The Muppets

I stopped paying attention to new Muppet movies after creator Jim Henson’s untimely death in 1990. I just didn’t have the heart for it. But I was aware that the Henson legacy continued with The Muppet Christmas Carol, Muppet Treasure Island, and, finally, Muppets from Space. (For Gen X-ers, 1999 was a very bad year: George Lucas told you that The Force was really tiny space critters living in your bloodstream, and Team Muppet expected you to believe that Gonzo was an extraterrestrial.) Muppets from Space was the last hurrah for Frank Oz, Jim Henson’s right-hand man for so many years, although the Muppets endured on a newly humble scale, reaching in 2005 what fans generally agree was the nadir of their existence, the made-for-TV The Muppets’ Wizard of Oz.

It’s understandable, then, that The Muppets generated tons of goodwill last year due simply to its status as a reboot–an attempt to send some voltage through what had become a sad old carcass, whether or not it channelled the inspired lunacy and gentle chaos of an actual Henson production. The film’s pedigree is reasonable: Superfans Jason Segel and Nicholas Stoller pitched this Muppets revival to Disney back in 2008, and Flight of the Conchords impresarios James Bobin and Bret McKenzie came aboard later as director and music supervisor, respectively. It sounds good on paper, these titans of rude humour and irreverent musical comedy coming together in praise of Muppets. (The ridiculous Muppet Dracula musical in Forgetting Sarah Marshall even suggested that Segel might specifically be the right man for the job.) It’s to their credit that The Muppets never feels overwritten, but it is a resolutely mild film. I hate to criticize Segel and Stoller for not being Henson, but that’s what they had to live up to; the Muppets require more specialized care and feeding than, say, Mickey Mouse.

Henson’s sense of humour always tilted towards chaotic neutral–check out his explosive, proto-Muppet-populated ads for Wilkins coffee, which remain a little startling to this day. He was a bit frustrated by the fact that his puppets found great success on the archetypal kid-vid show Sesame Street but failed in more mature surroundings, like a season-one berth on Saturday Night Live. Debuting in 1976, The Muppet Show was an attempt to bridge that gap. It was often thought of as a kids’ show that was entertaining enough to hold the attention of adults, though in truth it was the opposite: a burlesque show that happened to be family friendly. Its sensibility was an inspired synthesis of Looney Tunes and Monty Python.

The Muppets, on the other hand, is a kids’ movie. The main plotline is, essentially, a Blues Brothers riff that has Kermit the Frog visiting his old theatrical comrades one at a time, revealing that he’s reuniting the troupe for one big show that will save the Muppet Theater from demolition. So far, so good. The villain in this scenario is the humourless tycoon Tex Richman (Chris Cooper), who plans, improbably, to drill for oil on the land where the theatre stands. If you think a Muppet movie needs a villain, well, he’ll do, and at one point he raps. So far, so low-concept–and that, when it comes to the Muppets, is the whole idea.

Unfortunately, The Muppets gets annoying as the human actors start camping it up, letting the audience know that this material is totally meta before any classic Muppet characters are allowed on screen. The first, overtly chipper musical number, “Life’s a Happy Song,” is a performance on the streets of Smalltown presided over by a constipated-looking Gary (Segel), going through the song-and-dance motions with his oddly-turned eyebrows dominating the frame. I’m not entirely sure what tone Bobin was going for here–the emphatically wholesome Segel gets “awkward” right, but there’s a self-deprecating quality to the piece that plays as a lack of confidence. As a smirky variation on Enchanted, it’s a failure. That movie’s big song-and-dance number in Central Park is way more impressive–better choreographed and more spectacularly staged–than anything in The Muppets.

The song’s lyrics are especially puzzling for a show opener: “I’ve got/Everything that I need/Right in front of me” our characters sing in a contented, can-do ode to friendship and small-town living that’s a poor set-up for the next hour-and-a-half of story. (Absent here and elsewhere is the sense of wonder and mystery the original Muppet Movie traded in–you won’t find a lyric like “Have you been half-asleep/and have you heard voices” in a Bret McKenzie song.) It’s doubly strange that the number glosses over the feelings of the humanoid Muppet Walter (voiced by Peter Linz), brother to Gary, who is inexplicably living his life among the normals while suspecting that the straight world does not, in fact, have everything he needs.

