Saturday, November 26, 2011

Swedish Chef is my spirit animal

I saw the new muppets movie—you know, the one titled The Muppets—the day after Thanksgiving with my parents. Now, I grew up with the muppets—first Sesame Street, followed by equal amounts of The Muppet Show and The Dark Crystal—so I went into the film with high expectations and strong opinions. Did it live up to all that?

In a word: no.

In many more words: no, and here's why.

A quick summary, if you haven't yet seen it. Walter is a muppet fan, and a muppet himself, living in Smalltown, USA. He dreams of going to LA and seeing Muppet Studios, but when he finally arrives (with his brother Gary and Gary's girlfriend Mary), he discovers the place is a wreck that hasn't been used in years. Worse yet, oil tycoon Tex Richman (a brilliantly dumb name) is planning to tear the studio down and drill for oil on the property—unless the muppets can raise ten million dollars in two weeks. Walter helps get the gang back together, and with his help, they put on a telethon to raise the money.

That's a perfectly serviceable plot. It's also a perfect muppet plot, combining show-biz hoopla and small-town family values in a ludicrous stew. It's quite possibly the best possible "get the gang back together" plot there is. But the actual execution of the plot is what does it in.

It's important to note that the two screenwriters, Nicholas Stoller and Jason Segal (who also plays Gary) are muppet fans, because that explains virtually everything that's wrong about the film. The Muppets is a fan's film. It alternates between melancholy and reverent: half the time it's singing the praises of the muppets, the other half it's lamenting their disappearance. It's so busy reminding the audience that the muppets used to be funny that it doesn't bother to explain why they were funny, much less actually show them being funny.

The movie is made for those of us who grew up with these characters and who only need the slightest excuse to begin singing "Mahna Mahna". But pity the poor five-year-old child who's been dragged to the theater by his hipster parents to watch a bunch of strange, cloth-like beings walk onscreen and reminisce about the glory days. What does it mean to that child to see Gonzo being a plumbing magnate? Why should he laugh at Fozzie leading a muppets tribute band in Reno, or Miss Piggy as the editor of Paris Vogue? It's funny to fans, but it's useless to potential fans. As an introduction to the muppets, the movie flat-out fails.

Worse yet are those scenes that try to "fix" or "finish the story" of the muppets. It's nice to see Fozzie finally get some laughs with his stand-up act, or Kermit and Piggy finally admit they love each other, but those scenes do nothing for the film as a whole. Moreover, they strengthen the impression of "For Fans Only, All Others Need Not Apply".

The movie as a whole smacks of fanfic—not just fanfic, in fact, but Mary Sue fanfic. (For those of you too lazy to follow the link, a "Mary Sue" is a self-insert character, allowing the author to not only interact with their favorite characters, but often outdo them in many ways: they get to make love to Captain Kirk or outshoot Han Solo or be better at magic than Harry Potter.) Walter, the plucky little muppet who could, gets to not only re-inspire the muppets, he brings them all back together, performs amazingly onstage at the eleventh hour, and in the end even gets an approving nod from Kermit himself. It's a story written by someone who wanted to meet his heroes and bask in their reflected glow. (The only caveat that prevents the story from being an out-and-out Mary Sue is that the performer of the most Sue-ish of them all, Walter, had nothing to do with the writing of the movie. But still, Segal gets to stand right at Walter's fuzzy side and share in most of the glory.) The movie is authorial wish-fulfillment, self-gratification, or, even less politely, masturbation: it satisfies the performer, but what about the rest of us?

Was there anything good about it? Sure. Chris Cooper as Rich Texman is brilliant, and his one musical number, though too short, is hilarious. The songs are generally pretty good, particularly the opening number about how everything is wonderful in Smalltown, USA, featuring a perpetually smiling multi-racial cast. And the actual sketches of the telethon, or at least the bits we get to see, are worthy of the original Muppet Show. (A muppet barbershop quartet singing "Smells Like Teen Spirit" as they lather and shave Jack Black is even more hilarious than it sounds.)

Is it a bad movie? Not really. It's not even necessarily a bad muppet movie. But it's not the muppet movie that should've been made right now, and it certainly isn't the movie that will introduce an entire new generation of fans to the muppets.

It'd be easy to say that Jim Henson was the heart and soul of the muppets, and that they should've died with him. That's not fair to the people he picked to realize his visions and who carried on after his death, and it's also a trite phrase that doesn't stand up as a criticism. But one thing that needs to be remembered about Henson is that, more than a performer, he was an innovator. He was never content to stick with just one character or show or idea; even as he perfected muppet-based comedy with The Muppet Show, he moved into fantasy with The Dark Crystal, Labyrinth, and The Storyteller. Technically, he was never satisfied; he was constantly experimenting with new puppet designs and methods of building and animating strange creatures. This movie may have aimed for the same blend of pop culture references, meta-humor, celebrity cameos, and bad puns that was the muppets' stock in trade, and it may even have succeeded, but it's worth pointing out that the very man who invented the muppets was always trying to do something fresh. This movie was too content to look backwards, rather than forwards.

But still, I can't deny, a little part of me thrilled when I heard that song:

It's time to play the music
It's time to light the lights...

1 comment:

  1. The film is a fanfic, in the most literal of senses. I am not sure why you say that like it is such a bad thing. If you went into it knowing anything about Jason Segal than I don't know how you could have expected much else.

    You also claim it is a poor film to introduce a new generation of fans to the Muppets because it doesn't explain the significant back story of all the characters (not sure what you expect in a 90 minute film), and place this side by side with your statement the film is too content to look backwards. It seems to me your wants are a bit conflicted.

    I saw the movie with my wife. I grew up watching Jim Henson's creations parade across the screen, she didn't. We both thoroughly enjoyed the movie. Afterwards, she asked some questions to clarify a few points, but not knowing the answers while watching in no way diminished her viewing experience.

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