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The Muppets: Some Thoughts on the Movie
November 25, 2011

KC and I went to see The Muppets on opening day, and while we enjoyed it, there were some aspects of the movie I wanted to talk about.

The Muppets poster

It’s a good movie, but there were three things that left me wondering. The first was the central presence of Walter, the new Muppet. He and co-writer Jason Segal are brothers (the details of which are never explained), and their fandom for the Muppets drives the film. When the two visit the rundown Muppet Studios, Walter discovers that an evil businessman (Chris Cooper, whose later rap is one of the funniest bits of the film) intends to tear the place down. He and Segal then encourage the gang of Muppets to get back together and stage a telethon to save their history.

You need someone to serve as an entry point into the movie, I suppose, since Disney is very concerned about making the franchise viable for a new, young audience, but Walter feels at times like too much a fan fantasy, a way to say “you, too, could hang out with the Muppets!” Although his adoration of the original Muppets is played for jokes, he ends up saving the day one too many times for a new character, in my opinion. He doesn’t have enough character on his own, either — I couldn’t tell you what he loves other than his brother and his people. He’s something of a void, just the guy who says “c’mon, now we need to do this!” to keep the movie moving.

Chris Cooper, Uncle Deadly, and Bobo the Bear

Chris Cooper, Uncle Deadly, and Bobo the Bear

The second thing I was unsure about was how episodic the film was. Everything happens in lumps, and plot elements seem to have wandered in from other movies; they aren’t sufficiently connected to the rest of this film. Amy Adams, for examples, gets two musical numbers (one shared with Miss Piggy), but her plotline is almost completely dropped during long periods when the movie is following different conflicts. A predictable and sub-standard resolution is only offered after the movie itself has declared “End” on-screen. You could recut The Muppets into three sitcom-length episodes without much fuss. Like Walter, the humans are two-dimensional in personality.

Tons of favorite Muppet characters make an appearance, but few of them are given anything actually funny to do, and those that do have substantial bits, they’re handled as stand-alone sketches instead of part of the bigger movie. There are too many Muppets who have to be reintroduced, and several who simply appear with no explanation. (There’s also a lot of inconsistency during the “traveling around regrouping the team”, as characters will join back up and then not be seen again for stretches of time.) I found myself wondering if some bits were written in just to provide clips for the parody trailers. Some supporting characters didn’t have reasons for what they do or backstories — they just appear to fulfill their plot-device role.

The Muppets

Who's the big blue guy? I still don't know.

Along similar lines, the star cameos are lackluster. It’s disappointing that the biggest names they could get were Jack Black and Whoopi Goldberg (although there is one hilarious bit I won’t spoil during the “Man or Muppet” number). I did appreciate seeing Zach Galifianakis, Mickey Rooney, and Neil Patrick Harris.

My third main concern was the movie’s lack of subtlety. There are three conflicts: Will the Muppets save their heritage? Will Walter choose to accept his Muppet-ness, which means leaving his family? Will Segal grow up and agree to marry Adams, since they’ve been dating for ten years? The latter two have potential thematic depth — Walter’s story is that of anyone who dreamed of moving away from home and working in an entertainment field, while Segal’s plotline could be an nice counteractive to most of the boy comedies put out by people like Judd Apatow. However, they’re handled in very shallow ways, dealt with on the surface with little depth or insight behind them.

That’s probably because Disney considers this a kids’ movie. While I know a number of faithful fans who were ready to see more Muppets (and why Disney didn’t release the long-awaited Season 4 of The Muppet Show on DVD to tie into this movie release, I can’t guess), the trailers that ran with this film shows they’re firmly aiming at children. And kids who might be watching weren’t even born when the last Muppet film was in theaters, so there’s a lot for them to take in. Perhaps someone wanted to make it easy for them, or perhaps the production staff fell prey to the mistake of thinking something for kids needs to be dumbed down.

I don’t want to continue nitpicking this film, because I am glad we went, and more glad that they made it. I’m not griping, for example, about how we once again see Kermit learn that he’s the team leader and the responsibilities leadership entails, because that’s a key part of his story to reestablish, and it’s done in an entertaining way. Nor do I mind that we’ve seen this plot before, because by now, having to band together and save the day is a classic Muppet plot. Also on the positive side, the musical numbers are in keeping with the characters, humorous or meaningful as needed, and you’ll leave the theater with the main one, “Life’s a Happy Song”, stuck in your head, as intended.

