I ‘bawked’ at this Muppets do-overTop Highlights, Movie Review Thursday, December 1st, 2011
To me, the funniest moment of The Muppets, Disney’s reboot of the beloved puppet franchise, comes about ten minutes before the end of the movie when Camilla and the other chickens do a rousing rendition of Cee Lo Green’s “Fuck You.” They replace every lyric with “Bawk!” and are dressed like Vegas show girls. That the number goes on for at least a minute and a half, that they keep the joke going that long, made me laugh harder than anything else in the movie. It was a moment of daring absurdity that reminded me of the classic, inspired 1970s Muppets, who did skits like Pigs in Space on their variety show and made a movie in which the villain’s evil plan involved cooking Kermit and eating his legs. The rest of the new movie is wacky, and occasionally funny, but it feels like it was focus group at Disneyland. And it probably was.
The plot of the movie is about rebooting the Muppets, though thankfully no one ever uses that word. (That would be too meta, even in a movie that has characters commenting on the making of the film. At one point, Fozzie Bear says that he’s amazed they could afford such a realistic explosion, and he says it after an explosion that the audience only hears but never sees.) The film opens with an introduction to brothers Gary (Jason Segel) and Walter (a puppet), who live in Smalltown, Kan. Since Walter realizes that he has physically more in common with the Muppets, he grows up to become their biggest fan. When Gary and his girlfriend Mary (Amy Adams) go to Los Angeles for their anniversary, Walter tags along to visit the Muppet studios. He imagines that it will be something like a cross between Oz and Universal Studios, but it’s a ramshackle mess. While there, he overhears that the studio is about to be bought and destroyed by a crazed businessman named Tex Richman (Chris Cooper). Walter, Gary and Mary decide to find Kermit and persuade him to get the Muppets back together and stop Tex’s evil plan. Musical numbers and hilarity ensue, more or less.
I saw the film in a theater crowded with small children, and they rarely laughed. Most of the chuckles came from parents remembering better moments from decades ago. There are some good bits – Fozzie fronting a Muppet tribute band in Reno and Walter and Gary’s duet of “Man or Muppet”– but the rest is rather forgettable. Director James Bobin, best known for co-creating the brilliant HBO show Flight of the Conchords, is working with a script by Segel and Nicholas Stoller and classic old Muppets songs (“The Rainbow Connection”) and new ones written by the Conchords’ Bret McKenzie. With this line-up, I expected something a bit weirder and a lot funnier. But most of the film is a straight-forward musical with puppets, a lot of cameos and a plot as clichéd as Disney is milquetoast. Miss Piggy is now the plus-size editor of Paris Vogue and her assistant is Emily Blunt, and the scene where we learn all of this isn’t funny. What a waste.
As hard as Segel and especially Adams try to inject an old-timey musical magic into their acting, they seem more silly than charming. And Walter, who I think the children are supposed to identify with, is more whiny than endearing. Every time he complained about not knowing who he was, I just wanted one of chickens to drown him out with “Bawk! Bawk! BAWK!” When the Muppets finally show up in the movie – 15 minutes in! – everything gets a little better, because having Kermit, Fozzie, Piggy, Gonzo, Animal and Scooter on the screen does make the world a better place.
Directed by James Bobin
Written by Jim Henson, Jason Segel and Nicholas Stoller
Starring Kermit the Frog, Walter, Amy Adams, Chris Cooper and Jason Segel
At your local multiplex
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