Sunday, February 26, 2012
"The Muppets" is one of the greatest American comedies of all time
Admittedly, I've always been a casual fan of The Muppets. Like many children of the 90s, I had a VHS copy of "A Muppet Christmas Carol" that I watched to death, to the point where every other version just seems like an adaptation of the Muppet film. And while I was too young to have seen the actual "Muppet Show", I did watch its short-lived 1990s revival series "Muppets Tonight" religiously, to the point where I always associated the happiness of a carefree Friday evening with The Muppets.
The first "Muppets" movie I saw in cinemas was the immediate predeccessor to this new one, "Muppets in Space". It was a critical and financial failure, but I thoroughly enjoyed it at the time and it was a shame that they didn't make any big-budget movies in the intervening years. During the 12 years that The Muppets were more or less outside of mainstream circulation (outside of a few TV movies here and there), a lot of the older Muppet movies were repeated, particularly at Christmastime. The original "The Muppet Movie", "The Great Muppet Caper" are really good, but don't hold a candle to the almighty classic "The Muppets Take Manhattan", which I would easily rank as one of my favourite comedies.
The new film, simply titled "The Muppets" takes everything that "The Muppets Take Manhattan" did right and sends it soaring into the stratosphere, enhancing and multiplying it ten-fold. The completely lunatic sense of humour and logic is back with a vengeance, leading to some of the best deadpan humour I've ever seen (and that includes more 'grown-up' fare like The Office or Family Guy). It's the kind of comedy-gem I've only seen a handful of in my entire life. And you can bring a three-year old to it.
The movie sees new Muppet-character Walter, who has always felt different and alone in the world. His brother Gary (Jason Segel) has always been his best friend and has always stood up for him and built up his self-confidence. When Walter discovers an old tape of "The Muppet Show" he becomes a fan for life. Years later, when Gary wants to bring his girlfriend Mary (Amy Adams) to Los Angeles for a special anniversary, he invites Walter to tag along, knowing that he'd love to go to the Muppet Theater. Unfortunately, the Theater has become run-down and derelict and is being sold off to a greedy oil tycoon, Tex Richman (Chris Cooper) who plans to destroy the building. When a horrified Walter discovers this, he teams up with Gary and Mary to gather up all the Muppets for one last show, to try and raise enough money to save the theater. Alas, it's not as easy as they thought, as many of the former stars have moved on with their lives.
Jason Segel's lovable originality and credibility as a goofball has made him a favourite of mine in films like "Forgetting Sarah Marshall" as well as TV shows like "Freaks and Geeks" and "How I Met Your Mother" (where he's easily the most innovative and original character). He's also written and composed some really hilarious songs on HIMYM and his movies (as well as demonstrating a love of puppets in "Dracula's Lament" which appeared in "Forgetting Sarah Marshall") As soon as I heard he was involved in a new Muppet movie, I knew we were in luck and that the film would be transcendent enough that anyone of any age could watch and love it. For the first time in years while watching a 'Family Film', I never once cringed at an excess of maudlin dialogue or over-dramatic scenes. The movie earns these moments by making the viewer care in every single frame of the film. Even the most black-hearted, Generation Y cynic will be crying with laughter at certain scenes, and by the finale, will be tapping their toes as hard as they can to "Life's a Happy Song" (the absolutely amazing Bret McKenzie, of Flight of the Conchords served as Music Supervisor for the film).
And that's why the movie works, making it one of those proud examples of how wonderful the American style of comedy can be. In classic Muppet-style, a lot of the jokes venomously lampoon the sort of cliched tropes you find in family movies (they also break, smash and obliterate the Fourth Wall on dozens of occasions), but unlike similar fare (e.g. Family Guy), the movie has a genuine heart and you really care for its many different characters. A lesser movie would have failed to juggle so many different goofy personalities, but "The Muppets" performs admirably. It succeeds on so many different levels, with messages about tolerance, always trying your best and appreciating the important people in your life. While they may be tried-and-tested motifs to structure a movie around (as is the 'old-school' plot), the innovation of the production never makes you feel like you're watching something even remotely stale.
I can't recommend this movie enough. It's been two full days since I've seen it and I still feel as strongly about the coughing-in-pain-with-laughter effect it had on me and is likely to have on many other people. I'm delighted to hear it was such a commercial and critical success Across The Pond; here's hoping it's as much of a runaway success on our shores as well. Please, please, please do not miss this movie.