Guys, I’m…I’m Not Sure I Really Liked The Muppets

Posted: December 1, 2011 in Braak, crotchety ranting, reviews
Tags: , , ,

I mean, I liked it.  It was nice, I had a good time, there were some funny jokes and everything.  And it was definitely full of characters that I like to see, and it was nice to see them again, sometimes they said funny things.  Also, there were celebrity cameos, like when Dave Grohl played for the evil Muppet band, and James Carville was answering the phone at the telethon.  It’s funny, because those aren’t situations that you’d expect to see Dave Grohl or James Carville in!

But once the immediate flush of recognition had worn off, some days later, I…I’ve actually been (and believe me when I say that it is deeply painful for me to write this) kind of getting the feeling that this movie just…wasn’t very good.

Who the fuck is this guy?

The kind of biggest problem, and let’s just get this out of the way first, is the B-plot, with Jason Segel and Amy Adams and that other new Muppet, Melvin or whatever his name was.  Or maybe that was the A-plot and the Muppet Telethon was the B-plot, and that’s actually kind of a problem, isn’t it?  If I’m not sure which is the plot that I’m supposed to care about?  Except, obviously I only care about the Muppet plot, because who the hell are these other people?  Gary, Mary, Melvin?  (Is his name Melvin?  No, wait, I think it was Walter.)  Why am I supposed to give a crap whether or not Melvin is a Muppet?  I mean, he’s obviously a Muppet because he’s made of felt, but…

Oof.  Honestly, I keep trying to figure out how to write about this part of the movie, and it keeps collapsing on me because of how much I completely don’t care about it.  It’s just so saccharine, so perfunctory.  Like, what are the stakes here?  Jason Segel doesn’t get to marry Amy Adams because she’s sad, I guess?  And bummer on him, because Amy Adams is pretty, so…ugh, I don’t care.

And honestly, what kind of bullshit is this?  The guy has got a brother who was born with a felt-based deformity, you’d think she could at least stick with Jason Segel long enough for him to help his…his brother to get…ahhh, fuck it.

The problem is, that whole part of the script kind of crowds out the rest of the plot.  Like, a movie about, “The Muppets have to have a telethon to save their theater from an evil Texas oil-man and his anti-Muppets”, that’s a strong plot.  And if it’s got a couple sub-plots like, “Kermit and Miss Piggy need to reconcile,” and maybe “Gonzo has become a square and needs to be reminded of who he really is” (this would also work with Animal, and the weird thing is, they obviously THOUGHT of those things, but only built them up to:  1) a gag in the first twenty minutes of the movie, and 2) a drum solo in Rainbow Connection.  Which, again, I mean it was nice, in that cheery harmless way that nice things are, but I don’t know, it just feels like a bit of a waste), that’s…well, there you go.  That’s a movie.

Trading on the Muppet legacy makes a lot of sense, in that all of these characters are clear, well-developed, and funny.  You can take them and mix them up in a whole bunch of ways and it’s great, because we don’t really need to know a lot about them in order to appreciate it.  I mean, look at that scene with Kermit and Miss Piggy — you don’t need to do any exposition; that is a scene with a huge sense of history.

But that scene is two minutes long, and takes a backseat to Melvin and Gary’s filial relationship which isn’t a tenth as fraught as the pre-existing Muppet relationships.

So, what happens is:  the emotional core of the film, which should rely heavily on the pre-existing Muppet characters, is shunted on to three new under-developed characters.  Instead, the Muppets hold up the jokes-end of the movie, and that trades almost entirely on nostalgia.  They do some funny stuff, don’t even get me wrong; but if I had to hazard a guess, I’d say between 70-90% of those funny things are just references to other things that we already know about them.  Like, they’ve all got their bits that they do — Beaker flips out and gets shrunk by the Large Hadron Collider; Bunson acts like John Hodgman; Gonzo gets stuck in a bowling ball.

