It was either this or Arthur Christmas for my next review. I'm missing out on a lot of big movies in an (increasingly desperate) attempt to catch up on current cinema releases; although the Aardman Studios animated film has been garnering great reviews, I ultimately chose The Muppets due to its greater, um, shall we say, "cultural significance." (Even though its cultural significance here in Malaysia is somewhat suspect.) Boy, I'm glad I did! I'd forgotten that the new Toy Story short from Pixar, Small Fry, is attached to it, and I would've hated myself for missing it. Although it feels like a massively shortened version of the first movie (Buzz gets left behind again), the hilarious spoofs of cheesy fast-food kid's meal toys make up for it. And of course, it's a pleasure just to see Woody and Buzz and the rest of the gang on the big screen again.
And The Muppets? Glad I caught it too.
Gary (Jason Segel) and Walter (voice of Peter Linz) are adopted brothers and lifelong fans of the Muppets - especially Walter, who is clearly a Muppet himself but apparently no one ever comments on this fact. On the 10th anniversary of Gary's and his girlfriend Mary's (Amy Adams) relationship, they go on a trip to Los Angeles and bring Walter with them, who is especially excited to visit the famed Muppet Studios. But upon arrival, they find it run down and the Muppets disbanded, having lost their popularity. Worse, an evil oil baron named Tex Richman (Chris Cooper) is planning to buy the property, tear it down and drill for oil. Thus, Gary, Walter and a slightly reluctant Mary must gather the old Muppet gang - Kermit the Frog, Fozzie Bear, Gonzo, Animal, Miss Piggy, Swedish Chef, Rowlf, Camilla the Chicken and all the others - and save the day the only way they know how: by putting on a show. But first, they must convince hard-nosed TV executive Veronica (Rashida Jones) to give them a slot, then get Jack Black (Jack Black) to be their celebrity host - and finally, defeat the machinations of Richman, who mean to ruin them at any cost.
Did The Muppet Show ever air in Malaysia? TMBF was a bona fide TV addict throughout the '80s, and I don't recall ever seeing it. (And I recall Fraggle Rock.) There's a great deal of love and nostalgia for the Muppets amongst the pop-culture-geek websites I hang out on, none of which I or anyone I personally know feel; sure, I've heard of Kermit and Miss Piggy through cultural osmosis, but that's about it. So I came to this movie with none of the pop-cultural baggage that it seems to be deliberately addressing - such as the basic storyline about how they've fallen in popularity and need to convince the world, both in the film and in real life, that they're still relevant. I also came to this movie with a somewhat removed impression of the Muppets' appeal, i.e. I know people like them because they're charming and funny and cute, but I haven't really experienced it myself. Now that I have, I can sum it up in one word: sweetness.
Which is a difficult thing to aim for, since it can so very easily end up as cloying sentimentality. It's also very easy for most people to adopt a cynical, cooler-than-thou hipness that looks down on something as unfalteringly clean and cheery as the Muppets. But I see now that what makes them so beloved - and what this movie succeeds at capturing - is their ability to make sweetness sweet, and not cloying or corny. This is a delightfully candy-coated confection of a film, one that knocks down every wall of cynicism to put a gleeful, child-like smile on your face that you can't wipe off - to paraphrase a lyric from one of its songs. And yes, it has songs; it's a musical, which I've said before is my least favourite genre, but this movie shows that there's nothing like a showstopping, intricately-choreographed song-and-dance number to convey effervescent joy. That's what The Muppets offers - effervescent joy.
How does it accomplish that? First, by being very very cute. In this day and age when there's a multi-billion-dollar corporation that does nothing but create marketable icons of cute, it's enlightening to consider what Jim Henson created 35 years ago through the old-school art of puppeteering. Second, by investing each and every one of those creations with personality - something Sanrio has never bothered to do - via voice acting, puppetry, and plain ol' good storytelling. Third, by adopting an ironic sense of humour that pokes fun at itself more than anything, which therefore gives it license to also poke fun at everything. The funniest jokes in this movie come from its gleefully fourth-wall-breaking moments - like when an entire chorus line collapses in exhaustion after the principal characters leave the scene, or even offhand bits like when Kermit first balks at Walter's plea to reunite the Muppets and Mary says, "This is going to be a very short movie."
But where it resolutely refuses to descend into irony is in the emotional subplots - Gary's and Mary's relationship issues, Walter's identity crisis, even Kermit's and Miss Piggy's on-again off-again romance. Which tend to bog the movie down in its midsection; none of them have any real dramatic weight for the amount of screentime they take up. Albeit the Kermit-Miss Piggy one works better, since the Muppets' brand of earnest sentiment works better when it's played by Muppets instead of flesh-and-blood actors. Because if there's another word that best describes the Muppets, it's earnestness. It's there not only in the sentimental scenes, but also in its entire approach to entertainment at its cheesiest. It's what accounts for Camilla and gang clucking their way through an all-chicken rendition of Cee Lo Green's Forget You (the clean version of the song, of course), as well as the bit where Chris Cooper starts rapping. The former is fun - the latter is a little cringe-inducing. Just as well that neither goes on for too long.
But I feel guilty just for saying the slightest uncomplimentary thing about it. A Muppet movie isn't supposed to be dramatically weighty, after all. It's not a great film, as my rating indicates, and I wouldn't even place it among the year's best. It's just a highly entertaining little movie that kids will enjoy, that'll turn hardened adults into kids again, and that'll leave a smile on your face that'll last a lot longer than most empty-headed kids' movies. (Despicable Me, I'm still looking at you.) Still, I wouldn't put it past some people (Malaysians in particular, if only because we never grew up watching The Muppet Show) to be immune to the Muppets' charms - to think of a movie starring old-school, non-CGI-animated puppets to be uncool. Just look at Walter, the one new Muppet character created for this movie, and see how the same piece of inanimate felt can convey heartbreaking sadness, overwhelming joy, and the entire gamut of emotions in between. There's a magic in that - magic that Jim Henson discovered and that his successors carry on. For those on whom that magic doesn't work, you clearly live in a colder and bleaker world than the rest of us.
NEXT REVIEW: Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol
Expectations: wow, AV Club, really?