Friday, November 30, 2012

The Muppets, Part 5: Too Much Nostalgia!

After the glorious reprise of "The Rainbow Connection," the Muppets find that they still have a few minutes to complete their show before the midnight deadline and they still haven't quite reached the $10 million mark.  Scrambling for an act, Gary finds Walter in a dressing room, afraid to showcase his talent.  He feels that he is unworthy of joining the Muppets, but Gary gives him a heartwarming little pep-talk about how Walter belongs with the Muppets.  Inspired, Walter takes the stage to perform "The Whistling Caruso."

Because he's the only Muppet who can whistle...I guess.

The crowd goes wild and the donations pour in, bringing the total to $9,999,999 right before midnight! And then midnight comes...and the Muppets realize that they've lost.  Tex Richman takes the stage to kick everyone out of his theater, and when the Muppets try to protest, Fozzie hits the sign revealing that the Muppets actually made...$99,999.99.  So they lost by a lot.  And, that's it!  The Muppets failed!

As Kermit dejectedly leads the Muppets out of the building, he tries to save face by giving one final assessment of the situation.  Sure, the Muppets may have lost their home, but the fact that they were able to come together and pull something like this off and get as close as they did proves that it isn't the end for them.  They may have been knocked down a few pegs, but they aren't out of the game.  This is a new beginning.  They wouldn't be the Muppets if they didn't endure countless obstacles.

They may have lost the theater, but they haven't lost their essence.

And then, in a crowning moment of awesome, Kermit steps out onto the streets of LA and we see thousands of fans waiting for him. They had made a cry for attention and everyone responded! And as the Muppets greet their public, they ask Walter to join them, because with out him, none of this would be possible. The movie ends with a reprise of "Life's a Happy Song," and everyone lives happily ever after!

Well, almost... During The Film That Never Ends, many plot threads are wrapped up during the credits.  Gonzo finally releases his bowling ball, hitting Tex Richman and causing him to laugh and return the Muppet Theater.  Kermit and Piggy get back together.  And Gary proposes to Mary, resulting in the answer of "Mahna Mahna."

How else could this movie end?

As the credits roll, the various celebrity cameos join in the "Mahna Mahna" song as the Snowths dance around them. This moment is so..awkward, yet I can't help but appreciate it. I mean, if I were appearing in a Muppet movie, I'd certainly want to sing "Mahna Mahna." It comes off like watching someone else's home movies, where it was probably more fun to participate in than to watch. But who cares? They're having fun with the Muppets, let them enjoy it!

The greatest moment of Jason Segel's life.

And we have finally reached the end of this epic film!


Before diving into this final review, it is important to remember two things about this movie.  First, it is essentially a fan-film made with a Hollywood budget.  And second, there is at least 30 minutes worth of story that had to be cut out of the movie (and even then, the film is 10 minutes longer than the average Muppet movie and it certainly feels it).  In fact, I could spend this whole time discussing the deleted scenes and how they would have changed the film for the better or worse.  But you can read about all of those in the novelization, which keeps the whole story mostly intact.

 Those 8 pages of color photos change EVERYTHING!

I'll only highlight the significant edits as they pertain to the film as a whole, so you'll have to find out about the missing prison scene that was heavily featured in the trailers some other time.

The inclusion of these scenes would have doubled the amount of celebrity cameos.  Seriously.
The Bad (or at least, The Nitpicks)

1) Whose Story Is It Anyway?

It's unfair to compare this movie to the original Henson three, but for a movie that is attempting to capture the spirit of the originals, there are some differences that can't be overlooked. For example, the number of story arcs per film (as determined by the number of specific "resolution" scenes):

The Muppet Movie - 2
Kermit (and the rest of the Muppets) - Following a dream to make it in Hollywood
Doc Hopper (and Max) - Hunting down Kermit for his frog legs

The Great Muppet Caper - 3
Miss Piggy - Trying to win Kermit's heart by masquerading as Lady Holiday
Kermit, Fozzie, and Gonzo - Trying to solve the mystery of the jewelry thefts
Nicky Holiday - Stealing jewels and winning the heart of Miss Piggy

The Muppets Take Manhattan - 3
Kermit - Getting his musical published
Kermit - Getting amnesia
Miss Piggy - Making sure that Kermit loves and marries her (and not that attractive waitress)

The Muppets -8
Walter - Finding his heroes and his place in the world
Gary and Mary - Letting Walter go and settling down as a couple
Kermit - Saving the Muppet Theater
Miss Piggy - Repairing her relationship with Kermit
Animal - Maintaining self-control and avoiding drums
Tex Richman - Destroying the Muppet name and rediscovering laughter
Uncle Deadly - Reawakening the Muppet within
Jack Black - Reluctantly stepping in as a celebrity host

This represents the changing world of film. As an audience we want more. And the film juggles most of these subplots fairly well. But at times, I found myself wondering, "Where are they going with this? Is all of this necessary?" By having so many storylines, few have time to really grow and breathe. Due to deleted scenes, some of the stories come out of nowhere. Uncle Deadly's arc is introduced and resolved in the final third of the film, and Walter's anxiety about being part of the Muppet gang is a little unjustified. With so many characters, it's hard to give the film a strong, singular focus. Fortunately, once it decides that it's all about the Telethon, things run more smoothly.

