Friday, 27 July 2012

Film Review | The Muppets (2011)

I'm a fan of the Muppets, but even I must admit their cinematic career is somewhat chequered. Whilst there are some entries into the Muppet canon I can happily watch again and again (such as The Muppet Christmas Carol, an annual festive fixture in my DVD player), there are others which really haven't aged well (1979's The Muppet Movie unfortunately falls into this category) and others that just weren't particularly good to begin with (1981's The Great Muppet Caper is, and always has been, decidedly hit-and-miss throughout).

The last feature-length effort from Jim Henson's creations to get a cinematic release was 1999's Muppets From Space, a somewhat amusing but ultimately flimsy effort leaving many to believe for over a decade that the Muppets would finish their collective film career on a whimper not even worthy of Beaker. Last year's effort, simply titles The Muppets, was a big opportunity for the Muppet brand to re-establish itself in the 21st Century. But is it possible to "reboot" the Muppets? Could Walt Disney Studios, who now own the Muppet brand, make something as overtly low-tech as hand-puppetry appeal on a cinematic scale to an audience who now take for granted the computer wizardry pioneered by another Disney-owned studio, Pixar?

The film tells the story of Walter, a life-long Muppet fan who travels to Muppet Studios with his brother Gary (Jason Segel) and Gary's girlfriend Mary (Amy Adams), only to discover that oil tycoon Tex Richman (Chris Cooper) plans to buy the studios and demolish them and the Muppet theatre to drill for oil. It's down to Walter, Gary and Mary to reunite the Muppets, who haven't worked together in years, and help them save the theatre and studios before it's too late.

The Muppets is a real pleasure to watch from start to finish. Adams is reliably charming, bringing the same gusto to her role as seen in 2007's Enchanted; Segel too is pleasing and enjoyable, clearly showing himself to be a genuine fan of the Muppets (he also co-wrote and co-produced the film) through his heartfelt performance. Cooper clearly has huge fun in his antagonistic role as Tex Richman, chewing the scenery brilliantly throughout. The Muppets themselves are as emotive and genuine as ever; it's a real pleasure to see Jim Henson's creations back on top form on the big screen. Walter too is a welcome addition to the Muppet family - sincere, funny and endlessly likeable from start to finish

Both humans and Muppets are held together by a solid script with plenty of humour and many laugh-out-loud moments; only a couple of jokes in the whole thing fail to hit their mark. The songs of Bret McKenzie (of Flight Of The Conchords fame) are infectious and rich, making me want to hear them again as soon as they'd finished. "Man Or Muppet" won McKenzie an Academy Award at this year's Oscars, but in truth there are three or four more equally brilliant songs throughout, such as the contagiously chirpy "Life's A Happy Song" and heart-melting lament "Pictures In My Head".

The key to The Muppets' near-comprehensive success however, is the perfect tone struck from the opening scenes to the musical finale: writers Segel and Nicholas Stoller, as well as director James Bobin, are acutely aware of the old-fashioned and "uncool" status the Muppets potentially hold in modern popular culture, and play off this superbly. This is not a reboot, nor is this the director attempting to gain the Muppets a new target audience; whilst there is much here that may well appeal to young children, much of the humour and references (particularly to classic Muppet movies) are aimed squarely at those who would have been children when the Muppets were in their heyday and are now grown up. The big names involved, from those already mentioned in key roles to those in cameos and bit parts, are completely on board with this. The result is immensely enjoyable.

There are elements of the film that can justifiably be criticised: the plot is episodic and at times a little predictable, but it never tries to be anything else nor does it need to be. Due to this being their first big outing in twelve years, some Muppets do become sidelined including some of the bigger names (aside from one key sequence, Gonzo gets surprisingly little screen time; and whilst Beaker is present, Bunsen Honeydew gets just a blink-and-you'll-miss-it appearance), which inevitably means some viewers will be disappointed that their favourite wasn't in it more.

In truth, these are minor grievances in what is an overwhelmingly positive first film of the 21st Century for Kermit, Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear and the rest of the gang. It probably won't win many new Muppet converts, but that's never the aim of Bobin's film. This is all about pure entertainment and enjoyment, and reigniting that in long-time Muppet fans who may have forgotten how much fun is to be had when it's time to play the music, and it's time to light the lights. Cinematic technology can, and undoubtedly will, advance further and further; but the Muppets are longstanding proof that with an irrepressible heart, desire and talent to entertain, you need nothing more than some foam, felt and googly eyes.


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