Related question: does John Hodgman pre-date Bunson Honeydew? Who is the original here?

There were a lot of celebrity cameos, and those are great in principle, but mostly wasted here.  The Whoopi Goldberg / Selena Gomez / that kid from Modern Family actually felt kind of…uh…cynical, I guess?  Kind of a little like the Disney Engine’s pistons were showing?  Sarah Silverman I don’t like in general, but she also didn’t have anything to do here; Jim Parsons actually looked like he was literally surprised to be there, I’m not sure how I feel about that.  Zack Gallifinakis and Chris Cooper were great, though, I’m not saying it was a total loss.

(All of this, weirdly, made me nostalgic for Muppets From Space; am I the only one who liked that movie?  I still laugh about Pepe and Clifford the Catfish trying to get Katie Holmes to come back to their hot tub.)

I don’t know what I’m saying.  I’m not saying I didn’t have a good time.  I am saying that I felt like that movie relied a whole lot more on me loving the Muppets than it spent time making it lovable.  And I got the kind of weird feeling that Jason Segel had an idea for a Muppet movie and then just wrote himself into it because he loves the Muppets.

  1. Moff says:

    Why do you hate the Muppets, communist?

    (Also, I think my wife loves Muppets From Space, and I have enjoyed what parts of it I have seen.)

    (Also, question that came up on Thanksgiving, when we watched The Muppets Take Manhattan: Is there a kind of bright line separating the first three Muppet movies from those that followed [and an even brighter one separating this one]? And if so, why is—oh, wait, never mind, we figured that out; it’s because Manhattan was the last one with Jim Henson. Sorry, I was pretty drunk that night.)

  2. braak says:

    Yep, that is the line all right.

    I don’t know if there’s a specific production/administrative line separating this one, except, wow, holy shit — the last actual theatrical release Muppet MOVIE was more than ten years ago.

  3. Jeff Holland says:

    I’m with you on this one, though I think I may have belly-laughed a little more, on account of I am in the tank for Animal. And for some reason, 80’s robot jokes will never get tired for me. (See also: Paulie’s Robot Sex Butler from “Rocky IV.”)

    But the entire time I was watching this, I couldn’t help but think of Superman Returns, where the meta context surrounding “justifying the return of beloved and disused film franchise” kept overpowering “story” and “characters.”

    Like, you don’t need to make a compelling argument for why The World Needs a Superman (and if you still feel the need, it’d better be a little better than “sonofabitch owes Lois Lane five years of back child support, and also we have these heavy things that need lifting”). Making a good movie IS your argument.

    Similarly, I don’t NEED an argument for why the Muppets are capital-I Important to people. They’re funny puppets with (theoretically) all-ages appeal. That is why. Please get on with your movie, Jason Siegel, we’re all clear on why we’re here.

    What drove me nuts was, “We have to get the band back together to stop that rich oil man from buying our theater” is a FANTASTIC PLOT for a Muppets movie when there hasn’t been one in a while. But I’m pretty sure you can remove Siegel, Amy Adams and Walter The New-Muppet Everyone Loves and Cares About Immediately For No Real Reason, shift the “let’s get the band back together” motivation to, oh, say, Kermit, bulk up the “Gonzo’s gone respectable” and “Animal’s trying to stay calm” side plots a little, and it’s the same movie, maybe even a little tighter.

  4. Jason Gormally says:

    Things like this are exactly the reason that fan edits exist.

  5. braak says:

    I’ll tell you what was super-weird to me. You’ve got this set-up, where Animal has stopped drumming due to his anger management issues (good, okay, good, good use of Animal). And you’ve got a secondary set-up, remember? In the beginning of the show, they’re trying to do the opening number, and they can’t because Animal isn’t there to keep time. Those are PERFECT CONDITIONS for a tense moment of, “How are we going to do this if we can’t get the opening number started? Everyone’s tripping and falling, what are we going to do?” And then Animal STEPS UP and bangs on the drums and we really get the show started.