As Muppets go, Walter is pretty terrible. While it’s kind of cute that the film refuses to acknowledge that this excitable, eternal little kid is obviously made of felt and foam, his presence draws extra attention to the human/Muppet dichotomy that generally goes charmingly unobserved in Muppet mythology. He exists as a vessel for the picture’s earnest thesis that devotion to the Muppets from an early age awakens reservoirs of creativity in viewers. The worst thing about Walter as a Muppet is that there’s nothing distinctive about his appearance or personality. He’s a whatnot–that’s the term Henson used to describe the blank puppets his workshop kept on hand, ready for the Velcro eyeballs and sewn-on noses that would bring them to temporary life.

However, the character of Walter addresses a practical problem with the script. Since the film is built around a trip to Hollywood by Gary and his girlfriend of ten years, Mary (Amy Adams), having Walter in tow at least gets a Muppet on screen as the movie spends long minutes setting up the first appearance of Kermit outside his lonely Bel Air mansion. Since the humans are boring caricatures, the arrival of familiar Muppet characters marks a considerable improvement in the film’s quality. A series of vignettes re-introducing the most iconic Muppets is warm and witty, and good feelings swell up again as the movie channels, with some success, the backstage machinations and vaudevillian performance art that drove The Muppet Show.

The accompanying helping of pointless 1980s nostalgia doesn’t sit well with me, even though I understand the commercial imperative to pander to 30- and 40-somethings with kids. Most of my cavils with this stuff are not worth mentioning, although I submit that the poor taste shown by the inclusion of “We Built This City” in a musical montage is a slander against Muppethood. Speaking of nostalgia, it will always disconcert me to hear Muppets speaking in the wrong voice. That said, Steve Whitmire started voicing and performing Kermit shortly after Henson died, and despite my quibbles with certain vocal tics and mannerisms (you can see the difference in the shape of his hand, and the way he works his fingers and knuckles to make different Kermit faces), I recognize the expertise. Kermit belongs to him now.

One big disappointment is the film’s lazy sexism. The Muppet Show was always a bit retrograde when it came to gender politics (I realized that Miss Piggy was a hopelessly reductive character even when I was 8), but that program was clearly parodying existing pop-culture tropes, with puppets. There’s no excuse for a 2012 franchise reboot to cast Adams only to kick her character to the curb, but The Muppets does it anyway. Adams plays the role of an incredible buzzkill, mooning around in the background waiting for her boyfriend to pop the question before finally freaking out near the picture’s climax because the Muppets’ one chance to regain their legacy–with the crucial help of Gary and Walter, both of whom are obviously doing an important and soulful thing while she putters generically around the greater L.A. area as a vacuous tourist–happens to conflict with a planned anniversary dinner. The ensuing relationship crisis does provide the setting for “Man or Muppet,” a dizzying, self-mocking power ballad that won an Oscar, but the writers shouldn’t have pushed Mary into that corner. It’s humiliating.

Mary does eventually come around, her woe-is-me shtick having served its story purpose. But the film’s ending is a disaster area, relying entirely on good vibes and depressingly perfunctory self-congratulations. Especially for a movie with a generous-by-Muppet-standards 103-minute running time, the final sequence is anti-climactic and borderline incoherent. If the Muppets’ eventual triumph this time around amounts to winning a popularity contest, well, at least it’s in line with the outcome hoped for by their new corporate overlords. The momentarily disorienting sight of thronging, Kermit-crazed crowds outside the El Capitan moviehouse may not say, “Wow! The Muppets saved their theatre,” but it does cry out, “Jeepers, the Walt Disney Company is going to make some coin off these re-booted Muppets!” More power to them–but I’m glad my review copy didn’t cost me a dime.

