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.
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
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.
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.