The Muppets have been so overexposed leading up to the release of the new movie that even I'm a little sick of them now! The last straw for me may have been the in-flight magazine cover story that included an "interview" with "Kermit." So I don't really want to add to the glut, but I have thoughts about The Muppets and - surprise! - they're a little contrary.
Obviously, I was looking forward to this movie. The trailer made me tear up. I like Jason Segel, and his approach to things seemed solid. The SNL appearance made me laugh (which is saying something for SNL). All the critics I follow really liked it. I was all excited and had every expectation that I would love this movie.
And it was…fine.
I had a perfectly lovely time. It was cute. I thought they were respectful of the characters and of Jim Henson's legacy and all that. The tone was right, the replacement voices were pretty good. Walter was adorable, and Segel (who I've also been getting pretty sick of lately thanks to the film's publicity push) and Adams were great. It was nice to see old friends back together again and I felt joy at that. But it didn't add up to much for me.
I hate when people accuse adult Muppet fans of only being into the hipster nostalgia of it. It's not just nostalgia. I love the Muppets more as an adult than I ever did as a kid, and have discovered wonderful things Jim Henson did before I was born. I've revisited plenty of things I loved as a child that don't hold up at all (including things by Jim Henson - I couldn't make it through a whole episode of Fraggle Rock). I've never been accused of loving Ghostbusters or Star Wars purely out of nostalgia.
So what left me cold about The Muppets was that it was all nostalgia. The movie relied entirely on our past relationships to these characters, and our fond memories of jokes and songs to bring meaning to the proceedings. You can watch any of the three original Muppet movies without ever having seen a Muppet before; they stand completely alone, ready to tell their own stories with actors who happen to be made of felt. This movie is entirely dependent on the audience knowing the characters going in, and in fact the plot is built around that fandom. That's not the same as including winking references (no matter how good, and some of the more meta ones especially were very good) in your reboot. The entire movie is a winking reference. In a way, it felt like one of those superhero origin movies where nothing really happens and you know it's all there just to set up a sequel.
It probably doesn't help that I just re-watched A Very Merry Muppet Christmas Movie, a 2003 TV movie that's also clearly pitched to adults (its big showpieces are a nearly perfect Moulin Rouge parody, and an alternate Kermit-less universe in which Piggy is a crazy cat lady phone psychic and Scooter is a go-go dancer) but that also manages to have its own completely stand-alone story, even while being basically a direct sequel to The Muppet Movie. It also has basically the exact same beats of the bad guy exploiting a bad contract to take over the theater, and Kermit being a total sad-sack about it as The Muppets. I guess it's not a fan favorite but I happen to love Very Merry Muppet Christmas, in part for its archness and barely controlled anarchy (very true to the original spirit) and willingness to push the edge of the characters a little, so having it fresh in my mind didn't help The Muppets feel any fresher.
I want to be clear that I didn't hate the movie. I know a lot of my "meh" reaction to it is about poorly managed expectations, the squirming toddler sitting in front of me, and probably also this nasty head cold I'm getting over. I'll watch it again on DVD and maybe change my mind. It is good to have the Muppets back, and there were plenty of things I liked. There were lots of good jokes that felt very Muppety, which I won't spoil here for people who haven't seen it yet. I enjoyed seeing old favorite characters even if they didn't really belong there (talking to you, Marvin Suggs). The songs were cute and "Rainbow Connection" never fails to make me a little misty in any context.
What I liked most was the way the world of the movie treated the Muppets so nonchalantly. My favorite Muppet Show episodes are ones where the guest star behaves as if the Muppets are completely ordinary, where requesting a 6-foot-tall talking parrot to sing Gilbert and Sullivan with you is a normal and expected thing to do, at least at this theater. In The MuppetsGary can throw Walter over the fence. He'd presumably never try that with Mary, even if she asked. Fozzie can play in a lounge in Reno and Gonzo can run a company (complete with chicken secretary) and nobody bats an eye. The Muppets feel real because they are real, which is why I'm such a sucker for puppetry in general. If there was a modern special effect in this movie, I couldn't spot it, and being in that fully-created world gave the movie a lot of charm.
Just not enough charm. The whole thing felt too packaged to me, too carefully crafted to push those memory buttons. I don't fully believe that you can't have the Muppets without Jim Henson and Frank Oz, but so much of the joy of their work is the looseness of it, the way they play off of each other in this completely natural way, even as they crouch unnaturally under the furniture. One of my favorite things is this blooper reel from Emmet Otter's Jug Band Christmas, in which the puppets break character but the puppeteers (Oz and Jerry Nelson) never do. You'd think they'd want to lower their arms! But you get the sense that they could do this all day, and that the puppets really are an extension of them. I think that's why replacing that original cast, at least to play the old characters, never quite works. It's not just like seeing a new actor play James Bond. It's like if Daniel Craig somehow took over Sean Connery's body. But I digress…my point is that the original Muppet team, both in front of and behind the camera, had a chemistry that plenty of modern ensembles have, but that this movie lacked. It felt too by-the-numbers, too "Ready, 30-somethings? LAUGH!" for me to completely give in to it emotionally, even as I DID laugh. It was a bit like watching a Muppet tribute band, which, given a major plot point in the film, was kind of ironic.
It's worth noting that I saw The Muppets with two actual children - Boy's nieces, aged 11 and 6 - who liked the movie a lot, despite never having seen The Muppet Show. So maybe I'm totally off base. I wonder how much of it they got, but they have favorite Muppets now (Animal and Miss Piggy, respectively), and I can only take that as a good thing. I will happily sit them down for a classic Muppet marathon at any time…if I can get them to turn off iCarly and Spongebob for more than five seconds.