The Muppets (Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures, PG)

The film has a lot of very good hipster-ish talent behind it to give those adults all the more reason to come.

 

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Disney really seems to be making a go of making the Muppets a popular brand again, and they have my full support in this endeavor. I grew up with the Muppets and am a big fan of both The Muppet Show and the various Muppet movies (particularly The Muppet Movie and The Muppets Take Manhattan), and wholeheartedly welcome their return. And on Disney’s part, aside from this film’s pretty substantial $50 million budget and big marketing push, they’re playing other games to bring people to the theater, such as preceding the new film, just called The Muppets, with a new Toy Story short called “Small Fry.” The short is pretty funny, and of course stars the Toy Story characters, a wildly successful modern brand of films, in an attempt to bridge the gap.

Honestly, though, I kind of wonder if Disney isn’t barking up the wrong tree pitching the new film at kids. Practically everyone I know over the age of 20 is very excited to see this movie, but in my limited day-to-day dealings with children, none of them seem to care a whole lot. The film has a lot of very good hipster-ish talent behind it to give those adults all the more reason to come: It was co-written by and starring Jason Segel, who of course did such a great job with the Dracula musical puppets in Forgetting Sarah Marshall (Segel’s co-writer on the Muppets script was FSM director Nicholas Stoller); it is directed by James Bobin, best known for directing a bunch of episodes of Flight of the Conchords and Da Ali G Show; and the music supervisor and writer of three of the film’s most memorable songs is Bret McKenzie, one half of Flight of the Conchords. As if that’s not enough to draw a good chunk of people to the theater, the three other main human leads aside from Segel are played by Amy Adams, Chris Cooper, and Rashida Jones; it would have been hard for Disney to put together a more talented group of people. And let’s not forget, it’s the Muppets—they have a much bigger built-in audience than I think most people realize.

But still, the services of all of this talent goes toward a movie that mostly (but not entirely) skews toward the younger crowd, and tries to serve as an introduction to the Muppets besides. The plot here is that regular-human Gary (Segel), his Muppet brother Walter (voiced by Peter Linz), and Gary’s longtime (human) girlfriend Mary (Adams) learn of a plot to buy and destroy the old Muppet studios by the villain Tex Richman (Cooper) so he can get at the oil underneath. There’s a stipulation in the contract that, if the Muppets can collect $10 million, they can buy back the studios themselves. Gary, Mary, and Walter embark on a journey to reunite the Muppets, who are now spread all around the world. (The funniest/saddest is when they find Fozzie singing a bastardized version of “The Rainbow Connection” inRenoto try to drum up casino attendance.)

On the whole, it’s clear that the filmmakers are trying to appeal to both the Muppets’ core audience (of older people) as well as building a new audience. While on the whole The Muppets is a fun film, it has a problem in that it seems like half the jokes are targeted at kids, half at adults, but far too few are directed at both adults and kids at the same time. Why can’t this be a proper family film, like the best Muppet entertainments of the past were? For example, for adults, we have Camilla and the Chickens finding a novel way to sing Cee-Lo Green’s great single “Fuck You” in a family-friendly film. (If you’re familiar with Camilla’s singing style, you’ll know how this is accomplished.) For kids, we have a cameo from Selena Gomez. For adults, we have a funny The Devil Wears Prada reference (replete with the best thing about that movie, Emily Blunt), and for kids, we have Jason Segel mugging embarrassingly all over the place. Segel’s performance in particular is kind of dispiriting, as he is very funny and talented but here seems to have switched into some kind of kids’ mode, which doesn’t really suit him. Amy Adams comes off a little better, though her performance here is a shadow to hers in Enchanted. In fact, a lot of The Muppets’ tone seems informed by Enchanted’s success, but it can never quite seem to achieve the heights that that film was able to.

The songs are similarly hit and miss. The three songs that Bret McKenzie wrote reek of FotC, which can be viewed as good or bad—McKenzie’s a great songwriter but the style feels strange coming from someone other than him or Jemaine Clement. Though the best song in the movie is McKenzie’s “Man or Muppet,” most of the human-centric numbers are disappointing while the Muppet ones are amusing. Actually, maybe the most satisfying song in the movie is a barbershop quartet version of “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” but that’s a different story.

The point here is that, while on the whole The Muppets is a fun film that I would like to see succeed, and while I can see Disney’s logic in trying to find a new audience for the Muppets for reasons of the long-term viability of the series, I think we all would have been better off if children had not been so specifically catered to here, as it makes the whole of the film feel awfully watered down a lot of the time. Regardless, if you’re in the camp that is predisposed to want to see this movie solely because it’s a new Muppets movie, you most certainly should. And when the children in the theater with you are annoying and when the occasional acting choice or musical number seems cloying, know that it is all in the service of the greater good: more Muppet movies in the future. | Pete Timmermann

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