This is another example of my leaving the theater wanting to buy the DVD immediately, if only for behind-the-scenes commentary and someone identifying all the cameos for me (and hopefully seeing the ones they filmed but left out). Here’s hoping the next Muppet project is even more entertaining than this one.

21 Responses  
caleb writes:  

Your experiences kinda mirrored my own. I wanted to really, really love it, and liked it, appreciated it, but it just didn’t seem as all-around as great a film as I wanted it to be. I went with an 8-eight-year-old relative who had aboslutely no Muppet experience (She referred to the characters afterwards as “The Frog” or “The Fuzzy Bear,” for example), and she asked a LOT of questions, including who many characters were, what their job was and whether or not they were good or bad.

She gasped at the Selena Gomez cameo, though!

Anyway, I’m curious to see who it goes over with best. The screening I went to had a lot of adults with very young children, and I noticed a lot of question-asking and question-answering, as if the movie was a cultural attempt for one generation to pass on something specific to their childhood to the childhood of their children.

 
Johanna writes:  

I’ve seen older viewers, who remember the Muppets from before, saying they simply love the movie. Haven’t heard much about success with kids, though, either way. Did your young relative like the film, beyond her curiosity?

 
caleb writes:  

She said she did, but she looked kinda bored to me, only perking up when she saw Selena Gomez or during the “Muppet or a Man” bit–she thought the phrase “very manly Muppet” hilarious, apparently.

She also didn’t care for Miss Piggy at all, as she was so mean to Kermit, which I thought was interesting.

 
Johanna writes:  

I know a number of women who don’t care for Miss Piggy, especially how she’s the only major female Muppet. It would be nice to have more variety. The Muppets are like Pixar this way — really wonderful, high-quality stuff until you start looking at the gender role portrayals.

 
Ed Sizemore writes:  

My 9 year-old nephew liked the film. He’s had a lot of exposure to the Muppets. He’s seen all the more recent films like Muppet Christmas Carol and Muppets from Space. That might be the difference.

 
Thad writes:  

I loved it. It wasn’t perfect but it was close enough that my heart’s really not in criticizing it.

@Caleb: Heh, yeah, “very manly Muppet/Muppet of a man” is the Bret McKenzie-est lyric in a very Bret McKenzie set of songs. (A pretty direct recycling of Flight of the Conchords’ “Am I a young woman, or an elderly girl?” — not that I’m complaining; it’s a good line.)

I have no idea who Selena Gomez is, but that’s okay since your relative presumably doesn’t know who Alan Arkin is. The Muppet movies have always done a great job with their celebrity cameos — I gave Follow That Bird a viewing recently, and it’s chock-full of them. I certainly didn’t need to know who Chevy Chase and John Candy were to enjoy it as a 3-year-old, though.

Whether it’s enough to get a new generation of fans remains to be seen, but unless there’s a drastic drop at the BO next weekend I expect we’ll see a more self-contained sequel in a couple of years.

And regarding Piggy: I know guys my age (30ish) who can’t stand her for much the same reason you mention. Bossy, violent, superficial, egotistical — these character flaws can be funny and charming, but it’s not hard to see how they can be off-putting, too, especially when she’s the only female Muppet with a speaking part.

 
Tara Tallan writes:  

We all went yesterday, and my two kids, 11 and 8, were laughing pretty loudly through a lot of it. Predictably, my son’s favourite bit involved Gonzo and his sudden decision to rejoin Kermit and crew. My daughter liked anything that caused muppets to be thrown around. But we’ve shown them a lot of Muppet Show episodes and a few movies (not to mention Fraggle Rock), so they already were well familiar with the characters.

Although I see your point about Walter not having much depth to him, my impression was that he was one of the best-performed muppets in the movie (way more expressive than Kermit, for example), and therefore more interesting to watch.

 
Johanna writes:  

Oh, that’s an interesting means of evaluation, Tara. I hadn’t thought about it in terms of performance.

If this gives parents and other adults reason to watch more Muppets with kids, that’s a good thing.

 
Tara Tallan writes:  

Oh– and while I couldn’t tell you the name of that big blue muppet, he was certainly a regular on the Muppet Show. Among other things, he was part the show’s theme song performance. I remember his ears would go up in time to the music.

 
Johanna writes:  

Oh, sure, I know his visual — but he seems to be in the movie just to be able to recreate the opening theme song. I expected to find out at least a name after all these years. :)

 
David Oakes writes:  

You just have to be old enough to remember the 1970 “Great Santa Claus Switch”.


http://muppet.wikia.com/wiki/Thog

(Not the Marvel Demon.)

