Review: The Muppets, 2011, dir. James Bobin

When Jason Segel capitalized on the critical and financial success of his breakout hit Forgetting Sarah Marshall three years ago by securing the green-light to write his own Muppets film, my world stopped turning for a day. Muppets? In the 2010s? And envisioned by a man who not only represents a perfect human foil to everyone’s favorite felt-born cultural satirists and performers, but also possesses a clear love for puppetry as a general pursuit (as well as the Muppets in particular)? Could I be so lucky? Fast forward from 2008 to November 25th, 2011; here I am basking in the unabashedly jubilant glow of The Muppets, and of course I have a conundrum. I’m afflicted with a sudden absence of articulation and a dearth of words to express myself properly.

But maybe that’s okay in this case. The Muppets have always first spoken directly to the heart; Segel understands where we maintain our fondness for and attachment to these inanimate beings, which come to startling life through the skilled hands of a few good puppeteers. A critic bereft of a soul could write at some length about The Muppets‘ issues with structure and they might not be wrong in a straightforward sense, but those characteristics don’t comprise the components necessary for creating a successful, meaningful Muppets film that resonates with its viewers. Phrased less delicately, bringing a traditionally critical touch to a Muppets review feels just plain old miserly.

Especially since Segel and partner in crime Nick Stoller thoroughly get what makes the Muppets work. A good Muppets film is simple alchemy, a matter of brewing together a precise blend of pop culture commentary and parody, self-aware humor, delightful musical numbers, human presence and interaction, and boundless cheer; other ingredients that we tend to prize in other films, notably strong plotting, matter much, much less. Oh, there’s a story at the center of The Muppets, make no mistake, and anyone familiar with their first cinematic outing will easily pick up the similarities between the two films– only this time, the goal is to reunite the Muppets after the gang has parted ways, for the purpose of keeping unctuous and egotistical tycoon Tex Richman (Chris Cooper) from demolishing the old Muppet theater to access the oil reserves beneath it.

While Segel and Stoller both lay down those elements of conflict as the foundation of the picture, they don’t refer to them as a focal point. Richman’s bid to get at the Muppet theater’s oil acts as a binding to tie together all of those characteristics that we crave from a Muppet movie. Are we watching The Muppets to see Kermit and Ms. Piggy and Fozzie and Scooter and Rowlf and the Swedish Chef and Gonzo defeat an imminent threat to their very history? Or are we watching the film because we anticipate the shenanigans the group inevitably will get up to in their attempt to stop Richman’s nefarious plan? Ultimately, we all truly love the Muppets for the emotions they instill in us above matters of structure and plot.

That’s The Muppets‘ big takeaway. The Muppets represent so much to those of us who grew up with them in a way that’s nostalgic without constituting something of a sickness; they don’t call us back to happier times but rather to happiness itself. More than anything that’s Segel’s and Stoller’s goal; they’re not yearning for a time gone by but instead working to bring these characters into 2011, frequently by identifying where the Muppets stand on various scales of popularity. How do the Muppets become relevant in a world where their group persona and comedic sensibilities go against the cultural grain? Through a handful of self-deprecating jokes which identify how far adrift the Muppets are on the pop culture radar, but also with a climactic dance number in which the film states that for as long as the characters have been gone, they haven’t been forgotten.

In doing so Segel and Stoller make the case that people need the Muppets today. Contemporary humor grounds itself so much in cynicism and on occasion outright cruelty that a dose of joyful absurdity could well be a much-appreciated tonic. Frankly, the comedy of the Muppets feels refreshing in a world of It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphias and South Parks. We need their brand of caustic humor as well, but when contemporary comedy leans so heavily on various degrees of negativity for their set-ups and punchlines the Muppets act as the new optimism. The Muppets doesn’t seek to placate the masses with mindless entertainment; rather it intends to show us how to face our dilemmas and challenges with positivism and with laughter.

Which the film brings in spades. Not every Muppet movie can be The Muppet Movie, but Segel’s and Stoller’s offering comes in a close second. The Muppets is side-splittingly funny, unrelentingly ridiculous and unapologetically zany as only the Muppets can be. Take your time and try to pin down your favorite gag; it’s harder to do than you might think. (For my part, seeing Cooper spontaneously bust a rhyme had me in stitches.) Largely, credit for how well the film’s comedy plays can go to Segel, who certainly makes a proper fit with the Muppets both as a writer and as a figurehead (though he wrote the script with Stoller, his fingerprints are all over the film on every level; not to discredit the contributions of James Bobin, but this is very much Segel’s film); he’s got the right personality for each task and his lovably goofy proclivities as a comic actor work  perfectly with Muppet sensibilities.

