Friday, February 17, 2012

Movie Review: The Muppets

In one our one-every-couple-of-months trips to the cinema last week, when faced with list of films of which we wanted to see many, we "ummm-ed" and "ahhh-ed" a bit before finally plumping for a good dollop of comforting nostalgia - The Muppets. Like many of my generation I have a long history with them; watched the show as a kid, saw the films as first as a kid and then as an "ironic" twenty-something, and now I get to inflict Muppet Christmas Carol on my kids every year because a) it's brilliant, and b) inflicting your childhood on your own children is one of the great perks of parenthood.

But in terms of "new" Muppet material there is always that tremor of fear - can you go back to that well, years later, without either being too twee and dated, or horribly trendy and modern? Well, it turns out, yes you can.

The secret, it seems, is to make a film that is about nostalgia, about it's power and it's pitfalls. To make a film that leverages that historical goodwill, welds it to a "getting the band back together" plot line, adds some peppy singing and dancing, and you have a film that is both fun, and yet incredibly sad. The Muppets has a slow start as we get introduced to Gary and Walter, human and muppet brothers (don't think about it) living in Smalltown, USA. Perpetual man-child Gary is taking his long-term girlfriend Mary to LA for their 10th anniversary, and Walter comes along to fulfill his boyhood dream of touring the Muppet Studios. Which of course are long abandoned, the Muppets displaced and moved on with their lives, out of fashion and out of mind.

Cue an evil villain, a nefarious plot and well, shenanigans.

Amy needs a Hug. Form an orderly
queue, gentlemen. 
The biggest problem this film was going to face was the simple fact that the Muppets themselves are not modern, edgy, cool, or anything like it. They're puppets - simply made and manually operated, and the film is smart to make that a central theme. They matter because they're something (seemingly) from a simpler age, they matter because the values that made them popular, their theme of timeless slapstick entertainment,  can still endure without needing to be updated. And the characters themselves need to realise that, and watching Kermit the Frog realise he's not consigned to retirement forever is a cool character journey. For a felt frog puppet.

Part of the fun is unquestionably the film playing with the Muppets in retirement - Animal in Anger Management Therapy, Miss Piggy as a fashion editor, Gonzo the business magnate. The faithful recreation of the Muppet Theater, now run-down and abandoned, and it's rejuvenation and (spoiler alert) triumphant final act all play on great familiarity without too much sentimentality, which lets face it, was never something the Muppets were big believers in. It all works - even a "big finish" that only  plays at all because the film itself is good to begin with, and that sort of ending would feel undeserved and terrible if the film was only "alright".

But it's not only "alright, in fact, all in all, it's surprisingly moving, even if you've seen many of these plot beats before. Gary has to grow up, Walter needs to accept who he is, there is a big Mr Nasty lurking in the wings that needs defeating. It's all in the delivery I guess - heartfelt and warm, with the flashes of sadness and thoughtfulness that all great kids entertainment needs in order to really deliver. I say kids, but in the showing we were in there was a lot of grown ups without kids, so I guess the cross-generational appeal of the Muppets endures. Hooray!