Review: “The Muppets”, 2011

Back in 2011, after seeing “The Muppets” in the theatre, I wrote a review of it. So yes, this is a little over 2 years old and some of it may not still stand (I’m not going to edit anything). But I thought it would be fun to post here, because when I read over it, it’s really not bad! I had it posted only in a LiveJournal I keep locked to non-friends, and I felt it was kind of wasting away there. So to kick off my real, actual “With a purpose” Muppets content, here we go!

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December 13, 2011 – “It’s like a kind of torture”

I just wanted a cute, random way to quote the Muppet Show theme song.  Because I need to write a review of “The Muppets”!  I mentioned it really briefly on Facebook, a bit more in-depth on DA, but haven’t really given my full thoughts on it yet to anyone outside of my family.  So let’s make up for that. 🙂

Does it seem kind of weird to anyone else that the non-regular Muppet cast is on the foreground of this soundtrack cover? Just me?

Does it seem kind of weird to anyone else that the non-regular Muppet cast is on the foreground of this soundtrack cover? Just me?

Okay, as I mentioned in both other venues, I liked the movie.  I actually liked it a lot.  I think I like it better as a movie, that had the Muppets in it, than as an entry into Muppet moviedom.  Because having it be a Muppet movie means inevitably comparing it to the three Henson-produced Muppet films, as well as to the rest of his body of work, and in that regard it does come up lacking (for reasons I’ll get into later).  But it also has you compare it to recent, post-Henson Muppet work, and in that regard it shines.  It’s lovely because of the shininess.

I’m going to assume that if you’re reading this, you’ve seen the movie, so you don’t need a summary.  If that’s not the case, you can find a summary any other place and come back to read this afterwards.  So hi!  Let’s move on!  We’ll go over the good stuff first.

First and most of all, this movie was funny.  The past few Muppet specials and movies have been not so funny.  Like at all.  They’ve had moments that made me uncomfortable, moments that made me groan, and moments that made me kinda go “heh”.  There have been parts that I’ve liked but on the whole the product was shoddy because the characters weren’t right and the writing wasn’t tight.  The problem, I’ve felt, with recent Muppets is that they are new people who are imitating other peoples’ creations.  We’ve had close to 20 years now of Steve Whitmire imitating Kermit, so I guess that means that technically he’s no longer imitating now, but as far as I’m concerned there’s a difference between Jim Henson performing Kermit and inventing, and understanding and – in all honesty – BEING the character, and Steve Whitmire performing Kermit and having inherited him, learning to do the voice, the mannerisms, and the characteristics.  Now we’re several years into Eric Jacobsen doing half of Frank Oz’s characters and Matt Vogel (?) doing the other half… The end result has been that between new people taking over, and their not having solid writing to rely on for their performances, we basically have seen a major decline in the characterizations of the Muppets.  Which for some bizarre reason are TRULY very important for their movies, which you wouldn’t think would be the case, because the Muppet movies are piles of silliness made out of felt and sometimes, googly eyes.

Googly eyes... LIKE THESE?

Googly eyes… LIKE THESE?

But it’s true.  The Muppet movies operate largely on the strength of the characters, not on the fact that you can throw a Muppet down a flight of stairs or something and the gag will make me laugh EVERY SINGLE TIME THEY DO IT.  So – I said we were starting out with the good stuff, and despite the long preamble, here it is.

Poor Fozzie's time without the Muppets is perhaps the saddest of anyone's fall from grace ;)

Poor Fozzie’s time without the Muppets is perhaps the saddest of anyone’s fall from grace 😉

This movie wins for not only being funny but for having meaningful characterizations.  Fozzie, for instance, has never been the brightest bulb in the box but in the post-Henson performances, Fozzie somehow got relegated to Incredibly Stupid Sidekick.  It was weird and I don’t know why.  My best guess is that Frank Oz wanted a diminished role on all his characters (Piggy got pushed to the side too) but that doesn’t explain the change in characterization.  And in fact, I heard that he initially thought Fozzie’s role in the script for “Muppet Treasure Island” was pretty bad, but sort of warmed up to it during filming, so it’s obviously not Oz’s input that has had Fozzie become a dimwit.  That just somehow sorta happened.  Anyway, Jason Segel’s script knocks that out and we go back to Fozzie, loyal believer and follower of Kermit, not the brightest bulb in the box but not out-and-out stupid, and still telling some of the most godawful jokes around. 😀

The Great Gonzo, plumbing magnate.