He also knows how to marry Muppet lunacy with Muppet emotionalism, and carries out the latter task through Walter, a brand-new Muppet tailor-made for this film. As a concept Walter represents a physical embodiment of Segel’s love for Jim Henson’s iconic puppets; as a character he’s the heart that drives The Muppets forward. Walter grows up watching The Muppet Show, in which he finds role models he can truly relate to; at his urging, the effort to save the Muppet theater begins in earnest. Walter’s arc is about a lifelong fan being given the chance to perform alongside his idols, but it’s also about fostering hope for the characters who gave him hope as a kid. The Muppets, through Walter, becomes a story of reciprocity; love the Muppets and they’ll love you right back.

Maybe it’s the time of year, maybe it’s where we are as a culture, but there’s no cinematic message more welcome or comforting than that. The Muppets is effervescent elation personified, and the most purely gleeful picture of the year. It’s hard to take a swing at a film that’s so firmly and intentionally entrenched in its own mirth, but as much as it’s critic-proof in its fashion it’s also genuinely warm and merry, and crafted with lots of love. Muppets fans will rejoice for certain, but Segel and Stoller have also succeeded in introducing them to a new generation of viewers.

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12 thoughts on “Review: The Muppets, 2011, dir. James Bobin

  1. I loved this movie. In this cynical society of ours, it’s such a relief to get something as joyful and uplifting as this movie. My main beef with the movie relates to Walter’s secret talent that comes literally out of left field at the end of the film. I was expecting something that would relate to his struggles throughout the story but instead, it was a totally cheesy development.

    • I actually felt like that was pretty appropriately Muppety, especially since Walter’s main characteristic throughout the film is that he loves the Muppets. Sure, there are other things, but his ability to endure heavy voltage doesn’t really lend itself to a show-stopping finale.

      Regardless, you’re definitely right, this being so uplifting is a huge breath of fresh air. I think we need characters like these today, and it’s just wonderful to see them back again.

  2. I want to agree with your review but I find myself, nostalgia aside, leaning/compelled to see this from a “traditionally critical” point of view trying to find the pluses and minuses as it this were a purely cinematic film.

    That’s probably most of my problem but even as an airy reunion with such beloved characters it left me wanting. Side splitting Chris Cooper busting a rhyme? Sorry Andrew. That and a great many more scenes got nothing but dead air as not only was I not laughing but my entire theater heard crickets for a good portion of the film. To find fault in a Muppet movie is probably to have lost one’s soul long ago but even as a fan, this just did not embody the fullness of the Muppets of old.

    However, you’re 100% right. At the end of the day the Muppets exist and live in a world where zany is not just their language but their life blood and that’s what they give audiences. A wacky time void of pretense and sanity and further show us, just as you pointed out, that entertainers needn’t be crude rude and slanderous to their subject matter to have a good time. In most respects you’re right, we need the Muppets. They are felt and foam creations but they also have a heart.

    I still hold that the bar for me is The Great Muppet Caper and compared to that this felt waaay too breezy but as was intended this film didn’t need to be anything more than a reminder to get reacquainted with some old friends. Fine write up Andrew.

    • Did Frank Oz and his cohorts put you up to this? Did they?

      I kid. That said if I can find one really significant flaw with the film’s structure, it’s that Walter’s talent doesn’t receive much of an introduction until later in the film. For that to work to fullest effect, it should have come up far earlier. Of course, given that that’s probably the film’s biggest flaw, I think it does pretty well for itself.

      As far as the audience, I don’t know. I tend not to take audience reaction into account for the most part; I mean, Drive‘s audience was all but silent, and that film was pretty amazing. I don’t really care much what an audience thinks as far as establishing my own opinion of a film goes; maybe examining the film on a more macro level should take that into consideration, though.

      Yeah, really, Tex Richman rapping killed me. It’s out of left field and Cooper totally nails it. I also had a good laugh at Rowlf’s montage moment; I think it’s perfectly Muppety and perfectly Rowlf. What can I say? Humor’s the most subjective of genres after all.

      For me this totally captures what makes the Muppets work, but the review states that pretty clearly. Too bad it didn’t hit you the way it hit me, but I’m glad you agree with me that we need ’em!

      Always a pleasure, Marc.

  3. I loved the Muppets movie, and Andy’s review captures the spirit of the film (full disclosure, I’m his father-in-law). I think the contrast that Andy draws between this kind of humor and the totally cynical humor of a South Park is telling, the point being it’s ok to be cornball sometimes. And yet there’s a sly subversiveness about the comedy (Jack Black being tortured by a barbershop quartet rendition of Smells Like Teen Spirit, the chickens singing their version of…well, go see the movie) that’s consistent with the sense of the absurd that permeates the Muppets through their history. Go see it.

  4. Pingback: 2011: Retrospective, Honors, & ACVF’s Top 15 (Pt.2) « A Constant Visual Feast

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