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Josh Reviews The Muppets!

The beginning of The Muppets, the new film starring Jim Hensen’s creations, presents us with a world much like our own: one in which the Muppets have been pretty much forgotten, passed over in favor of more modern sources of entertainment.  Beseeched to get the gang back together and once again put on a Muppet Show, Kermit at first refuses, concerned that there’s no way for the Muppets to ever regain their former status, that the world has changed too much.

It’s a clever way to reintroduce us to these beloved characters as, indeed, it’s been a long long long time since these characters felt at all relevant.  Though I adored The Muppet Show as a kid (and I must have watched the first three films — The Muppet Movie, The Great Muppet Caper, and The Muppets Take Manhattan — dozens of times), I haven’t seen any of the kiddie Muppet films released over the past two decades.  Whatever you think works or doesn’t work in this new Muppets film, we can at least hopefully agree to thank Jason Segel and Nicholas Stoller and director James Bobin for spearheading a project that takes the Muppets seriously, and that is intended to be enjoyed by kids AND adults, just as the classic Muppets shows and movies were.

There’s been some grumbling in the press by folks like Frank Oz (a tremendous talent who I revere greatly) and other Muppets performers that Jason Segel and the other young turks responsible for this film haven’t been respectful to the Muppets, but that claim couldn’t be further from the truth.  The Muppets is positively dripping with admiration and adoration for these characters, and I was pleasantly surprised by how many loving references to classic Muppets characters and bits were woven into the film.  Most of all, the film’s entire story is clearly designed to prove to the world that the Muppets ARE wonderful characters, and that they CAN still be just as funny, relevant, and entertaining today as they were in the ’70s and ’80s.

One might expect that folks like Jason Segel and Nicholas Stoller would try to stuff the film full of crass jokes and dirty humor, but that doesn’t happen at all.  (If anything, the film is a bit TOO square for my tastes.  More on that in a moment.)  And the characters are NEVER played for laughs.  The Muppets generate jokes, but we’re never laughing AT them.  This is an important distinction.  Though most of the characters are voiced by new voice actors (Jim Henson has of course long-since passed away, and Frank Oz declined to participate in the film), the character of each Muppet has been wonderfully preserved, and everyone behaves exactly as I would expect him or her to, in the film.  Kermit feels like Kermit!  Miss Piggy feels like Miss Piggy!  And so on.

(The only exception is that I was somewhat shocked to see Statler and Waldorf involved with the villain’s plan to take over the Muppet theatre.  Though those two characters are constantly critical of the Muppets, I’ve always felt that in their heart of hearts they loved the Muppets and their show.  So that moment raised my eyebrows a bit.  Apparently there was an original ending in which they were given a bit of redemption.  Too bad that didn’t make the finished film.)

Steve Whitmire plays Kermit, and I thought he did a phenomenal job in capturing the character and the voice (which had originally been played so indellibly by Jim Henson himself).  Eric Jacobson takes on Miss Piggy and Fozzie (two characters originally voiced by Frank Oz).  I though his Fozzie was terrific, though his Miss Piggy sounded a bit off to my ears.  She was the one character who, throughout the film, just sounded a teensy bit wrong to me.

I will note that I was pleased to discover, when doing some research after the film, that Gonzo and several other characters (including Dr. Bunsen Honeydew) were still voiced by their original performer: David Goelz.

I was also delighted that so many of the original Muppet characters appeared in the film, and though I might have hoped that some of my personal favorites (the Swedish Chef; Sam the Eagle) might have gotten a few more moments in the spotlight, I really appreciated how the filmmakers seem to have bent over backwards in order to include as many Muppets in the film as possible.

If the film has a failing, it’s that I was a bit surprised that it never really reached the sort of manic jokes-flying-every-moment level that some of the film’s trailers promised.  Obviously I know a two-minute trailer is going to be a lot more jam-packed-with-the-good-stuff than any film could actually be, but I did find myself wishing that the film’s first two-thirds had a few more jokes, or moved just a bit faster.  There are some boring stretches, particularly anything to do with Jason Segel or Amy Adams, the two main human characters in the film.  I am a huge Jason Segel fan, and I have been ever since Freaks and Geeks. I think he’s a brilliant comedic actor, but to me he’s the weakest element in the film.  He has a weird sort-of mugging to the camera thing that he does for most of the film, and it makes his character feel totally one-note and not at all human.  It doesn’t help that his character is given pretty much zero personality and nothing really to do with the main plot of the film, despite the amount of screen-time he has.  Amy Adams fairs a little better — she acts a bit more naturally in the film, and I found her perky energy to be a bit more endearing than Mr. Segel’s constant grinning.  But, really, these two characters are completely useless in the film, and their perfunctory argument and then reunion story-line felt like a total time-waster to me.  I’m OK with these characters being idealized heroes in the film, I just wish they’d been given a bit more personality and humanity.

When the movie really comes to life is in the final half-hour or so, when the Muppets do finally put on a Muppet Show.  It’s here where the film is able to build to a contagious energy, with crazy, silly stuff on-stage being presented along with all sorts of the back-stage shenanigans that I’d expect from a Muppet Show.  I loved the choice of song for Kermit and Miss Piggy’s big duet.  (And, speaking of songs, I was also thrilled that my very favorite song from The Muppets Show — and I know I’m not alone in this — made an appearance during the film’s very funny closing credits.)

The Muppets is not a home run.  I wish it was a bit faster paced, a bit funnier, and that Jason Segel and Amy Adams’ characters were more interesting.  But when you consider that there has basically not been a really great Muppets production since 1984, this film is an incredible achievement.  It’s fun and it’s warm and it works as a piece of nostalgia but also as a living, breathing piece of modern entertainment.

I’m curious to see where these characters go from here…

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