The Great Gonzo, plumbing magnate.

Other than Kermit, Fozzie and Piggy, the rest of the original Muppet cast isn’t featured prominently but that’s really sorta OK.  Gonzo has a GREAT scene and is truly The Great Gonzo again in this – I wasn’t really enjoying the forays into deepening his character, Gonzo is supposed to be a thrillseeker with a semi-masochistic bent and he was getting a bit too heartfelt when movies and such were focusing on him. (I LOVE Dave Goelz, don’t get me wrong, but the roles he was given were not so great.)  I’m also just thrilled to death that Rowlf had screentime and a couple of lines in this – he’s been noticeably absent for years and I have a Muppet Crush on Rowlf. ❤  Anyway, Miss Piggy had some interesting characterization – there was a sympathizing of her in this film, something that is somewhat overdue but also somewhat out of place.  (That’s hard to explain.)  Basically in recent years, even more than before, the Muppets have focused on Piggy’s ego and made her the butt of a lot of jokes because of it.  She’s come across as vain for no reason, self-important and aggrandizing but not actually as talented as she thinks she is, so of course it’s funny to laugh at her.  Frank Oz actually gave her a backstory, and it’s partially a joke, but I think of it sometimes when I think of the character as “real”, and it’s essentially that her father left early, her mother drank, and she had a lot of siblings.  She wanted to make something of herself so she dragged herself out of the mud (literally I guess, being pigs) and practiced poise and fashion, entered and won beauty contests, and climbed the ladder (such as it is) until she reached The Muppets.  And yes she has a huge ego and is spotlight-crazy, but in a way I feel like she deserves it, because it’s like she’s legitimately fought for what she has and will keep fighting for the rest of what she thinks she deserves.

And yes I know she’s a puppet. 😄  But I think it’s funnier when Piggy has a certain sense of dignity and likability, and then does something so silly herself that it’s removed, then when she’s just made to look pathetic and we all laugh at her.

In The Muppets Piggy may be taken a bit too seriously, since she’s the only truly successful one of the bunch, being the plus-size fashion editor for Vogue in Paris.  She’s been wronged, somehow, by Kermit and she spends a lot of time clinging to her dignity around him and deliberately not doing the “kissy-kissy” thing and throwing herself at him.  She’s incredibly mature and powerful and yeah, egotistical and rude.  But there’s something slightly *serious* about it that feels off. Regardless, though, I love Piggy in this movie.  I love how she is the one who pulls the s*** together and gets the celebrity host when Kermit can’t.  And I love that she does it the same way she does everything, which is to say, by force.  Piggy will get what she wants, SOMEHOW, and if she has to knock heads together to do it she will do it.  We see the lengths she’ll go to in all three of the Henson movies and this is really very natural in building on that.  And she succeeds.  It goes off *perfectly*.  I love that. 😀

Miss Piggy may possibly have a record number of hairstyles in this movie. :D

Miss Piggy may possibly have a record number of hairstyles in this movie. 😀

The last note on the characterizations is that the new Muppet, Walter, is wonderful.  For a completely new and deliberately sorta bland Muppet, he’s very engaging and sympathetic.  He’s not a crazy Muppet (as most of them are) but he’s not boring.  I really felt for him and I really wanted him to be happy and join the Muppets. He carries the film very well.  I was impressed. 🙂

The rest of the good: the music is fun; the cameos are worthwhile; the movie itself is a love letter to the early, Henson years of the Muppets and Jim Henson is a phantom presence throughout.  He’s on banners on the street, he’s dead center in a shot of a “wall of celebrity photos” in Kermit’s office, and I swear that the group rendition of “Rainbow Connection” was a tribute to Jim.  They also play old clips from “The Muppet Show” that include him, even going so far as to use clips of Kermit being performed by Jim Henson, which is interesting to me – it seems strange in a sense to show clips of Kermit being performed by someone other than the person performing him in this film, given that Kermit himself is supposed to be the same guy.

