I grabbed a copy of The Muppets on DVD and wasn’t expecting terribly much. Let’s face it, the majority of Muppet films have sucked over the years. Muppets Take Manhattan was abysmal. Muppets from Space was ghastly. Muppets’ Wizard of Oz was literally unwatchable. I tried but remembered quickly that I don’t actually hate myself.
Which is a shame. The Muppets — or, rather, Jim Henson — occupy a really special place in many of our memories. Although Sesame Street was limited in our house (too American), I was raised on a steady diet of The Dark Crystal, Labyrinth, The Storyteller, and Fraggle Rock until, when I was a bit older, we got The Muppet Show and The Muppet Movie. To drive the point home further: Rolf the Dog and Sam the Eagle playing ‘Tit-Willow’ was my introduction to Gilbert and Sullivan.
The Jim Henson franchise, in other words, holds a special place in my childhood along with the original trilogy of Star Wars and Alice in Wonderland.
The Muppets is absolutely a return to form. It captures the self-referential and self-depreciating humour of the original. It captures the self-aware cheesiness of the original. And — best of all — it captures the celebrity-whorish nature of the original.
The plot is twofold. Gary (Jason Segal – who co-wrote the movie) and Walter are brothers. One is a six-foot eleventy giant of a man, the other is a foot-high Muppet. Despite their differences, they are extremely close (even going so far as to share a bedroom, Bert and Ernie style). Although he appreciates Gary’s support, Walter struggles to find his place in the world until he sees The Muppet Show on television. On a trip to the Muppets’ Studio (with loving references to the original movie), Gary overhears the plot of an evil oil baron (Chris Cooper) who has discovered an oil deposit beneath the Muppets’ Studio. Thus begins the second plot: getting the band back together so the Muppets can raise enough money to save the studio.
The novelty is clearly not in the plot. The novelty is in the giddy fun you experience watching the film. Segal appears to be constantly stoked that he’s in a Muppet film. The jokes are loving; there is absolutely nothing mean spirited or ugly in the film. And — strangely, almost unbelievably — Jack Black is fun.
The let down is the voice cast. While it’s impossible to resurrect Jim Henson, a number of the Frank Oz characters sound really off. Which brings me to the second half of this review…
Frank Oz refused to be involved in this film. Geeks of Doom quotes him saying:
But according to a recent interview with the British website Metro, the 67-year-old Oz revealed that he was invited to be part of the new Muppets movie being directed by James Bobin (Flight of the Conchords) and starring Jason Segel (who also co-wrote) and Amy Adams, but that he rejected the offer.“I wasn’t happy with the script”, Oz explained. “I don’t think they respected the characters. But I don’t want to go on about it like a sourpuss and hurt the movie.” [Source]
Here is a short list of films in which Frank ‘I don’t think they respected the characters’ Oz has performed:
- Muppets from Space
- Elmo Saves Christmas
- The Stepford Wives (remake of the classic 1975 film starring Katherine Ross; remade with Nicole Kidman and ‘zany’ robots)
- Goddamn Star Wars: Episode One – The Phantom Menace.
More to the point, Oz is just wrong. Absolutely every part of this film was lovingly created, even down to the reference to the ‘Standard Rich and Famous Contract’ that Orson Welles offers in the original film. The complaints that this was Disney cynically trying to milk money out of the Muppet mammary are completely wrong and are extremely unfair to the fanboyish Segal.
Grab it on DVD and watch it with the original The Muppet Movie back to back.