Monday, November 21, 2011

'The Muppets': Most Sensational, Celebrational

Jason Segel knew expectations would be high. He acknowledged the pressures placed on him by his friends, colleagues and legions of Muppet fans. They told him, more than anything, "Don't mess it up."

He didn't.

He played the music. He lit the lights.

Congratulations Jason. The Muppets is a delight.

It's been 12 years since a Muppet movie has been seen in theaters (1999's mediocre Muppets From Space). Segel (How I Met Your Mother, Forgetting Sarah Marshall) took on the responsibilities of writer (with Nicholas Stoller), executive producer and star to resurrect the neglected franchise, make it relevant to a new generation of moviegoers and stay true to the faithful who grew up with Jim Henson's sublime Muppet Show of the 1970s and 80s. With director and fellow Muppet fan James Bobin (The Flight of the Conchords), he's managed to pull it off with an energetic balance of silliness and sentiment coupled with a daffy "let's put on a show" earnestness.

Segel plays Gary, a happy-go-lucky Midwestern lug in love with Mary (oh-so-perky Amy Adams), a local schoolteacher who teaches auto shop dressed in flowered pastels. Gary's devoted brother Walter is a puppet (don't ask, it works) who's idolized Kermit the Frog since childhood. When Gary takes Mary on a trip to Hollywood, Walter tags along to fulfill his lifelong dream of meeting the Muppets. Mary is a bit chagrined by Walter's presence, expecting a more romantic getaway with Gary, one during which she hopes he'll propose to her.

Walter, Mary (Amy Adams) and Gary (Jason Segel)
take on Hollywood in The Muppets.
Upon arriving in Hollywood, Gary, Mary and Walter visit the now dilapidated Muppet Studios, long since abandoned by the Muppets, who have split up and gone their separate ways. All that remains of the once great studio are a collection of run down buildings and a jaded tour guide (Alan Arkin). Wandering off on his own, Walter overhears the details of an evil plot devised by oil baron Tex Richman (stone-cold Chris Cooper) to take over the studio, tear it down and start drilling for oil. Horrified at the prospect, Walter sets out with his friends to reunite the Muppets and raise the $10 million needed to rescue the studio from certain destruction.

Our trio first enlists the help of Kermit the Frog to round up his far-flung former friends. The years have not been especially kind to Kermit, who now lives an isolated existence in a dark, depressing mansion. Elsewhere, wisecracking Fozzie Bear has moved to Reno to become the front man for an angry Muppet tribute act. Beak-nosed Gonzo has fared much better, becoming a highly successful plumbing tycoon (go figure). And in France, Kermit's past porcine paramour, Miss Piggy, is making a name for herself as a fashion editor for Paris Vogue. It's going to take a lot of work to get the old gang back together.

But, as Mary notes, if they fail, it's going to be a really short movie.

So, what do you think's going to happen?

Making a connection (l. to r.): Scooter, The Swedish Chef,
Fozzie Bear, Kermit the Frog, Miss Piggy, Sam Eagle
and Beauregard.
The Muppets succeeds because it remembers exactly what made the Muppets a big deal to begin with. To be sure, there's plenty of music, awful puns (good God, we missed you Fozzie) and backstage insanity as the Muppets frantically scramble to clean up their old theater and get the show going. But, there's also that sly self-awareness the best Muppet Show episodes always had. Just when you think the movie's going to bog down in some overwrought, sappy sentiment, Rowlf or Floyd or Gary or whomever will chime in with a snappy comeback to remind you that this is all really silly and you shouldn't be taking it so seriously.

Like the human guest stars of three decades ago, the cameo appearances in The Muppets are first rate. Surprise appearances by the likes of Whoopi Goldberg, Selena Gomez and Mickey Rooney (looking a bit like a Muppet himself) are great fun. And, for reasons I can't completely explain, there's just something inherently funny about seeing political pundit James Carville share the screen with Neil Patrick Harris. The best cameo, however, belongs to The Big Bang Theory's Jim Parsons, who incongruously shows up in the middle of The Muppets finest--and funniest--musical number.

The film is loaded with sincerity and heart, but it's those odd juxtapositions and off-kilter moments that really get things started on this most sensational Muppets movie.

Related Story:
Jason Segel, Muppet Freak

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