 
Johanna writes:  

You have solved the mystery! Many thanks.

 
Man or Muppet Video » DVDs Worth Watching writes:  

[…] has released the most-discussed musical number from The Muppets, recut into a music video. Here’s Jason Segel and Walter (Peter Linz) singing “Man or […]

 
The Muppets DVD to Feature New Content » DVDs Worth Watching writes:  

[…] The Muppets will be available on DVD and Blu-ray on March 20, and there are four options to choose from. The Muppets […]

 
George G. writes:  

Very late to the conversation, I realize, but was prompted to come see what you had written about the film after seeing your post that the DVD was coming out.

After I saw it, I was thinking of writing a review of sorts on the pitfalls of nostalgia (a well-trodden path in discussions of comics, of course), because, for me, the chief creative thrust of the movie was: Jason Segel really, really, really, really, REALLY loved (what he saw of) The Muppets as a kid.

So, for me, Walter was more than merely a generic fan fantasy character (“you, too, could hang out with the Muppets) but, as the movie itself at least acknowledges at times, a doppelganger for Segel the actor, his fondest wish made real: not just to make a new Muppet movie, but to “be” a Muppet. It was a complete Mary Sue act.

As someone else who, quite a bit older than Segel, saw the Muppets “first run,” as it were, and also really, really loved them in my childhood, I found the whole exercise more cloying than creative, and I resented the fact that it took so damn long to get to any actual Muppets in the film. Love Amy Adams though I do, I really could have dealt without the film’s first song-and-dance number, made necessary because this was really a movie not so much about the Muppets as about an actor/writer-cum-character’s (Segel) relationship with the Muppets. Fascinating, psychologically and culturally–not so satisfying from a storytelling standpoint.

On the whole, I think he’d have done a better tribute to the Muppets by doing a full-length version of the puppet Dracula musical (wedged into Forgetting Sarah Marshall) that is reportedly (via Judd Apatow) the genesis of Segel’s bringing the Muppets back to the big screen. I’m afraid all he’s done is relaunch a financially successful franchise, not plug into the creative anarchy of Henson’s original Muppets. (Though, of course, it’s worth noting that Henson was, himself, entirely sanguine about the idea of the Muppets as primarily corporate products, after a certain point in their evolution–and only made the first movies so as to be able to do Dark Crystal and Labyrinth.)

 
Johanna writes:  

That’s a great analysis, very thought-provoking. I’m reminded of how some comic creators treat Kirby — they say they’re working to be faithful to his vision on certain characters, while truly being faithful would mean creating their own characters and visions.

 
George G. writes:  

Thanks! I think the comparisons to treatments of Kirby is exactly on point.

I’ve seen others make a similar observation (not entirely analogous, but close) that in order to really have been honoring the source material, the movie Watchmen would have needed to be at least as creative in its approach to the storytelling medium of film as the graphic novel was to that of comics, and that probably would have necessitated less surface-level fealty to the source material.

In Segel’s case, all that comes across is how much these characters meant/mean to him. That’s sweet and all, but not very interesting. And I sort of kept feeling like I was intruding on his fantasy.

For me, the best part of the movie was, wings down, the chicken chorus girls’ number of Cee-Lo’s “Cluck You.” Was one of the few moments in the movie that actually reminded me of the show through what it was doing rather than what it was telling me to feel.

 
Betty Boop Does New Lancome Mascara Ad » Comics Worth Reading writes:  

[…] Miss Piggy’s figures at the same time were 98% recognized, Q score of 29. That’s since gone up to 38 (likely because of the recent Muppets movie). […]

 
New Muppets Movie Trailer Reveals More of Plot » Comics Worth Reading writes:  

[…] for international appeal. Director James Bobin and music supervisor Bret McKenzie return from the previous movie, but the script is by Bobin and Nicholas Stoller instead of Jason Segel and […]

 
Muppets Most Wanted » DVDs Worth Watching writes:  

[…] gulag. Now, leaving aside that they already did evil Muppet doppelgangers in the previous film The Muppets, I had huge problems with this […]

 
Jingle Bells Disney Video Mashup » DVDs Worth Watching writes:  

[…] a fun, festive reminder of just how many great Disney movies there have been, from Mary Poppins to The Muppets, Nightmare Before Christmas to Mickey Mouse and a variety of live-action […]

 

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