Friday, June 8, 2018

Disney's The Muppets

One for the kids...written at the time of the film's release.

"Of Muppets and Meat-Puppets"
"Old Feelings Being Felt"

Back in the 1980's Lord Lew Grade made a ton of green with the syndicated "The Muppet Show," which took Jim Henson's cast of characters and had them stage a show in an abandoned theater every week, with practically every bi-ped celebrity host imaginable, ranging anywhere from Bob Hope to Johnny Cash, with the only possible exception being that of Steve Jobs.

Now it's the 2010's and (as the joke goes) not only do we have no Jobs, but no Cash and no Hope. But, at least we have legs. Pity the poor Muppets; they can't stand straight without somebody's arm supporting them!  Subsequently falling on hard times, with the prospect of their old theater being acquired and demolished for mineral rights by a greedy oil cowboy named Tex Richman (Chris Cooper, once again channeling his inner Shrub), Kermit the Frog (Steve Whitmire) must get the gang together to try and save the theater and protect the very integrity of the name "Muppet."  He has unlikely allies—Gary (SNL's Jason Segel, who co-wrote the hyper-joked, "fourth" wall-exploding screenplay with Nicholas Stoller) and Mary (Amy Adams, who is as goofily inspired in this as she was in Disney's Enchanted), who get mixed up in the plan because of Gary's devotion to his brother Walter (Peter Linz), who was born...a muppet.
Okay, okay, already the movie is straying into terri-story that has some under-pinnings of life-lessons to them.  Plug "muppet" into the "Mad-Libs" space where "developmental challenge" or "specified minority" would go, and you have a nicely anarchic spin to the usual "inspiring" story that...well, a studio like Disney likes to make every now and again. But, Disney always does best when it thinks "outside of the castle" and by re-tooling the Muppets for 21st Century kids* (and their parents who watched them in the 1980's), using Segel and Stoller's less-than-respectful approach to Muppets, mores and movies, a slightly hipper slew of cameos, and the musical supervision of Bret McKenzie (the part of "Flight of the Conchords" that is not Jemaine, and the songs are instantly identifiable as "Conchord" material), it has managed to breath new life into the franchise, while maintaining the integrity of the characters...and Henson's basic art-concepts of marionette-puppetry without resorting to CGI cheating. It's like watching a favorite performer make the artistic jump from vaudeville to a more challenging medium.**
It's easily the best of the Muppet movies, including (uh...) The Muppet Movie which this film makes loving tribute to. I still remember the fascination that first film had for me, being googly-eyed with puppetry at a young age and following Henson's first experimental work in the 1960's and marveling at how he was always pushing the form.*** With Henson's death in 1990 (it's been that long?), and the burgeoning directing career of fellow Muppeteer Frank Oz, the Muppet entity collapsed in on itself somewhat, as those two personalities (and accompanying arms) were the spines that kept the Muppets upright. 
But, this film gives one hope (even if Bob is gone) that the Muppets are in—and on—good hands. This film would be hilarious even without the Muppets, with the scripters and director James Bobin having a fine time playing with the concepts and the whole movie-musical world, and doing so very economically. All it takes is one shot for them to skewer or explain away a movie-magic cliché (a particular favorite—the end of a rousing musical number when the principals leave the screen and the dancers and extras hear "Okay, they're gone" and collapse in an exhausted heap), then move on to the next joke.
Everything works, and there's enough material seen in images and bits of trailers that didn't make it into the movie to assure that only the best stuff made it into the movie, with no "down"-time. It's solidly entertaining, fresh and funny, with surprises around every corner. It's not easy being green, but it's extraordinarily hard to re-boot a franchise when the principals can't even wear boots..and don't have a leg to stand on. The Muppets is highly recommended...for everybody.

You knew something was up, when this rather surprising trailer first appeared.
And only the most churlish could roll their eyes at the way the stars were "revealed."

* It's rated "PG" (so as not to kill a more generalized audience than toddlers, I presume).  But, the only things I thought might warrant the rating was Fozzie Bear's invention of "fart-shoes" to generate cheap laughs, and the mere suggestion that Miss Piggy's "replacement" might be a transvestite (in itself a great joke and another instance of the movie "taking chances").

** And, really, are "The Muppets" any different from The Marx Brothers, The Three Stooges, Abbott and Costello and other vaudevillians?  It's why stage performers worked so seamlessly with them and why they match the "our heroes against the world" formula of such movies.  They also faced the same danger—being pigeon-holed into formula films that ill-suited them.  A Muppet Christmas Carol?  It was only a matter of time before The Muppets Go West!

*** Parents, don't let your kids read this asterisk!  One of the things about The Muppet Movie that I loved was seeing how Henson and crew moved their critters with hidden people attached to them out of the world of medium close-up into full-figured reality without missing a beat, like watching Kermit ride a bicycle (a simple employment of marionette techniques)...or the opening number, which featured Kermit playing a banjo sitting on a log in the middle of a real water-filled lake.  Hey, he's a frog, it's only natural (well, except for playing the banjo).  But, think of it, the puppeteer (actually two of them, one of whom was undoubtedly Henson himself, who "played" Kermit) had to be submerged in a water-tank to pull off that sequence.  It cemented for me the fact that the Muppets and movies were made for each other—both arts depend entirely on what is in the frame and what isn't to pull off the illusion of reality.

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