Monday, 6 February 2012
'The Muppets' review:
They haven't been in a major film or television series since the mid-90s, but arguably Jim Henson's best-loved creations haven't been culturally relevant for much longer. Yet in 'The Muppets', the characters' glorious comeback movie, this passing of time that might have been a concern (at least for marketing folks at Disney) has proven to be an asset. The Muppets have always broken the fourth wall to poke fun at themselves and comment on the artifice of whatever they're doing, but here Kermit, Miss Piggy and co show an awareness of that faded glory that's the driving force behind the story and much pathos.
In this James Bobin directed musical comedy, co-writer Jason Segel stars as Gary, whose younger brother Walter is a Muppet in all but name. When Gary decides to take his girlfriend Mary (the graceful and effervescent Amy Adams) out of Smalltown and on a romantic holiday to Los Angeles, he brings Walter, a lifelong Muppet fan, in order to give him the chance to visit the famous Muppet theatre. Upon visiting the derelict theatre, Walter is horrified to learn that the evil Tex Richman (Chris Cooper) is planning to buy up the property in order to drill for oil. Walter and Gary then decide to round up the Muppets in order to perform the comeback show that could save their legacy.
Rather than straining to sell the relevance of our heroes to today's kids, this new film rolls with the idea that the Muppets (who include a 70s-style rock act, an Evel Knievel wannabe and a Catskills comic) are indelibly wedded to a bygone era. When Rashida Jones' sharp-suited television executive tells Kermit he needs a celebrity host in order to get the gang a new TV special, the frog delves into his contact book and calls the White House, only to be informed that Jimmy Carter has changed address. In his mansion Kermit is served New Coke by his butler: 80s Robot - very much yesterday's vision of tomorrow. He also struggles to recognise any current celebrities, instead making moribund references to former Muppet Show guests stars like Dom DeLuise. During a cleaning montage the Muppets play a cassette of Starship's "We Built This City" for inspiration.
There is something poignant about all this, especially as Kermit spends much of the film full of regret that he has (like the rest of us) spent the last few years losing touch with his fellow Muppets. This foregrounding of the Muppets as fallen icons is more than just a neat post-modern joke, it also serves to imbue the characters with a kind of purity. As Kermit sings his 1979 classic "Rainbow Connection" we're given a powerful reminder of a less jaded time, yet they are never twee no matter how earnest the sentiment. This straight-faced niceness is exactly why the Muppets seem ideally placed to provide infectious optimism lacking in today's entertainment. Their sworn enemy is cynicism - as embodied in the film by a crass, "edgy" tribute act, "The Moopets" (who Richman champions as "a hard, cynical act for a hard, cynical world").
The film isn't content to trade solely on nostalgia and old-time good feeling though, even if it could probably just about get away with that. There are loads of inspired sight gags, clever one-liners and, best of all, a few infectious song and dance numbers written by Bret McKenzie of 'Flight of the Conchords'. Of these my favourites are the upbeat loneliness empowerment anthem "Me Party", sung with gusto by Adams and Miss Piggy, and the Oscar-nominated ballad "Man or Muppet" - a duet between Gary and Walter.
There are long stretches where it's difficult to imagine how the film might appeal to young children - along with the anachronistic pop culture references are celebrity cameos from the likes of Sarah Silverman and Alan Arkin. Kids aren't the primary audience and - with the script brimming with nods to minor characters and scenes from the first movies, it's probably a more rewarding experience for fans. But even if you don't quite fit that category I still reckon it'd be nearly impossible to watch 'The Muppets' without a smile on your face the majority of the time. Life is indeed a happy song.
'The Muppets' is released in the UK on February 10th and has been rated 'U' by the BBFC.