Letter From The Editor - Issue 58 - August 2017

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Writing Fantasy

  
At The Picture Show
November 2011

The Muppets

Don't call it a comeback . . .

The Muppets have been here for years - and they prove still got it

The Muppets
Walt Disney Studios
Director: James Bobin
Screenplay: Jason Segel and Nicholas Stoller, based on characters created by Jim Henson
Starring: Jason Segel, Amy Adams, Chris Cooper, Jack Black; and the voices of Steve Whitmire, Eric Jacobson, Dave Goelz, Bill Barretta and Peter Linz
Rated PG / 1 hour, 38 minutes
Opened November 23, 2011
(out of four)

What we have learned from this year's crop of Thanksgiving movies is this: The people who make good movies are the people who put their very heart and soul into them. There was Hugo, which proved that point unequivocally; and here we have The Muppets, a rare franchise reboot that's not a cynical cash grab, but a genuine labor of love.

This is a movie that only could have come from a genuine fan. Indeed, Jason Segel - the writer/star who has been shepherding the project along with co-writer Nicholas Stoller - is exactly that. We got our first hint at his affection for puppets in Forgetting Sarah Marshall (which he wrote and starred in and Stoller directed), and now that affection has taken full form.

Fittingly, The Muppets is explicitly about the special relationship between fans and the objects of their fandom. You know how you can grow so attached to something that you say it feels "like family"? Well, Segel makes that literal - his character, Gary, is family with a Muppet. Well, OK, technically, his little brother Walter (voiced by Peter Linz) isn't a Muppet yet. But we all know he's on his way to becoming one. He's like a Muppet d'Artagnan.

Walter is the world's most passionate Muppet enthusiast, having discovered them on TV as a child in the Muppet Show days and in them found a group of kindred spirits. In a gloriously absurd early montage, we see the two brothers growing up from childhood to adulthood - well, "growing up" is probably the wrong word for Walter, who has been the same height pretty much his whole life, much to his chagrin - with Walter never quite finding a place for himself, never quite fitting in. Until, that is, the Muppets come along.

What's great is how the characters exemplify the innocence that has always defined the Muppetverse, and do so in a way that's both ridiculous and touching. Gary and Walter, now well into their adult lives, still live in the same quaint town (Smalltown), still live in the same quaint home. They sleep in the same room, their twin beds sitting side by side, with only a bedside table in between.

These are also the sleeping arrangements for Gary and his girlfriend of 10 years, Mary (Amy Adams, in a role that basically cast itself), when they stay in a motel. From time to time they all break into song about the happiness of their lives. It's basically like 1950s TV, but in color.

In a storyline that is fully aware of its irony, Gary and Mary go on vacation to the most magical place on Earth: Southern California, of course. More specifically, Hollywood. (I remember the first time my parents and I visited Hollywood. Glamorous indeed.)

But Gary can't go anywhere without Walter; the two are joined at the hip. So he comes along as well. Mary is visibly frustrated; after all, this is not just a romantic getaway, but a 10th Anniversary celebration. But, ever the trooper, she keeps a smile on her face and says everything's fine - she is, after all, in a Muppet movie, and it is her job to be happy.

Things take a turn when the three happy vacationers take a tour of the Muppet Theatre and discover that the property is being bought by sinister oil tycoon Tex Richman (played with great relish by Chris Cooper), who wants the land only for the rich deposits of oil underneath. In one of the film's great jokes, he laughs maniacally at his evil plans simply by saying, "Maniacal laugh!"

One of the most notorious Dumb Plots in movie history is when a place is on the verge of being sold or shut down, and the plucky heroes have to band together to raise money and save it by the stroke of midnight. Usually it's a beach or ski resort or something. The Muppets self-consciously revels in that dumb plot, as Gary, Mary and Walter team up, go on the road - by land! by sea! by map! - and get the Muppets back together for one last show to raise the $10 million they need.

But all that, as the filmmakers are acutely aware, is just set-up. Where the film really thrives is in how it executes its sense of humor, which is very much in the spirit of the original Muppet movies (The Muppet Movie and The Muppets Take Manhattan in particular) but with a certain 21st Century edge. Consider the way an absurd joke about what Mary is teaching her elementary-school class pays off later in the film. Or the plot of the reality television show whose 11th-hour hiatus gives the Muppets the two-hour time-slot they need. Or how the timeline leading up to Tex Richman's midnight deadline defies all logic - except, of course, the logic of movie editing.

And I have to mention the work of Bret McKenzie, one half of the great Flight of the Conchords duo, who wrote the songs in The Muppets - notably "Man or Muppet" and "Life's a Happy Song." (The film's director, James Bobin, was actually a co-creator of the Flight of the Conchords series, along with McKenzie and Jemaine Clement.)

The film as a whole is a grand assembly of varying talents from across the show business map. The result is an effortlessly charming tribute to the Muppets themselves, and to the sense of joy and innocence they've engendered in audiences for decades.

Read more by Chris Bellamy


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