|Jason Segel with Walter.|
I know Allen just gave you a movie review and we aren't trying to make this our regular schtick, but this one seemed like a no-brainer after I gave my thoughts on the current state of the Muppets franchise. If you read it, you already have some background on my attitude toward this new film, The Muppets, going in. And, as I sat side-by-side in the theater with my 8 year-old daughter, it quickly became clear that we were having two different experiences.
This is the only one that matters, so get ready for it. As the credits began to roll, Sophie Stafford turned to me and said... "I love that movie. It was awesome!" What else do you need to know? A completely honest reaction from an unbiased, yet opinionated 8 year old. A little girl who isn't poisoned by her love of the past and a man who has been gone for 20 years. She loved it. She has been well schooled in all of the Muppet movies of the past (excluding Treasure Island) and, at least for now, this one is her favorite. So, if that's what you were looking for, look away now and don't bother reading the mixed reactions of an old man.
Now, I'll channel Statler and Waldorf and do a little grumbling. First of all, The Muppets does start strong. In the title sequence we're introduced to a new muppet named Walter and his human brother, Gary. It's a clever sequence that gives us background and gets us right into the story. At this point I'm buying in. It's a good concept and I like where they're headed. Basically, Walter grows up happy in a human home, but as the years pass, he begins to feel more and more out of place and that's when he discovers the Muppets on the Muppet Show. He's drawn in immediately (like so many of us humans were), fanhood becomes his life and he feels that their world is where he belongs. If we couldn't figure it out on our own, we get a heavy-handed dream sequence to eliminate any doubt.
I think the core concept was well-founded. I was totally okay with following this new muppet on his journey of being on the outside, looking in. But, from there, the story arc got muddled. Things got a little messy. Some of it felt low budget; reminiscent of the Elmo movie I had to watch when Sophie was 3. I love Chris Cooper, but his villain Tex Richman... There's oil under the old Muppet Theater? Really?
A lot of the jokes weren't bad. Some were pretty good. (I definitely liked the addition of Eighties Robot to the cast as Kermit's servant from a time when things were going better for the Muppets. That's funny.) My problem was that so many of the jokes and gags felt disconnected. Like a couple of writers sat in a room talking about all the things they loved about the Muppets and then tried to rehash and squeeze in as many of those things into the script as they could. We weren't getting progression for the characters. It reminded me of the Chris Farley Show on SNL. "Hey, do you remember when...[the Swedish Chef would talk funny]... That was awesome." Too often the gags didn't come naturally within the story. And that led to the phrase that kept going through my head: They're trying too hard.
There were other bumps in the execution (like way too much post-modern, wink-wink, tongue-in-cheek, fourth-wall breaking) but the only one I feel like talking about is the Kermit/Walter dynamic. Right away, they establish that this movie is Walter's story. But that's a problem when you're doing a Muppets movie, because Kermit so clearly is and has always been their driving force; their heart and soul. As soon as Kermit hits the screen, the movie wants to go his direction and, as a viewer, you expect it to. Like I said, it's a problem and, in this case, a problem the writers don't know how to solve. The story gets pulled back and forth between the two and, unfortunately, Kermit spends most of the movie being mopey, pessimistic, and indecisive. He is completely neutered. This Kermit is not the Kermit we know. Yes, Kermit has always had moments of doubt, but he's the guy who inevitably couldn't be shaken. The guy who would pull himself up by the bootstraps and make everyone else believe. Deep down he was filled with unending hope and that's what we loved about him. His enthusiasm couldn't be ignored. All of that is gone in The Muppets. Kermit is lost. He's out of answers. He has moments of motivation, but quickly falters and packs it in when the going gets tough. More than once he needs Walter to save the day. And in one of the film's final images, there is Walter, hoisted up on everyone's shoulders with Kermit looking up at him as if the tables have been turned. Now, Walter is Kermit's hero. That didn't jive with me. If you're restarting the franchise, are you doing it with Walter on your shoulders and a wishy washy Kermit?
I don't want to sound like I'm trying to murder the film because it doesn't deserve execution. It was enjoyable, it was entertaining. It just wasn't magic. I've seen the magic and it wasn't on the faces in that theater. The saddest part is that there is nothing we can do about it, because it left us two decades ago. These guys did the best they could and I applaud them for that, it may just be a hill too steep to climb to capture a curmudgeon like me. Luckily, they don't have to. They can make the 8 year-olds of the world happy and if they do, the Muppets can survive. And who can complain about that?