So we can move on to the less good stuff, and that centers almost entirely on Kermit.  I think this is something that has to do with my age group, my respect and affection for Jim Henson, and the fact that I was 12 already when Henson died and had solidified my recognition of Kermit’s voice by that point so that when Steve Whitmire entered the scene as Kermit I could hear a HUGE difference.  If I were younger and had grown up with both of them maybe this wouldn’t bother me.  But, here’s the thing.

Well, I mean, he LOOKS fine.

Well, I mean, he LOOKS fine.

Steve Whitmire’s Kermit is not the same as Jim Henson’s and I don’t just mean the voice.  Whitmire’s Kermit is too quiet, too serious, too maudlin, and dare I say it, don’t kill me, too nice.  Kermit is a nice guy, yes.  But he has a temper; he gets frustrated; he blows his top.  He can be sarcastic and even hurtful (on The Muppet Show, at least).  There are times when he steps back and views what’s going on with a sort of dry humour, and there are times when he is clearly a little disgusted with everyone.  A lot of this is Kermit in The Muppet Show so you can say well, he was NEVER like that in the movies.  Okay, fair enough.  But he gets annoyed in The Muppet Movie, he has a full-on fight with Piggy in both “The Great Muppet Caper” (one of my favourite scenes) and “The Muppets Take Manhattan”, and he shows a full range of emotion in all three Henson films.  He’s very restrained in this one – it seems to be mainly either a kind of reticent chagrin, or he’s doing his YAAAAAYYYYY! flail on stage  which is more showmanship than anything else.

The Kermit/Piggy stuff is interesting.  Almost all unspoken and even though I’ve been a Kermit/Piggy shipper forever and ever, I’m not sure how I feel about it being taken so seriously in this film.  (See how the whole “serious” thing keeps coming back up?)  It’s never stated why they are on such shaky terms in this movie or what came between them.  They don’t quite have a fight, Kermit just tells her that she’s so melodramatic and it forces him to do things that hurt her.  She says that she bought them a house to live and raise kids in and they have a torn picture of themselves evidently on their wedding day.  I actually have a theory that she walked out on HIM for some reason but that it was due to something he said because she was so “melodramatic”.  Here’s the thing: I’d like to have seen them fight in this.  I think that would’ve been more “realistic” for the Muppets than the subdued and sort of heartbreaking conversation/almost-fight they had on the streets of Paris.

This is just... a strange scene.

This is just… a strange scene.

I feel like Steve Whitmire has always been at a disadvantage because his first Kermit role was as Bob Cratchitt in “Christmas Carol” and then he was Captain Smollet in “Treasure Island”.  Neither of these are actually Kermit.  It seems as if when he needed to be able to secure the character, he instead was told to impersonate the character impersonating other characters.  No wonder he’s got a limited range.  (I actually adore Steve Whitmire and when I was really young I kinda had a crush on Wembley Fraggle.  But I have never, ever, ever accepted him as Kermit.)

So in a big way the problem with the film can be summed up thusly: for all that it’s incredibly funny it’s also too serious.  There’s a serious, sad undertone to it about the passage of time, loss, and change.  Growing old and losing loved ones.  Yes, this is combatted by the Muppets’ big comeback and their choosing to remain together as a group, and yes the ending is happy, but the tone is still one of nostalgia and it’s too pervasive.  Too “days gone by”.  I don’t really, really feel as if that’s right for a Muppet movie.  And I guess that’s what makes it work somewhat less *as* a Muppet movie and somewhat better as a movie with Muppets in it.  In fact the opening sequence where the Muppets are basically guest stars to Walter and Gary’s lives growing up in Smalltown or wherever, that part was *great*.  I wouldn’t out and out say it was the best part of the movie… but it was up there.

Life's a fillet of fish! (Yes it is!)

Life’s a fillet of fish! (Yes it is!)

So there’s my really long, in-depth review of a movie that is not meant to be taken so seriously. 😀  I would see it again.  And for all that I complain about the nostalgic tone, it made me INCREDIBLY nostalgic and there were so many parts I kept talking about over and over again… I really loved seeing it.  But it also really really made me miss the original Muppets.  So I guess that’s part of why I loved seeing it, and take from that what you will.

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