-wrote it for Muppet fans everywhere. It is a family film, not so much for the kids, but for the adults who invited the fuzzy-foamy characters to come into their living rooms on "The Muppet Show" every week and who begged to go see their first three movies.

Segal is Gary, a Muppet fan with a brother named Walter, who's an even bigger fan. Walter is also a Muppet himself, a fact conveniently overlooked until the proper plot point is achieved. I could make an interesting argument here that Walter is actually Gary's outward projection of his inner child, but family movies are not supposed to be that deep. Gary's in love with Mary (Adams), a school teacher who is still waiting for Gary to pop the question -- if Guy Smiley or Prince Charming doesn't come along and pop it first. All of them live in Smalltown, an idyllic community which should come with a disclaimer below the welcome sign: "Residents are prone to outbursts of song and dance."

Gary, Mary and Walter take a trip to Los Angeles, which includes a stop at the Muppet Studios. When they get there, the place is run down and shuttered. The Muppets themselves don't even work there anymore. Worse, Walter overhears corporate robber baron Tex Richman (Cooper) plotting to raze the studio and drill for oil beneath it unless the Muppets can raise $10 million to buy it back under a clause in their standard "Rich And Famous Contract," one of the film's several enlightened references to the original Muppet Movie.

Walter and his human pals track down Kermit the Frog to warn him and persuade the Muppet gang to do one more gig. In sequences reminiscent of The Blues Brothers, Kermit and company track down the gang who have split up and taken straight jobs, more or less. Fozzie is working a dead-end show at a Reno casino. Animal is in an anger management program (alongside Jack Black, to boot). Gonzo is a plumbing company executive. Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem are playing in the subways. Only Miss Piggy has vaulted upward, to editor of Vogue. We're still not sure if Kermit and Piggy are married, separated or in one of those it's-complicated relationships, but they still have plenty of romantic tension between them as the old gang hastily puts together what could be their last show.

The Muppets overflows with love and respect for Kermit and company's fans. It does not try to upgrade its characters to the CGI age: we continue to see them mostly from the waist up, reminding us that there are still puppeteers below them, operating their hands and mouths and lending the voices. Several of those voices are more than a touch different due to changes in the cast of performers over the years, and sadly, the death of Jim Henson. After Henson's passing, Rowlf the Dog dropped out of sight; Henson provided his voice and part of his hand work. I was glad to see him back in this film, and he's still a whiz on the piano.

Many, many Muppet characters also return, if only for a couple of silent scenes, including Uncle Deadly. To my knowledge, he only appeared in one episode of the TV series, alongside Vincent Price. Speaking of guest star spots, The Muppets honors that tradition faithfully. In addition to Black, the film's cameos include Mickey Rooney, Whoopi Goldberg and... James Carville? Charles Grodin is a notable omission. His appearance was planned but omitted due to either schedule or production issues.

Young children aren't going to have the same admiration for this film as their parents. That's all right. It wasn't made for them. They may still appreciate it though, in all its fun, fuzzy innocence. Please, Disney, do us a favor. Find a way to bring "The Muppet Show" back to television and give us a show we can truly enjoy with the kids.

(The PG rating on this film is overstated. Save for two mildly crude jokes that are pretty tame in the universe of today's films, this film deserves to be a G.)

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