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For many of us, it’s easy to remember a time when the Muppets were a household name as an unusual, yet integral part of pop culture. But in the years following creator Jim Henson’s death, the broad appeal, humor, and originality of the Muppets faded along with their popularity. Who or what is to blame for this fall? Is it, as some people speculate, that modern young people are too worldly-wise and desensitized to be entertained by talking animal puppets and morally inoffensive comedy?
Tongue-firmly-in-cheek, the plot of the latest attempt to reawaken the franchise tackles just that question. Despite the filmmakers’ well-intentioned attempt to resurrect the Muppets of old, their movie, The Muppets, both tries too hard and not hard enough. The result is a film that misses the mark, falling short of the “old-fashioned” values and morals, as well as the clever and harmless wit that made the Muppets such memorable fun for all ages.
Though familiar Muppet characteristics enter the picture as the film progresses, The Muppets has a different feel from the get-go, as it begins not with Kermit the Frog or Miss Piggy, but with a new Muppet face. Walter isn’t actually a member of the band of Muppets famous for their shows and movies, but he’d give anything for even a glimpse of Kermit or the Muppet celebrities. For Walter, the Muppets aren’t just a funny pastime-they’re his lifeline.
Walter spent his early life thinking he was just like his family, and especially his brother and best friend, Gary. But as the boys grow older, there are distinct differences that emerge between the two. As much as the brothers might not like to admit it, Gary is a man, and Walter is a Muppet in appearance and size. Though Gary outgrows Walter physically, he remains emotionally supportive and loyal, allowing the siblings to stay extremely close as they mature into adulthood. Even so, Walter knows he doesn’t quite fit in with, and isn’t the same as, the rest of his family.
When Walter first sees the Muppets on their TV show, he’s naturally drawn to these celebrities who look so much like him. The Muppets quickly become Walter’s heroes and obsession. When Walter discovers that an oil tycoon is trying to tear down the Muppets old theater, his devastation leads to a plan of action, and he contacts Kermit. Kermit has split up from the Muppet gang and even Miss Piggy, but Walter convinces Kermit to seek out his old friends in time to put on a show to raise the money they need to save their theater. For Kermit, this task will require rebuilding burned bridges and rediscovering what’s important in life. But for Walter, saving the Muppets is necessary because they are, as he admits, the source of his “hope” in life.
Perhaps this is where the problems of The Muppets really begin. Walter reveals at one point that he thinks of laughter (prompted by the Muppets) as “the greatest gift.” Though Kermit ends up establishing children and ice cream as the first two greatest gifts, getting laughs is evidently just as supremely important for The Muppets filmmakers as it is for Walter. There isn’t much this production team won’t do to get a laugh, even if it means reinventing the Muppets to fit the mold that is considered more relevant for the current generation.
In this movie, “relevant,” unfortunately means adding the kind of inappropriate content that populates many recent children’s films, but wasn’t part of the original Muppets. [SPOILER WARNING FOR ALL THAT FOLLOWS] Bathroom and body humor announce their ugly presence with elements such as Fozzie’s “fart shoes,” and Gonzo’s Royal Flush line of toilets (he has visitors sit on “used” toilets when they come to his factory). Mild inappropriate language is another unwelcome addition in this movie, with words such as “heck,” “geez,” and “butt.” Profanity is also used once, with the phrase, “Oh, my G—.”
In addition, the slapstick comedy that was often a part of Muppet humor, but usually done only among the Muppet characters, is here broadened to include the human actors and heightened to the level of actual violence, portrayed as a harmless opportunity for laughter. Among the worst of these moments is a fist-fight that breaks out among adults (mostly people, not Muppets) at an anger management meeting. In this scene, even the woman who is the supposedly calm leader of the group punches one of the attendees.
Ironically, Kermit himself comments negatively on this very type of entertainment that promotes violence and crudity as fun or amusing, especially to children. When Kermit is trying to get a television spot for a new Muppet show, a TV executive demonstrates how out-of-date the Muppets are by showing Kermit a clip of a television program called, “Punch Teacher.” As the title implies, the show features kids getting to punch a teacher, who is restrained as the kids prepare to punch with boxing gloves.
Though the TV exec says this show is her “favorite,” Kermit is quite taken aback and he states that he thinks “kids are smarter” than such fare. After watching Miss Piggy karate chop another pig with little provocation and seeing the Muppets get the best laughs at a show from a kidnapped celebrity’s cries of distress, one wonders if the filmmakers somehow missed this scene in which Kermit passes judgment on that kind of “entertainment.”
But even Kermit’s character underwent some modifications in this reinvention, which ostensibly included the loss of his moral compass. When Kermit discovers that Miss Piggy kidnapped the actor Jack Black to be the celebrity on the Muppets’ show, he seems genuinely disturbed and tries to impress upon Miss Piggy and the Muppets who helped her that what they did is unacceptable. Significantly, Kermit doesn’t make a case for kidnapping being wrong, but is rather horrified because it’s “illegal.” Nevertheless, Kermit’s moral stance is short-lived, as he quickly caves in to Miss Piggy’s persuasion that he should go along with the kidnapping for the sake of his friends and their goal.
In The Muppets, the relationship between Miss Piggy and Kermit isn’t only a concern because of her questionable influence. Their romance, which blossomed in the earlier Muppet films, is highly complicated in this story, and some crucial elements are left unexplained. In a previous Muppet movie, Miss Piggy and Kermit went through a marriage ceremony, which Kermit later claimed was a sham, while Miss Piggy insisted it was legitimate. Now, in The Muppets, Kermit resides alone in a mansion that he and Miss Piggy once lived in together. The couple is estranged and separated, but their marital status (and whether or not they once lived together out of wedlock) remains a mystery for parents to try to explain to their children.
Other content of concern for parents includes a moment when two Muppets are found passionately kissing in the dark and a scene in which Animal (a Muppet character) has to choose between temptation from a devil-like Muppet and guidance from an angelic one. The devil wins, and Animal plays the drums, which is depicted as an addiction he should be avoiding.
Sadly, in all the effort to get laughs and revitalize the Muppets, the filmmakers lose track of what made the Muppets the phenomenon they were. While simultaneously dispensing with the traditional values and commitment to inoffensive comedy that made the Muppets a success, this movie trips over itself to mimic the old Muppet humor in other ways. Muppet fans will appreciate the effort to honor the classic Muppet lines and other comedic elements, but when those nods amount to countless, uncontrolled headshakes, they threaten to topple the film.
A favorite Muppet comedy hallmark is to refer to the film or story itself, and this Muppet movie does that aplenty. The characters make such observations as, “this is going to be a short movie,” and talk about the movie being over budget. This comedy technique is brilliantly hilarious when used appropriately, but it can only be applied once or twice at the most in one movie before it’s no longer funny. The Muppets filmmakers seem unaware of that limitation and the fact that this particular type of joke carries the danger of yanking viewers out of the story world, resulting in a movie that never feels real enough to fully enjoy.
Yet the heavy dose of “aware” humor isn’t the only reason for The Muppets unusually high suspension of disbelief requirement. The movie is also peppered with musical numbers that strive to harken back to the proverbial good old days of the Muppets and other musicals, but instead suffer from the malady that infects most recent attempts at musicals. It’s so obvious that the cast and crew do not take these song and dance number seriously that their insincerity renders the sequences unbelievable and unenjoyable for the audience, as well.
In musicals from the sixties and before, the songs may not have always advanced the plot, but the actor-singers made that little fact irrelevant by their sincerity throughout the musical sequences—they didn’t stop acting or become saccharine just because they were singing or dancing; for those actors, the musical numbers were as much a part of the story as their dialogue scenes, and that perspective created musicals that actually had a point and entertained or moved viewers. Not so in The Muppets, where several of the songs struggle under the weight of weak lyrics that try very hard to advance the plot and others that have to be called corny, primarily because of the actors who emit a phony cutesiness throughout the musical sequences.
The acting performances are not quite up to par in non-musical scenes, as well. Playing opposite Muppet “actors” separates the pros from the fakers, and not all of the cast members in The Muppets make the grade with that challenge. In his role as Gary, the lead onscreen actor Jason Segal, struggles to achieve authenticity playing opposite Muppet characters. Amy Adams, who plays Gary’s girlfriend, has shown in other movies that she has the talent to bring realism to her role in this film, but she fails to do so. Her problem doesn’t seem to be the Muppets, but rather a decision to play her character as adorably as possible.
Chris Cooper as the maniacal oil tycoon, Tex Richman, does creepily well in his extremely bizarre and unrealistic role. He has no trouble conversing with Muppets, but even his performance, impressive considering the material, isn’t enough to rescue his scenes or character. Several villain sequences, featuring the “bad guys” hatching their plots are much more Power Rangers than Muppets and don’t add any of the humor they’re trying so desperately to achieve.
Some of the supporting actors handle Muppet comedy challenges well, but their onscreen moments are regrettably brief. Rashida Jones is especially of note for giving the story some much-needed grounding in her very real and humorous portrayal of the TV executive. Famous actors and celebrities abound in this film in an effort to follow the Muppets’ history of including cameos of famous people in their shows and movies. Like with most of this movie’s attempts to recreate the traditional Muppets, the filmmakers lack restraint and let the good idea of doing a cameo balloon into trying to stuff every celebrity they could think of into this single film. The first one or two cameos are funny, but the rest become redundant and distracting, especially for the kids who don’t even recognize the plethora of well-known faces.
The good news for parents is that The Muppets is not as bad as it could have been, had the filmmakers been without any desire to honor Muppet tradition. The production studio and filmmakers clearly kept the classic Muppets in mind when making this film, and the positive messages about friendship and family, as well as the cleverest moments of the movie are the result of that intent. But perhaps because the filmmakers themselves are too much a part of the culture the Muppets hope to reach in this story, they fall into the trap of thinking that crudity and violence are harmless ways to add relevance and garner laughs from modern audiences.
The bad news for Muppet fans is that this film is definitely not the Muppets of old. But clean wit, clever originality, and positive entertainment never go out of style. If and when the filmmakers of this day understand that, we might see the Muppets again, finally as hilarious and entertaining for all ages as they once were.