The Muppets

The Muppets

****

Reviewed by: Anton Bitel

"I like you," declares suited TV executive Veronica Martin (Rashida Jones) to the ragtag ensemble of creature puppets in her office, "I remember you guys from when I was a kid."

After having gone their separate ways for decades, the Muppets are back together again, determined once more to put on a show and raise $10 million needed to prevent evil tycoon Tex Richman (Chris Cooper) taking over their franchise and converting their old studio into an oilfield. Of course the Muppets have been here before – haven't they always been desperately scraping together a ramshackle show against the odds? – but Veronica points out to them how times and values have changed since the Muppet heyday, citing as evidence her network's latest, ultra-cynical and ultra-violent children's television 'hit', Punch Teacher. "I'm sorry," she says, "but in this world you guys are no longer relevant."

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Kermit the Frog's reply - "I think kids are smarter and better than this" – encapsulates the idealism at the core of the Muppets, who in fact have always been simultaneously behind, and ahead of, their times. Even back in 1976 when their TV show first aired, its vaudeville format was a deliberate throwback to a long-bygone era, while their postmodern focus on behind-the-scenes mayhem, fourth-wall-breaching surrealism and razorsharp parody was way ahead of the curve. Theirs was a world of strange juxtapositions, where muppets shared the stage with humans, where the whipsmart and the deadly dumb danced together, where abject amateurism was just another stage name for consummate professionalism, and where the deeply conservative and the truly progressive endlessly heckled each other. How can the wide-eyed liberalism and Capra-esque values of the Muppets not have relevance in our post-millennial era of Bush's smash-and-grab politics (as embodied by Tex)?

No matter that for some of us, as for Veronica, the Muppets are just a distant (if fond) childhood memory, no matter if, in trying to book a special guest for the new show, out-of-touch Kermit first tries calling Jimmy Carter (!) and Molly Ringwald (!!), no matter if Selena Gomez (b. 1992) can say, "I don't really know who you guys are, but my dad told me to show up," while Rico Rodriguez (b. 1998) can wonder aloud if Kermit is "one of those Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles". For it is this very redundancy, this nostalgia-tinged backwardness, that keeps the Muppets both charming and relevant - relevant, that is, as a gauge of where we are right now, what we have become, what values we have lost along the way, and also what values persist. Perhaps "the world's moved on", but as long as this zany crew of misfits continues to raise a smile, a laugh, even a tear, there remains a place for their alchemic power to turn on- and off-stage mishaps, arch pop-culture commentary and sly self-parody into entertainment gold.

Even if, in the film, the Muppets have pursued separate paths and tried in their different ways to fit into the modern world - Fozzie in terrifying Feebles-like tribute act The Moopets, Gonzo in his Royal Flush plumbing empire, Animal in an anger management retreat, Miss Piggy in the Paris branch of Vogue, etc. – new character Walter (voiced by Peter Linz) has kept the faith as the Muppets' "number one fan", serving as the beating heart of the narrative. This pint-sized "very manly muppet" has literally never grown up, and stayed loyal to his beloved Muppets even as his younger brother Gary (co-writer Jason Segel) has turned into an adult-sized "muppet of a man" whose love for long-term, long-suffering girlfriend Mary (Amy Adams) is beginning to clash with his fraternal allegiance. Living in Smalltown – a sort of homely Lynchian timewarp to the 1950s whose denizens burst into manically optimistic song-and-dance numbers at the drop of a hat (but are also clearly relieved when the dancing can finally stop) – the trio heads off together for L.A., primarily to celebrate Gary and Mary's tenth anniversary as a couple, but also to visit the Muppet Studios.

Overhearing Tex's wicked plans, Walter sets out to reunite the Muppets – and what follows is the familiar but hilarious Muppets formula: fast pacing, improbably great songs, cameos from contemporary (and not so contemporary) celebrities, and cheap gags and fart jokes that sit with uncanny ease alongside more sophisticated deconstructions of cinematic convention ("May I suggest we pick up the rest of the Muppets using montage?", etc.). Directed by TV's James Bobin (Da Ali G Show, The Flight of the Conchords), The Muppets invites viewers to become a bit like the dreamer Walter and, in (re)discovering and embracing their inner child (not to mention their inner muppet), to join a fantastic, funny family that never grows old, no matter how times (and, sans Jim Henson, some of the Muppets' voices) may have changed.

Reviewed on: 23 Jan 2012
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The Muppets packshot
When the Muppet Theatre is theatened, three fans must reunite its former stars to save it.
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Director: James Bobin

Writer: Jason Segel, Nicholas Stoller

Starring: Kermit the Frog, Miss Piggy, Rizzo, Amy Adams, Jason Segel, Chris Cooper, Fozzie Bear, Gonzo, Animal

Year: 2011

Runtime: 103 minutes

BBFC: U - Universal

Country: US

Festivals:

Glasgow 2012

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If you like this, try:

The Muppet Show: Series One