Disney’s Blu-ray Disc (I reviewed “The Wocka Wocka Value Pack,” featuring a Blu-ray, a DVD, a digital copy, and a download code for a copy of the soundtrack album) goes some way towards explaining what happened to the Segel/Stoller Muppets concept on its way to the screen. The yak-track, in which Segel and Stoller join Bobin, is awfully jokey, but also remarkably candid. Segel describes an original screenplay in which Walter was a ventriloquist’s dummy who dreamed of becoming one of the Muppets, a conceit that seemed pretty clever until the Henson crew took him aside and explained that it’s a bad idea to draw attention to a puppet’s status as a puppet–in the world of the Muppets, Kermit is not a puppet but a frog, Miss Piggy is not a puppet but a pig, and so on. Bobin takes credit for the brainstorm that made “Man or Muppet” a duet between Segel and Walter, rather than a Segel solo–again pointing up the screenplay’s disconcerting preoccupation with its human characters. Why on earth were so many songs written for, ugh, people to sing?

More insight is offered by the deleted scenes, which show where a couple of meaningful character beats were excised from the final cut. As it turns out, there is a deleted verse from “Life’s a Happy Song” that addresses Walter’s unhappiness, as well as an extended Tex Richman origin story that, however clunky, makes more sense out of what exactly is going on during The Muppets’ denouement. The rest of this material comprises what seems to be the bulk of the celebrity cameos, with appearances by Ricky Gervais, Rob Corddry, Billy Crystal (!), Wanda Sykes, and Danny Trejo falling on the chopping block. There’s nothing great here (I did laugh out loud at some lowbrow material in the extended Chris Cooper rap), but I’m surprised that all of it hit the cutting-room floor–an indicator of discipline in the edit, I guess.

If you’re curious about the new group of performers playing the roles of the various Muppets, you’ll stay curious after viewing this release. The commentary contains a few references to the film’s largely unheralded Muppeteers, but otherwise Disney does its damnedest to pretend they don’t exist. The docu short “Scratching the Surface: A Hasty Examination of the Making of The Muppets” (16 mins.) is padded out with “interview” segments featuring Muppets in character, but the camera never once dips below the frameline to show the performers operating them. Video-based extras, all of them in HD, also include various “spoof” trailers that were created to promote the movie through not-especially-sophisticated mockery of other genres, an entertaining eight-and-a-half-minute blooper reel, and a three-minute camera test that’s written like a half-hearted little Muppet sketch in its own right.

The camera test was probably required in part to determine how the Muppets would look in footage captured by the ARRI Alexa, arguably the current gold standard in digital motion-picture cameras. It yields a clean, saturated, and essentially grainless image that’s reproduced in a sterling transfer on this BD. (Colours in the film’s opening sequence were so conpicuously lush that I started checking the settings on my TV before I realized they were graded to resemble Kodachrome home-movie film.) The 1.78:1 presentation has been encoded in AVC at an average bit rate of 34.6 Mbps, yielding no visible artifacting, edge enhancement, colour-banding, or anything else that would indicate undue processing of the studio’s HD masters en route to home video. The audio is likewise pristine, the 7.1 DTS-HD MA mix rendering a lively soundstage marked by playful use of the surround channels.

I wish I could credit Disney with a sterling technical presentation, but this disc also features something called “Disney Intermission.” When you pause the picture, a huge graphic blocks the majority of the screen and counts down the three seconds until the entire screen is taken over by a closed-curtain graphic, accompanied by aural razzes from the perennial gallery-swellers Statler and Waldorf. This is mildly amusing, sure, and someone at Disney probably got congratulated for having the idea. Yet it makes it impossible for a viewer to simply freeze-frame to, say, get a better look at a favourite Muppet, ID a celebrity cameo, or check Amy Adams for chili-dog grease. The still-frame is such a fundamental element of the DVD and Blu-ray experience that access to it should be formally encoded in the Ten Commandments of home video (“Thou shalt not include forced trailers,” “Thou shalt honour the Original Aspect Ratio,” etc.), and boo to Disney for taking that away from us. Disney promos and trailers (for Brave, Beverly Hills Chihuahua 3, and Tinker Bell B-movie Secret of the Wings) spin up automatically, but are easily skippable with a button press.

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