    It’s SO PERFECT, actually, that it beggars explanation why those twin plot-points never go anywhere. For some reason, the opening number goes off fine even though there’s no drummer; and, for some reason, Animal starts drumming again in the middle of Rainbow Connection, even though nothing has changed in any way to make that necessary.

    That’s the most baffling part of this movie to me: all of the elements were clearly there for something good; someone had thought of everything that needed to be here. They just…they just didn’t make an actual movie out of them.

  6. mbourgon says:

    Wired had a bit on this, and ironic(?)ally enough, they mention it in the context of the movie itself:
    The Muppets are no longer Important and/or Remembered. Just a Muppet movie on its own wasn’t going to get made, hence the main B-plot about Walter and Gary and Mary.

    I’d say you’re overthinking it, but given that I have a 5-year-old and am going to own a copy of it (as opposed to just going to the theater) pretty soon, I see where you’re coming from. Unfortunately, the realities of film dictated my point above. If it does well, expect the sequel to have ABILITY to skip the crappy B-plot, though The Power May Be may think the only reason people saw it was for the crappy B-plot. (But hey, maybe it did well enough to greenlight The Muppetland Murders.)

    OT: I loved the bit with NPH saying “I don’t _know_ why I’m not hosting it!”. Overall I loved it, and I’m glad they brought out the old characters like Guy Smiley.

  7. braak says:

    I don’t know, I have difficulty crediting this. Movie studios have made movies with anything even remotely resembling a whiff of familiarity. They made a big-budget blockbuster movie of BATTLESHIP. And Muppet merchandise, while it may not be a powerhouse, has still been moving consistently; if it’s gone under-capitalized, it only seems to be because Disney has had its eye on other studios (like Pixar and Marvel).

    There doesn’t seem to be any reason to think that a Muppet movie couldn’t have been made without that bonehead plot in it; I mean, consider: if the actual Muppets aren’t interesting enough to carry a movie, how could the studio possibly be served by introducing a new Muppet that no one has ever heard of? Sure, Kermit’s not as popular as he was; he’s still definitely more popular than Melvin.

  8. braak says:

    You know, I guess that guy’s name IS Walter, but I just can’t bring myself to call him that. He just looks like such a Melvin to me.

  9. Jesse says:

    YES, exactly. I enjoyed so many pieces of it, and those pieces were often right next to each other, so I had this optical illusion of enjoying the movie when I actually didn’t.

    I think there may have been a way to better organize all the pieces, as you suggest, even while keeping the B-plot. Walter could have realized at the end that his “talent,” while not a performance talent, is inspiring people to come together and work on projects, kind of an heir to Kerrmit. Then Walter could have joined the troupe in a mixed Scooter/Kermit capacity, giving him a place where he feels at home and welcomed. (Instead, they give him an out-of-nowhere solo act at the end that saves the day, imparting on kids the wisdom that you’re only valid if you can get on stage and entertain people.)

    And Animal’s years-long-pent-up drum solo could have busted out of him at the end when they needed a big closing number. (Instead, as you point out, he needlessly embellishes “Another Rainbow,” which was Kermit’s moment to find himself again.)

    Gary and Mary could have been played for pure comedy instead of the sachharine relatinoship stuff that got shoehorned in for no reason; like, the B-plot could have been Jason Segel slapstick-ily trying to save his relationship from anniversary night misunderstanding, the way Snoopy’s subplots work in the Peanuts cartoons. I would have liked watching that.

    I wonder sometimes if I prefer straight-up bad movies to “almost there” movies.

  10. Jesse says:

    “Rainbow Connection!” Not “Another Rainbow.” Sheesh. Don Rosa hijacked my brain for a minute.

  11. SB7 says:

    @Jesse, you’ve been brain-hijacked at two levels. It’s Carl Barks, not Don Rosa.

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