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The Muppets

The Muppets

Welcome back, gentle muppets, now please fuck off again

dir: James Bobin

And now, from the sublime to the sublimely ridiculous. Having spent a fair few hours this summer in the cinemas with my angelic / demonic child, we’ve traversed the entire current cinematic experience as it exists for the children of this city. There have been ups, and downs, mostly downs, at least from my viewpoint, but there have been some hours spent in the illuminated gloom that were enjoyable for us both.

The most surprising, in that I can’t believe she enjoyed it considering how dated, self-referential, meta and ‘adult’ it is, is this flick, The Muppets.

What a deceptive title. I mean, there have been so many Muppets flicks, but I guess not for a while. Thing is, for her, being all of five, she’s never seen the Muppets tv show. She never saw perplexing cameos from Roger Moore, Twiggy, Vincent Price or Johnny Cash or Liberace, or wondered why these sometimes drunk people were chatting to these furry puppets like they were real people. She never saw the stack of flicks from the 80s, or heard the musical numbers, or owned any of the holy merchandise.

Nor did she know anything about the perverse love/hate insanely passionate relationship between Kermit the Frog and Miss Piggy. Nor should she.

She did, as every kid in the first and second but possibly not third world knew the infamous Mahna-Mahna song, which should replace every national anthem and religious hymn the world over. But to her, I guess puppets equal fun, so there’s that, at least.

I can’t imagine what an adult ‘fan’ of the Muppets would look like, I mean, in terms of the obsessive ones who’ve been crying themselves to sleep every night waiting for new Muppet material to come out, but I can’t imagine it would be a pretty picture. This flick would seem, against all logic and taste, to be a flick aimed more at that nostalgia for the Muppets tv show among adults rather than any attempt to ‘update’ the Muppets in order to garner a new audience.

There’s no doubt they’re trying to hawk the merchandise to new generations, that’ll never stop because capitalism demands it, but this is definitely aimed at the parents.

There are so many in-jokes and fourth-wall-breaking references wedged in that the kids, you’d think, would be sitting there so bored that they’d start whacking the person next to them with their parasols. What I’m realising now is that the show was never really for kids, despite the trappings and the implication you’d get from mup-puppets and such, because it was always aimed at adults.

This story is as adult and nostalgic as you could get without actually watching Meet the Feebles, the despicably hilarious Peter Jackson flick from the 90s. The main character here, I guess, is a muppet himself, but not one that existed prior to this movie.

Walter has grown up with a human family, somehow, though he’s not really ‘growing’, per se, and his one true love is the Muppets show. He has a human brother, who has grown to adulthood, at least physically, but Gary (Jason Segel, who also wrote the script along with Nicholas Stoller) seems like something of a case of arrested development.

The human brother Gary has a human girlfriend, which beggars belief, but Mary (Amy Adams) seems all human, and anatomically correct. Though she seems happy enough at first, we realise that she has problems, just like all the rest of us, whether human, muppet, or some combination thereof.

Mary and Gary’s ten year anniversary is coming up, but Gary would rather take his beloved textured tyke of a brother to the Muppet studios for the grand tour. Of course Mary is miffed. Who wouldn’t be miffed coming second to a mop? For Walter and Gary, though, this is the trip of a lifetime.

By Christ, what dweebs they are. When they get to the studios, the place is rotting and falling apart around them like a sad tent made of leprosy. The old, doddering fool hosting the tour (Alan Arkin, who was on the show way back in the 70s), is emblematic of the hard times the Muppets have fallen on.

Walter accidentally overhears an evil businessman called Tex Richman (Chris Cooper) trying to get control of the old Muppet studios in order to drill for oil or puppies or something, and he’s so evil that he actually says, out loud, statements like ‘maniacal laugh, maniacal laugh’ when he wants his evil muppet minions to laugh, uh, maniacally.

Walter and Gary and Mary, with reluctance, set themselves the task of saving the studio and resurrecting the Muppets themselves. So, after tracking down the perpetually morose Kermit the Frog, they have to find everyone else, too.

There’s a fair amount of gags, a shitload of them in fact, with the flick being fairly fleet of foot, moving apace, taking shortcuts, and telling us what those shortcuts are, by saying things like “we should do a montage” or “let’s travel by map”. The word ‘montage’ doesn’t exactly get the kids in a tizzy, but the hope, at least, is that it keeps them amused. This world of the Muppets is such a particular one, with the look of many of the puppets being so particular to their time, that all they can do is keeping things moving, because who’s going to explain to people why any of these beings look like they do or do what they do, apart from just having them entertain us?

Using the most hackneyed of plots, the Muppets have to put on a show in order to raise a bunch of money to save the studio and themselves from oblivion. Will they be able to pull together, fix up the studio and save the day? Will Walter figure out where he belongs: with the humans or the Muppets? Will Gary realise that his hot redhead human girlfriend has something the Muppets can’t compete with (ie breasts and a vagina), or will he still prefer the feeling of felt against his flesh?

It’s so goddamn goofy, but, for me, pleasingly goofy. The musical numbers, the gags and the numerous cameos all fly by in such a way that it’s all a romp. Nothing in it is serious, the strained and creaking gags come across more as quaint than lame, and it all ends up being quite amusing.

My daughter laughed a bit, but I think I laughed more, though sometimes it was out of embarrassment more than anything else. I’m kind of glad that it exists, however I’m aware that it probably shouldn’t. The nostalgia stuff, the aching melancholy for a time and a world that prizes the Muppets as much as they deserve is just perplexing to me, but the honouring of Jim Henson and all his works, I guess, is a worthy endeavour. There are enough pictures of Henson up all over the place to remind us, though I very much doubt the kids could care in the slightest.

If the flick has a problem, it’s that it spends so much time on the human protagonists, who aren’t really that interesting or pleasant to look at. Sure, I could look at Amy Adams all day long, but not with Jason Segel next to her. He’s a goofy dick in this as he is in everything, and I found him as insincere here as I do in anything he ever does, but if you’re going to have someone be a dick in a Muppet flick, I guess he’s your man.

It’s amusing enough, and the newer songs, which in some cases sound suspiciously like songs Flight of the Conchords would sing (Bret McKenzie being responsible for those), are in the grand tradition and heroic spirit of the enterprise. Look, it sounds like I’m being arch and cynical about it, but I really did derive a lot of pleasure from watching this flick. I used to love that show as a kid, but it’s not like I miss it, or ever want to see it again. It did delight my heart that my little girl had fun watching it, and that’s got to count for something in this dark world filled with horror, war and ingrown toenails.

7 ways in which they’re not quite mops, and they’re not quite puppets out of 10

“Is this movie in 3-D?”
- “Nope! The Muppets are as one-dimensional as they've always been!” – ah, Statler and Waldorf, you two old coots in the balcony, you know how to ease the pain – The Muppets