The Muppets (2011)

Starring Jason Segel, Amy Adams, Chris Cooper, Rashida Jones, Steve Whitmire, Eric Jacobson, Dave Goelz, Bill Barretta, David Rudman, Matt Vogel, Peter Linz

Directed by James Bobin

Expectations: High. Muppets were my thing as a kid.

OK, this review could very easily slip into a 1200 word rant on why this is a disingenuous attempt at bringing back the Muppets, characters I’ve loved for as long as I can remember. These guys are in my soul, from Sesame Street to Fraggle Rock to the Muppets proper. When I heard Disney was producing a new, old-school Muppets movie, I became instantly excited. Star and screenwriter Jason Segal assured everyone that it was his passion, and that no one would be disappointed. On one hand, they’ve totally pulled it off: The Muppets is a fun, lighthearted movie for the whole family. But on the other hand, for hardcore fans of Jim Henson’s work and the three original Muppet films, there’s a distinct difference in the quality of the end results.

The Muppets is essentially a remake of The Blues Brothers, with the Muppet Theater in jeopardy from an evil oil baron and Kermit forced to get the band back together for one big fundraisin’ show of a lifetime. Before we get to Kermit and the rest of the gang, though, we’re introduced to Gary and Walter. Gary is a human (played by Jason Segal) and Walter is a puppet. They’re brothers and no one ever mentions how or why he has a puppet for a brother. Walter does notice the difference, though, and feels like an outcast until he discovers the Muppets. While Walter is ultimately a good addition to the cast, he is also part of the problem.

As the movie centers around Walter, it spends entirely too much time with him and not the actual Muppets you care about. Walter isn’t especially interesting either, except being a thinly veiled surrogate for every nostalgic grown-up in the audience that once wished to be up there alongside the Muppets. Jason Segal and Amy Adams’s characters are also in the movie way too much, taking up valuable time singing boring, pseudo-Broadway songs. I came to see the Muppets resurrect their old schtick, not see Enchanted with puppets. The film has a plot point where the Muppets can only get their show on the air if they can get a celebrity host. I have to imagine that the Disney studio execs ordered something similar for this film, as at this point they’re willing to bank on Jason Segal and Amy Adams, but not the Muppets themselves to sell a film on their own.

Which brings me to my main problem with this movie: the music. The score is generic, average and completely forgettable. All of Jim Henson’s projects always stressed the importance of integrating music, and the original Muppet trilogy are all great examples of how to do just that. Not only that, but the Muppet songs had a whimsy and a unique, rollicking quality to them that made you want to dance and sing along. And the Muppets sang the songs! I can understand why the music isn’t exactly the same as times have changed, but does the music really have to be this generic? Not only that but in key moments where there obviously should have been a big, rousing Muppet song of yore, the Muppets simply dance around and lip-synch to a licensed song! What is going on here? Are you guys really going to deprive me of a cool Muppets “clean up the dilapidated theater” song with Jefferson Starship’s We Built This City? C’mon! And this happens multiple times throughout. I guess writing an original song is harder than buying the rights to an established pop song and marketing it in new ways to viewers of all ages. I hope I’m not around when some kid who grew up with this film first hears Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit and calls it “that song from the Muppet Movie.”

There are some rays of sunshine, though. The puppeteering is simply outstanding, and the crew has never looked better on-screen. The color palette is bright and brilliant, perfectly matching the happy, upbeat tone. The Muppets is James Bobin’s début feature and he performs admirably. The film’s wildly successful parody ad campaigns suggested a more stylish and imaginative film, but instead it’s everything you’d expect from a Disney film aimed at kids. There are some great jokes in the film, though, and a few that had me laughing out loud. I especially liked when Kermit went to pick up Fozzie at a casino in Reno, recalling the similar scene from the original Muppet movie, and echoing a scene from The Blues Brothers when Jake and Elwood watch a few of their ex-band members cover soft rock songs as “Murph and the Magic Tones” at a Holiday Inn.

