Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Review: "The Muppets"

The recurring theme of "The Muppets" is that the whole gang hasn't seen each other for years, and all their fans have forgotten about them. They're trying to get back together for one last show, ostensibly to save their old theater from destruction but really to remind the world that they're still around, still funny and still capable of putting on a big to-do.

In reality, the return of Kermit the Frog, Miss Piggy and the rest of the Muppets is charming and welcome reintroduction of the puppets created by Jim Henson decades ago (an early version of Kermit debuted in 1955). They haven't been forgotten so much as misplaced in weak movies and third-rate television appearances.

Rather than returning like a lot of other beloved children's franchises, spiffed up in CGI and modern attitudes -- "Alvin and the Chipmunks," "Garfield," "Yogi Bear" -- the Muppets are stubbornly old-school and kinda schmaltzy. They were a throwback to vaudeville even when the first Muppet movie came out in 1979, and now their boisterous singing and razzmatazz feels positively kitschy.

A whole generation of kids grew up on the Muppets, old enough now to bring their own children and catch up with Kermit & Co. The preview audience I attended of 30- and 40-something parents positively swayed with glee when the banjo strumming kicked off "Rainbow Connection."

Jason Segal is the Muppet savior, co-writing the script (with Nicholas Stoller) and starring as Gary. Segal, best known for R-rated comedies and adult-oriented television, mostly stays in the background and plays straight man, letting the Muppets take center stage.

Gary's brother is Walter (voiced by Peter Linz), who is obsessed with the Muppets and actually is one himself, although he doesn't seem to realize it. (One hint was a montage of their parents measuring their height, and Gary sprouts up while Walter never grows.) The stubborn conceit of the Muppets is that they're living creatures who don't know they have human hands manipulating them from the inside.

There appears to be little conscious attempt to age the Muppets or even acknowledge that the passage of time weighs on them. What exactly is the age span of frog made out of felt? Though it did seem to me that Fozzie Bear's eyebrows had acquired a touch of gray.

In the one nod to modern irony, there is plenty of breaking of the fourth wall, as the Muppets and their human tag-a-longs comment on the fact they are starring in a film. After assembling Kermit (voice of Steve Whitmire), Fozzie Bear (Eric Jacobson), Gonzo (Dave Goelz), and a few others, someone suggests that they save time by picking up the rest of the crew via musical montage.

I also guffawed when Gary's long-suffering girlfriend Mary (Amy Adams) quips after the Muppets' pitch for a live telethon is turned down by every television studio in town: "This is going to be an awfully short movie!"

The heavy is Tex Richman, a wealthy oilman who's made an unlikely discovery of oil right beneath the Muppets' old Los Angeles theater. Chris Cooper, known for dramatic roles, attacks the part with obvious glee, even breaking into a rap assisted by his Muppet henchmen. ("Do you think we're working for the bad guy?" one asks the other.)

In one great throwaway joke, whenever Tex Richman is savoring his evil plans, he doesn't just break out into a maniacal laugh, but actually narrates it: "Maniacal laaauuuuugh!!"

Director James Bobin, a TV veteran, seems to grasp the tone and pitch of the Muppets, combining broad physical humor for kiddies with wry observations aimed at their parents. Though the story does get a big draggy near the middle, and the movie feels a little bit overlong.

Still, "The Muppets" is a joyful and successful reboot of a beloved franchise.

The movie is preceded by a 7-minute "Toy Story" short that finds Buzz Lightyear usurped by a micro-version of himself from a fast-food promotional giveaway. It's moderately amusing, though I savored the wink to Disney's mega-merchandising.

3 stars out of four

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