12 February 2012


Should you go and see The Muppets? Well, yes, clearly. It's impossible to over-value a film that puts a smile on your face for its entire running time, with characters you know and love, songs you're going to be humming for the next decade or so, and gags that are genuinely funny and never mean-spirited. Simultaneously, the film is not everything I hoped for, and weird, overly complicated studio notes seem to have taken a toll.

Still, Disney didn't do badly, in signing up Jason Segel to bring Jim Henson's creations back to the big screen. In addition to co-writing The Muppets, Segel stars as Gary, whose distinctly felt-y brother Walter is the world's biggest fan of the Muppets. The plot is completely straightforward- when Walter discovers that an evil oil baron is planning to tear down the historic Muppet theatre, he and Gary go on a road trip to round up Kermit, Miss Piggy, Fozzie and the gang, in the hope of doing one last show to raise the money to save the theatre.

Inarguably, The Muppet Christmas Carol is the greatest Muppet movie, and Muppet Treasure Island isn't too far behind either. These are films in which the personalities and relationships of the Muppets are projected onto stories we already know, so as to avoid letting the need for character development or narrative get in the way of the characters doing what we love them for doing. The "we need to raise money to save the theatre" conceit is in a similar vein, to the point where the story is so incidental that nobody has seemed to care that the studio-mandated reshoots of the film's ending don't really make any sense. It also remains that the Muppet movies in which the characters are themselves, in a story that runs on their steam, aren't as good as those adaptations, and they tend to be about how the Muppets are seen in the real world.

In The Muppets, for instance, nobody wastes any time in pointing out that Kermit et al have no real relevance in a vapid reality TV culture, and so we pick up with most of the gang having taken on real jobs, desperately clung onto Z-list fame, or checked into rehab. This is funny, but the film goes onto ignore the barrier between how the Muppet characters' shows are so funny to us because they're a bit naff in-universe, and how beloved the characters are in real-life pop culture. It's like Disney's view of the characters' commercial potential has been mixed with the sensibilities of an obvious paid-up fanboy like Segel, and so the conceit is somewhat over-complicated and stretched a little too thin.

Segel, for his part, does a terrific job, and I still want to see a full version of the Dracula puppet musical that his character in Forgetting Sarah Marshall devised. Although the gag of two brothers- one man, one Muppet- and their hilarious existential power ballad is fundamentally a good gag, I did want to see a Muppet movie. Accepting Walter as a Mary Sue Muppet character would be a lot easier, but we also have the sub-plot of Gary and his fiancee, Mary, played delightfully by Amy Adams. I like Segel and Adams, but along with Walter, they can't help but crowd some of the Muppets we know and love. Some of them may as well have been crowded out of the film entirely.

Those are the problems as I see them, but if you're reading this, it was only because you were interested in why I'm not raving about it as much as everyone else. It goes without saying that there are a lot of things I loved about the movie. The songs are superb, from "Life's A Happy Song" to "Man or Muppet", up to and including Chris Cooper's rendition of the single most hilariously awkward villain song ever conceived. I also laughed harder than I've laughed at the cinema in a long time, purely because the "Smells Like Teen Spirit" skit was so good that it could have come straight out of the comedic heyday of The Muppet Show.

But ultimately, it's "Man or Muppet" that sums up the film's weird identity crisis. With Segel in creative control, the film is an audacious bit of textual poaching that very literally has established heroes being rescued by fan characters and Mary Sues, and pitches itself to older fans. But along with its reverence to the characters' personalities and sense of humour, it takes a hell of a long time to get to its main point- the big show at the end of the film is what makes it all worth it, not the elegaic and strangely premature stuff. Last year, Disney released the superb Winnie the Pooh, which had fewer wrinkles in its funny and charming update of established characters, and was duly overlooked by everyone. Go figure.

The Muppets exemplifies a current trend towards fan fiction in screenwriting, with the glut of established properties that are endlessly revisited bringing new writers to reinvent more things than they invent for themselves. As quaint as it may be, it has a hell of a lot of fun doing that, with far more laugh-out-loud moments than many of the film's 3D CG-animated contemporaries. Although I would like to have seen more of the Muppets themselves, it does appreciate that their best movies casts them as supporting characters, and not the leads. If only all cinematic indulgences were this glorious, and fun.

The Muppets is now showing in cinemas nationwide.
If you've seen The Muppets, why not share your comments below? Let's have a moment for all the parents who were unfortunate enough to be dragged by their kids to see Phantom Menace 3D over the weekend, rather than insisting upon seeing this instead.

I'm Mark the mad prophet, and until next time, don't watch anything I wouldn't watch.

No comments: