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Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The Muppets


The Muppets represent something wonderful in the world: the belief that life can be silly, irreverent and carefree. In The Muppets, a reboot that doesn’t involve a genetically mutated crime fighter of any kind, Kermit and Co. have to save their studio from an evil oil baron named Tex Richman (Chris Cooper). But it becomes clear in the inevitable celebrity fundraiser climax, when a gaggle of chickens break into a spirited rendition of Cee Lo Green’s “Cluck You”, that the plot is beside the point. The Muppets take the very idea of drama (or dramatic cliché) and blow its skirt up.

A lively and hilarious musical comedy, The Muppets centers on Walter, a misplaced and starry-eyed kid (who’s really a puppet) and world-class Muppets fan. His brother Gary (Jason Segel, who also co-wrote) and Gary’s girlfriend Mary (Amy Adams, who’s in giddy, wide-eyed Enchanted mode) accompany him from their small town (literally called Small Town) to Hollywood. While touring, the three make pilgrimage to the Muppets’ studio and see it has become a ramshackle and dilapidated pile of bricks. They overhear Richman’s dastardly plan to drill on the lot for oil (followed by fits of “maniacal laughter”). With Kermit’s help, they assemble the old gang in a last gasp attempt to make 10 million dollars and avoid foreclosure.

With economic crises and changing times, the group’s popularity has declined over the years. The members have scattered like sticks in the wind. Fozzy’s headlining a tribute band in Reno called The Moopets. Animal’s in anger management therapy with Jack Black. Gonzo owns a plumbing parts company. And Miss Piggy is now a Parisian fashion mogul a la Miranda Priestly with a snooty British secretary, played in a cameo by, of course, Emily Blunt.

The pig diva and her frog prince have grown apart, but everyone reunites for the adventure. Ripping relentlessly on their own nostalgia or Hollywood clichés (traveling by map is the fastest way to travel), the movie’s chock full of absurdly clever gags. It’s self-aware to the max. A big-production musical number ends with all the studio-hired dancers collapsing from exhaustion. There’s inanity to the point of being surreal. Why exactly is Adams’ schoolteacher fixing the battery on a Volkswagen Bug in the middle of her classroom full of fourth graders? On more than one occasion, the script calls attention to important plot points and broadly parodies story setups, like that Volkswagen. (You can bet her electrical skills will come in handy later on.)

That’s the Muppets’ style. Nothing is beyond reproach or satire. Yet there’s a Simpsons-esque playfulness to every jab—no harm is meant and no offense is taken. And you have to love all the cameos: from Black and Blunt to Whoopie Goldberg and Neil Patrick Harris—even Selena Gomez and Modern Family’s Rico Rodriguez make appearances (both claim to have never heard of The Muppets in a clever bit acknowledging the troupe’s antiquity).

I remember seeing The Muppet Christmas Carol as a small child in 1992. It was the first Muppets film made after creator Jim Henson’s passing, and the shtick felt a bit dusty even then. These days—with CGI movies, XBOX video games, and Smart Phones giving people moment-to-moment stimulation—The Muppets’ hand stitched charisma is starting to feel more and more like a thing of the past. Admirably, Jason Segel and director James Bobin sought to give the loveable characters another—long overdue—big-screen hurrah.

Thank goodness they did, because The Muppets is a joyful celebration of what was, is, and, hopefully, will eternally remain: the idea that laughter, as the movie proclaims, is the third greatest thing on earth after babies and ice cream. Amen to that! Or should I say—Mahna Mahna.

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