So with all these negative points, you might wonder why I’m awarding this three stars. It’s because regardless of my nit-picky, stalwart Muppet fan feelings, the movie is very entertaining and a whole lot of fun. It gets some key things horribly wrong, but it somehow still manages to be a success. It never really made me feel those old feelings of watching the Muppets, though, it always felt like a new take on them. That might work for some, but this change in tone and feeling just made me pine for the original Muppet trilogy of my youth. I recognize that most people will find this to be a great family film, and I won’t rob them of that. Definitely check it out, but be warned if you have very specific memories of the gang.

Oh, and I apologize that the review did indeed devolve into a rant; it just couldn’t be helped.

8 comments to The Muppets (2011)

  • Well, I must say you got your point across very well, Will! I must have missed most of these issues when I saw it in the cinema – I’ll have to grab the BluRay and have another shot and see if I agree with you.

    But I must say, I was just happy to see the Muppets back on the big screen in ANY form.

    • I’d say if you didn’t have the same problems I had, just have fun with it and don’t bother trying to agree with me. I’m just a cantankerous young, old man. While it’s definitely good to see the Muppets back, I wish the film had more of the Henson magic that I remember from the original films.

  • Good review Will. I had a ball with this flick and definitely would say it’s up there as one of my favorites from last year. Was it perfect? Hell no, but at least it had a very, very fun time with itself and that’s all I asked from The Muppets movie.

  • Will, I have to disagree….though not perfect, ithought “The Muppets” was a wonderful addition to the previous films, and being a musician- I thought the songs were well-done. I didn’t have any problem with the human characters singsing- since the script set it up that way in the beginning of the film…and Walter, though bland at the start of the film, found his way as a true Muppet….and the telethon made up for any deficiencies the film had!

    • I’m also a musician, and while the songs are definitely technically proficient, they felt like the same tired Broadway-ish songs that seem to always make their way into Disney movies these days. It’s like they’re preparing for the eventual stage version in advance. They do set it up right away to be a film where the humans are singing, and this immediately upset me because one of my favorite things as a kid was the Muppets’ ability to burst into song. So as the film moved along and the Muppets continued to get nothing, only to eventually trot out Rainbow Connection, I was supremely disappointed. It goes against everything Henson did in the original three films, which were all unique, vibrant and full of original songs. I liked Walter at the start of the film, and including him is a great idea for the framing of the story, but it just comes down to me rather seeing Kermit and the old gang over a puppet human. It’s a very well-made film, and it’s fun, but it left me sad overall because I feel that the characters deserved better musically. Hopefully, the sequel will move in this direction, although I doubt it.

      Thanks for coming by and commenting!

  • I don’t think the songs in this movie are as good as the older films, I agree with you on that. I also see your point about not giving the original gang enough screen time. But in some cases,(SPOILER ALERT) the idea of anticipation and expectation outweigh the actual sceen time…for example, at the end of the movie with everyone cheering after the Muppets actually failed to make enough money to save the theater, I guarantee you there wasn’t a dry eye in the house (including mine!)- We as the public have missed the Muppets terribly, and I thought for that reason alone, this movie vaulted into my top ten of last year. A great movie?? But very enjoyable and nostalgic nonetheless!

    And BTW- I found you through the LAMB-just wanted to say your reviews of several lesser-known Spaghetti Westerns were great, and it’s nice to find someone else in the blogging hemisphere that looks more twoard the unknown and underappreciated!

    • Well, my eyes were the dry ones, as I was especially off-put by that ending. It didn’t make any sense to me, and while I don’t think it was really meant to, it still bothered me. It is incredibly nostalgic for sure, but that’s a big part of my problem with it, as I don’t see it as much else besides nostalgia. Although if I were to see this as a child, I’m sure I would enjoy it thoroughly. I’m also rewatching (and reviewing) the original trilogy too, just to make sure I’m remembering them and arguing for them correctly.

      That’s cool you found me through the LAMB’s spaghetti western feature. I had a feeling it would be something of a “Leone Fest” so I made sure to submit my links to some films outside the general radar. Glad you enjoyed them. I don’t review them as much as I’d like to, but there are a bunch more than what was featured there. They are all accessible here: I definitely do my best to cover as much of the cinematic landscape as I can, so I’m glad you enjoy it! Thanks!

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