MOVIE REVIEW: The Muppets
THE MUPPETS-- 4 STARS
For as much as parents of today very likely show their age and preach "when I was a kid..." diatribes to their kids about the days of yesteryear, you will still see kids with cell phones, iPods, iPads, and handheld video games. They will talk about black-and-white televisions without remote controls and how they had to entertain themselves with little more than the objects around them, but we're reaching a generation of new parents in their 20s and 30s that grew up with Atari, Nintendo, MTV, cable television, computers, and made the internet what it is now. In as much as that generation needed different entertainment 30 years ago, so do their children today. Sit through Beverly Hills Chihuahua and you'll know what I'm talking about.
That's the shift that has happened in children's entertainment and movies. Sure, the immensely-popular Toy Story series honors the nostalgia of old toys, but does it with glossy cutting-edge computer animation. Could you imagine those movies being told with barely-moving real toys or even with traditional hand-drawn animation? Yeah, I thought not. Kids these days, whether we like it or not, crave that pizzazz, 3D, instant gratification, and over-stimulation. There's little room for something 2D or low-tech, let alone the "primitive" technology of felt puppets.
Therein lies the old-school beauty of The Muppets. In their glorious return to the big screen after a 12-year absence, our fabric friends from a generation ago remind moviegoers that a little bit of nostalgia and a ton of heart go more than a long way to entertaining an audience, both young and old. For that over-stimulated 2011 world I described earlier, The Muppets is a well-timed, well-crafted, and pitch-perfect reminder that is as sorely needed as it is appreciated.
After a brilliant marketing campaign filled with a series of poof trailers and ads poking at Green Lantern, The Hangover: Part II, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Puss in Boots, Paranormal Activity, and the Twilight series, our movie introduces us to Smalltown, U.S.A. and a pair of Muppet fan brothers, the human Gary (Jason Segal) and the puppet Walter (voiced by Peter Linz). When Gary sets up a vacation to Los Angeles with his dreamy sweetheart Mary (Amy Adams, back in her Enchanted mode), Walter tags along. Upon visiting the old Muppets Theater, they find everything closed, condemned, barren, and forgotten. At the same time, Walter discovers an evil plot by Tex Richman (Chris Cooper) to tear down the Muppet Theater for the oil deposits discovered underneath it. This sets in motion Gary, Mary, and Walter seeking out the reclusive and retired Kermit the Frog and imploring him to get the gang together for one last show to raise the money necessary to buy the theater back from Richman.
All of the old tricks are here and on display masterfully. Excellent puppet and voice acting is combined with the self-aware gags, celebrity cameos, unofficial winks at the camera, squeaky-clean humor, and catchy song-and-dance numbers. That's right. You didn't hear about CGI explosions, CGI characters, or Shrek-style toilet humor to appear hip to today's generation. The closest you get is a brief bad guy rap and a Cee-Lo cover by clucking chickens. The sweet treats far outnumber anything sour to be found.
The fact that The Muppets stays true to the low-tech that made it great while delivering an engaging story of fun and heart is its best quality, by far. It doesn't take the low road of the modernized updates of Garfield, Alvin and the Chipmunks, The Smurfs, and Yogi Bear. We can write two "thank you" letters for making that happen. The first letter goes to Disney for stewarding Jim Henson's franchise since his passing with integrity for not scavenging its spirit. The second goes to Jason Segal. As a lifelong Muppets fan and co-writer of the movie with buddy Nicholas Stoller (director of Forgetting Sarah Marshall and Get Him to the Greek), he pitched this old-school idea to Disney and fought to get this project made. His willingness to dive head first into the material, both in front of and behind the camera, is more than commendable. Oh, and another thing: "Mahna-mahna!"
LESSON #1: LAUGHTER IS THE THIRD BEST GIFT IN THE WORLD-- Diehard Muppets fans (like Segal himself) know what I'm talking about. Children tops the charts with ice cream second. It's hard to argue with that list. Sorry to all of you anti-ice-cream dieters and to those who are lactose-intolerant. The Muppets are right and you are wrong!
LESSON #2: NOSTALGIA SELLS-- Much as aforementioned with the Toy Story series, nostalgia sells. However, the only way nostalgia still sells is if you keep it the way it was and the way it was meant to be. If it ain't broke, don't fix it. Sure, some things still work being modernized, but most should never be changed. The Muppets are one of those things.
LESSON #3: GREAT THINGS HAPPEN WHEN FRIENDS ARE HELPING FRIENDS-- Like all great children's entertainment, the Muppets demonstrate good behavior and teach lessons all day long. The greatest one of many found in the movie is good old-fashioned teamwork. The Muppets help each other to get their long-lost co-star pals back together, fix their old digs, and put on one last show.
LESSON #4: THERE WILL ALWAYS BE A PLACE FOR THE MUPPETS IN HOLLYWOOD-- No matter how computerized, touchscreen, and wireless the world gets, I firmly believe that there will always be a place for hands and wires working puppets of colorful and charming characters. The day the Muppets go CGI is the day we lose something special. The Muppets are one-of-a-kind and it's great to see them back. I hope it's not another twelve years before we see them on the big screen again.