Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Friday, December 2, 2011

Recent Watches: 21/2/11

Welcome to a new feature where I talk about some of the movies I’ve seen recently. It’s a strictly non-stress feature. I’ll post them whenever I want and talk about whatever movie I want (as long as it’s still recent in my brain) for as long as I want. It’s primarily a feature strictly to keep this damn blog active.

It’s no secret that I’m a pretty big fan of the Muppets. I remember watching the original TV show in reruns on Nickelodeon in the early nineties. And while I loved the show as a kid, it has really been the movies that have kept my interest alive. The first film, with its fantastic Paul Williams songs, has always been a favorite of mine. After not having a new Muppet movie in theaters since the somewhat dubious “Muppets from Space,” Jim Henson’s fuzzy felt creations have returned to the big-screen… Somewhat successfully.

First off, the good stuff: “The Muppets” is pretty funny. While I’m not one-hundred percent happy with it, Jason Segal is clearly a fan of the characters and gets things more right then wrong. If nothing else, the dude is a fully committed comic actor and goes for broke several times throughout. The movie has a number of pretty funny sequences, including Jack Black getting his head shrunk to a barber shop quartet version of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” or how very easy it was to convince Rowf the Dog to join back up with the old group. That old comic stalwart of a bunch of smaller people climbing inside of a single suit and trying to be a whole person is marched out again, to some success. The film’s heart is in the right place, and despite Frank Oz’s objections and the lack of his signature voice, all of the Muppets players are more or less in character. Honestly, Piggy is the only character that kind of gets the short stick. (I was honestly really worried at first about the whole Gonzo being a plunger mogul thing but the movie deals with that pretty quickly.) The movie was definitely made by fans, as there’s a lot of references to classic Muppet lore and more then a few obscure characters put in appearances. (I honestly don’t think Uncle Deadly’s had this much screen time since the original series.) The line-up of celeb cameos, a mainstay of the film series, is pretty weak in this one, but there are a few happy surprises, including two “Community” cast members and a surprise appearance from a golden age film legend. (And my arch-enemy.) The movie also does the Vertigo shot with a felt puppet, which I thought was pretty impressive.

The best thing about the film is its music. Bret McKenzie of “Flight of the Conchords” fame wrote the music and it’s pretty fantastic. “Life’s a Happy Song” is a clever, funny, insanely catchy number that’s worthy to be a classic. The entire “Man or Muppet” sequence is a pretty hilarious parody of the overwrought plot-changing musical number in addition to being a successful take on that cliché. “The Rainbow Connection,” one of my all-time faves and, in my opinion, one of the best film songs of all time, gets a stirring rendition here as well. The film was directed by James Bobin, the same guy who did many episodes of the “Flight of the Conchords,” and more then a few of the musical numbers here are reminiscent of that show. “Me Party” in particular feels very much like something world's number-three folk-comedy duo would have busted out during season one. Chris Cooper is hilarious, probably the most entertaining actor in the film, and his villainous song is probably the comic high-light of the picture, especially since it takes a particularly hacky comedy concept and completely makes it work. I also like the way he says “Maniacal Laughter” instead of actually laughing.

And, now, the stuff I wasn’t so happy about. Despite the movie’s heart being so much in the right place, it… Kind of misses the point. The Muppets have always had a degree of fourth wall breaking humor to them. I mean, in the first movie, Kermit and Fozie do read the film’s actual script to advance the plot. But I feel the meta approach to the script was kind of unnecessary. All the talk about how the world has forgotten the Muppets is kind of forced, seeing as how it’s not like the characters have been entirely absent from the pop culture biosphere. If anything, thanks to the internet, appreciation for the Muppets seems to have actually risen in recent years. No reason is given for why the Muppets broke up in the first place. It seems like an unlikely plot development.

And, like I said, I mostly like Jason Segal and Walter. Walter is far from the irritating forced new addition to the canon I feared he might be. Though his big plot-saving move at the end of the story, otherwise known as the Deus Ex Muppet-ina, pretty much comes out of nowhere and has zero foreshadowing. However, you can’t escape the fact that the movie spends a lot of time focusing on these new additions when it could be dealing with Kermit or Fonzie… You know, the characters we actually care about and came to see. Gonzo, my personal favorite, doesn’t get much screen time at all. Other faves like Sam the Eagle or Statler and Waldorf aren’t given much to do. And, honestly, the whole thing about Animal undergoing anger management and not drumming chains up one of the funniest characters and prevents him from doing his main shtick. (Pepe the Prawn is thankfully given very limited screen time.) Amy Addams gives it her all but the love story subplot is a drag and was completely unneeded. I overall found the movie’s referencal tone to be a little much.

The non-original musical cues, which include “Back in Black,” Gary Numan’s “Cars,” and, ugh, Starship are completely uninspired. (Really, that was the only song they could find with the word “Build” in its title?) Original songs would have been a preferable option. The nadir of this nostalgia heavy take is probably the character of Eighties Robot, who is pretty much one long walking “Old things sure are old!” joke. Wait, scratch that, the inexplicable kung-fu fight scene is the nadir.

Segal and his director where obviously more influenced by the actual TV show then the movies. This becomes apparent in the third act when we finally get to the theater saving telethon. While none of the acts, like the chicken clucking rendition of “Fu…,” uh, “Forget You,” are bad, they do hinder the movie’s pacing. Overall, there’s a lot of talk here about keeping the dream alive and all that. But I think, if the movie really wanted to show that the ethics and messages behind Jim Henson’s critters were still relevant, maybe it should have just, you know, made a Muppet movie, instead of being really meta and clever about everything.

Having said all of that, I am glad the film has been relatively successful, both critically and financially, if for no other reason then it means more Muppet products in the future. There’s all ready been a new sitcom announced and that’s hopefully the first of many.

I’ve definitely ranted on way more about this then I intended too. I had expected this to be a multi-review entry but I don’t want it to run long. So, more reviews coming soon. Promise.

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