Thursday, 19 January 2012

The Muppets

Lowdown: After years of disbandment, friends and Muppets organize a show to save the Muppet Studios.
Ours is a very Muppet friendly house. You can say all three members grew up on the Muppets: I remember watching the show in black & white on Friday afternoons, a boy still unable to read the subtitles or understand the English but a very amused boy nevertheless (oh, the days of having a single TV channel!); my wife has similar childhood stories, albeit with more channels and full listening comprehension; and my four year old son is a fan of the series we’ve been introducing him too. He doesn’t care whether the episodes he’s watching are more than thirty years old; Mahna Mahna is till hilariously funny. (Anecdote: Mahna Mahna is the first Muppet performance on the very first Muppets episode.)
Thus when The Muppets, the first Muppet film to hit the cinema in decades, finally landed in Australia some two months after its release in the USA (and then they dare complain about piracy), we made our way to the cinema. Not because we expected much – none of the Muppets movies have been particularly good – but because it promised fun for all of us. In retrospect, the results were exactly the way we've anticipated them.
We follow two brothers living in somewhere USA, a town that seems stuck in the fifties: Gary (Jason Segel) and Walter – who is a Muppet (finally, we know how they’re created!). Life can be hard, with Walter being a Muppet in a society of humans, but Gary stands by his side. When Gary goes for a tour of California with his wedding anxious girlfriend Mary (Amy Adams) he feels compelled to take Walter with him so the latter can visit his sacred temple: the Muppet Studios.
Alas, when they arrive at the shrine they discover it to be a deserted dump. Worse, Walter eavesdrops on this rich millionaire (Chris Cooper) that plots to take control over the studios and turn them into an oil field. What can be done about it? Well, what do you think - is there anything else that can reconvene the Muppets after so many long years for a show to collect the money they need to keep hold of their theater? There are hurdles on the way, though. Like reluctant Muppets, not to mention the Muppets’ deadly rivals – the Moopets.
Let’s make two things clear: (a) plot is not The Muppets’ strongest point and (b) The Muppets is a musical, which means that characters burst into song all too often. Generally speaking, I have a problem with musicals but I don't have a problem with Muppets' musical performances because they're so funny and original. Sadly, The Muppets' musicals expose what is probably the biggest problem with the film: there is not enough Muppets stuff in it; too much of it is to do with either the human characters or that new Muppet, Walter. My gripe: as a veteran Muppet fan I have absolutely no emotional attachment to this Walter character!
Not that the human character are devoid of issues. Despite the good acting talent at hand, acting is not exactly at Oscar winning levels. Worse, Segel is not exactly Fred Astaire. And Amy Adams? In typical Hollywood fashion, her character is only interested in getting married. Because everyone knows a woman is no good without a husband by her side! Since when did such conservative values go together with the anarchic Muppets? Probably since Disney took over the joint.
The human side of the equation is not all bad. Cooper is a lovely baddie, and his musical number is entertaining purely for the surprise factor. Numerous cameos spread throughout the film add some extra laughs (I liked Emily Blunt's because I like Emily Blunt, but a David Grohl playing Animal's Moopet counterpart wins top spot); on the other hand, the cameos' value is nothing but anecdotal. They don't add anything to the film, especially not for the kids that have no idea they're witnessing a celebrity at work.
Add all the marketing attitudes, musical numbers and relative lack of Muppet action - most characters are never developed behind the two seconds used to introduce them - and you get an entertaining yet tedious film that's probably too long for its own good.
Best scene:
As much as I detest musicals, I have to hand it to “Am I a Man or Am I a Muppet”. First, because the song is so silly it’s incredibly catchy, and second because of the casting of Sheldon Cooper (or rather, Jim Parsons) to play Walter’s human alter ego. Still, as good as the movie song’s performance is, its best performance ever has to be my son’s while having a shower.
Another worthy contender to the crown is a Muppet barbershop quartet rendition of Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit. Unlike Man or Muppet, which is a normal song performed normally for all intents and purposes, this one is a proper Muppet performance.
Extra feature:
We were surprised to see a Pixar short prior to The Muppets starting. I guess Disney is making the most of owning Pixar nowadays. The short was another Toy Story tale, this time about abandoned kids' meals toys. Its problem is that by now Toy Story has set the bar pretty high, but the recent inflation in Toy Story shorts (there was one with Cars 2, too) feels like it's chipping the brand.
Technical assessment:
Given how rare it is for us to visit the cinema I will spend a couple of sentences on the experience. First, the sheer size of the cinema screen does make for a different experience than home viewing; what I don’t understand is why the cinema feels justified in charging us $2 extra per ticket simply because we watched the film on a large (aka "max") cinema screen. Personally, I would refer to what we’ve seen the film projected on as a "normal cinema screen"; those small cubicle like cinemas at the multiplex are not “normal” cinemas, they’re blasphemy.
Second, it was amusing to see how poorly calibrated cinema sound is. It was all too easy, and actually quite distracting, for me to be able to identify exactly which speaker each bit of sound came from. That’s not surround sound, that’s sound coming in from a disarray of speakers.
The Muppets is fun and its obvious it was made with love. However, it has too many issues to receive proper commendation. I’m giving it 2.5 out of 5 stars, but I will add that we will probably end up with the DVD/Blu-ray in our collection due to its compatibility with the household's four year old.
Personally, I would say there is much more fun to be had from watching any of the good old Muppets episodes than watching this film. Not because the film is so bad but rather because the series was just so exceptionally good! Given the abundance of episodes there really is no need to ruin the vintage taste other than the introduction of the Muppets to younger audiences.

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