2) Trapped in the 1980s (and the 2010s)
Okay, this movie is very funny and very entertaining, but even a year later, it shows signs of being dated. First, there is an odd focus on the Muppets being a relic of the '80s. This may have been the way it felt for Jason Segel and the other writers of the script, but the Muppets haven't necessarily gone away. And even their "classic" material has a timeless quality to them. The Muppet Movie, for example, doesn't feel dated, because the plot and humor aren't tied to 1979. But The Muppets takes an extra effort to drill this idea into our head. Rather than a general, "The Muppets have been gone for nearly three decades," there is a specific, "It was 1981 when they left and it's 2011 now." When Whoopi Goldberg walks in with Selena Gomez and the kid from Modern Family, I knew this won't age well.

It's not just the references and cameos that make this a 2011 film. The directorial style has a very "Flight of the Conchords meets Jason Segel" vibe. Which makes sense, since that's what it is, but it makes it feel less...Muppety. The humor is very "of the now." And I'm afraid that with each passing year, it could get less and less relevant.

3) An Extra Happy Ending
Had the movie just ended right after the finale, it would have been perfect. But then scenes kept happening to make sure no one was worried about the future and nothing was left ambiguous. Tex Richman needed comeuppance, I suppose, but completely changing his character with a head injury is a bit of a cheat. Also, the unnecessary ending with Kermit and Piggy's life as a couple seemed a little..odd, with Kermit upset at the paparazzi. But, as made evident by Piggy's outfit, this scene was actually supposed to be a flashback (to when Kermit learned about the sham wedding at the end of The Muppets Take Manhattan) that took place earlier in the film.
The audience is stupid.  They'll never suspect a thing!
4) You Can't Please Everyone
Let's face it. Some of our favorite Muppets were going to be overlooked in this film. With the deleted scenes left intact, complainers will see that many more of their favorites were prominently featured (at least briefly). Everyone was going to have to deal with some cuts. So, for every Uncle Deadly moment of redemption, there is a Gonzo moment that got cut. For every prominent Thog appearance, there is a missing Rizzo scene. For every Sweetums running from Mad Man Mooney's, there is an unfilmed appearance by Nicky Holiday. In some alternate universe, the perfect Muppets movie exists.

But what we got, was astounding!

The Good (nay, the Great!)

1) The Muppets are Back!
Jason Segel set out to make a Muppet movie like the good old days. No more revisions of classic literature, no more trips to space, no more *shudder*...television Christmas specials. To Segel, the Muppets are at their best when they are trying to put on a show, providing us with the third greatest gift, laughter. And he got everyone together and did it!

 When this image came out, fans rejoiced.

 Although there are a few missteps, it really feels as if we are reconnecting with old friends. It is the world's best reunion. This is also the first film that feels like The Muppet Show reimagined as a movie, with all of the attentions to detail. Sure, the puppets are rebuilt (and some, like Thog, were built to big) and some puppets have gone missing and the voice performers aren't the originals (save for the trooper Dave Golez), but it truly feels as if the Muppets have returned to inspire a whole new generation.

2) Walter isn't Awkward!
The scariest piece of news about the new Muppet film was that a new "tech-savvy" Muppet would be introduced. Ugh, were they really going to try to modernize the Muppets? Walter doesn't even look that special! He looks like a discarded Sesame Street extra.

But it was Walter's simple appearance and passion for the Muppets that made him a character to root for. He represented the audience, the people who wanted to join the Muppets when they were kids, the people who want to join the Muppets now. It was the character that made this movie work, even if his whistling talent was a little bizarre.

Stop making that face!

3) The Muppets are Failures!
A sentiment that I've returned to time and time again is the idea that the Muppets are popular because things go wrong in their lives. They struggle, they mess up, they explode, and the continue to persevere. The film continues that tradition by having the Muppets lose the theater (then it negates this brilliant move by having Richman give it back, but let's ignore that). The impluse to give the Muppets a tragic ending is inspired and in keeping with the long running motif that the Muppets are the losers. The original ending had the money counter stop at $99,999,999 like in the movie and then, through a show of good faith, Waldorf and Statler decide that Walter's routine was worth a dollar, thereby saving the Muppets.

They really do care!
While this would have been a nice character moment for the old men, I'm glad the film ultimately went in the direction that it did.  Having the Muppets not only lose, but lose terribly, is a sense of realism not usually scene in a children's film, but perfectly in mind with the Henson philosophy.

4)  The Film is Full of Love and Imagination
This is what happens when people make a film that they are passionate about.  Hollywood blockbusters have become so sterile and formulaic that the average theater-going public don't have many chances to see something that comes from the heart.  Disney, once the face of a soulless corporation, has recently stumbled into the idea that people make better films when they aren't limited by what's popular.  Pixar films are allowed great freedom in their stories, the recent Avengers movie was penned and directed by cult-icon Joss Whedon, and here, The Muppets was allowed to retain the personal element of Segel and director James Bobin.  They didn't try to make a film that would make the most money.  They made the Muppet film that they wished others would make.  And they had fun with it.

In what other context would Bret McKenzie be able to win an Oscar?  Taking him on as the lead songwriter and composer is a technically risky move.  But here is a guy who loves to entertain and had the creative liberties to write the songs he wanted to see in a Muppet movie.  And it worked!

The Muppets made this happen.

Jason Segel, like his idol Jim Henson, had a simple idea and was fortunate enough to be able to share that idea with the world. Starting with his own old homemade puppet Walter, he followed in the footsteps in a great man and took great care to keep things as magical as he remembered. The film may not be perfect, but it is genuine. No one can know how Henson would have reacted to this movie. But in my opinion, it did him and his creations justice. Here's to hoping the sequel will follow up on this great opportunity to keep the Muppets alive, and not just in name only.

Lovers, dreamers, and fanscripts.

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