Monday, April 07, 2014

Wanting More Muppets

I had wanted to get this written earlier, but now I'm glad I waited (forgot) because I want to argue with nearly every other review of it I've read and heard.

I was a little giddy after seeing Muppets Most Wanted, not just because I enjoyed it, but because I enjoyed it for all the right reasons. Unlike The Muppets, MMW is an actual movie, not a nostalgia machine carefully crafted in a lab. While it picks up where it left off (literally), with the gang newly reunited and enjoying their renewed popularity (a relative term in the Muppets' world, as they perform their show in the fleabaggiest of venues -- which is totally believable for a vaudeville show in 2014), there is an actual plot that doesn't simply revolve around meta-commentary and "Hey, look! The Muppets are back!" There are elements of The Great Muppet Caper and The Muppets Take Manhattan but its not a retread of either of those movies. The story felt wholly original to me (within the confines of heist and prison movies), and it was encouraging to see that the Muppets could do something sort of new. Like The Muppets, a great deal of attention is paid to a new character, but this time that character isn't Walter (he's still around but he's just part of the group now, unspecial). Constantine is a delight. He's a great, goofy, not-as-bright-as-he-thinks-he-is villain firmly rooted in the Muppet tradition, and he also manages to acknowledge, send up, and almost even solve the Jim Henson problem by making a bad Kermit impression a central plot point.

I hate to say it, because I generally like his work and he seems like an all around good guy, but I think the main problem with The Muppets was Jason Segel. With his fanboy sensibilities gone, the rest of the creative team was left to come up with new ideas and tell a real story. And with no need to reintroduce the Muppets, they could get right to it.

There was one early joke that told me I would love this movie, and I'm going to spoil it because it's in the first five minutes. In the opening number, the gang suggests various types of movies they could make for their sequel. As they cut between quick gags parodying different genres, there's a black and white shot of the Swedish Chef playing chess with Death, singing a subtitled lyric. I was in. Later there's a not exactly obscure but not exactly obvious either musical theater reference that seems like it's going to be a throwaway gag but winds up being an entire number, complete with what I'm pretty sure is the original choreography. These are buttons I'd much rather have pushed than the obvious nostalgia ones, and this movie felt made for me.

As with The Muppets, I like how this is just a world in which Muppets and humans coexist. It's well-populated, not just with our heroes but with extras in the background, even outside of the theater. And they were recognizable (notably the dancers in suits with Muppet feet, hands and heads who I've always found creepy and who I always associate with Liza Minnelli's "Copacabana") who sparked nostalgia in me but not in a heavy handed way. They were just there, because why wouldn't they be? Those guys have to go home after the show, right? 

Reading reviews of this movie (and listening to Slate's great (if 100% wrong) Spoiler Special), I was struck over and over again by how critics kept saying how great the last movie had been, and how this one paled in comparison. I had to go back and read my own review again to see if I'd soured on the film over time. Nope. My memory of my impressions is completely accurate. 

The fairest criticisms are that there's too much attention paid to the humans and that Kermit is on his own in a totally different movie. I get that, but I don't agree. The three main humans (Ricky Gervais, Tina Fey and Ty Burrell) are almost never seen without Muppet scene partners (Constantine, Kermit and Sam), and it's not really any different from Segel and Amy Adams' primary roles in the first movie. It's true that The Muppet Movie was an almost all-Muppet world, with humans mostly serving as cameos, but humans played major parts in The Great Muppet Caper and The Muppets Take Manhattan and always on The Muppet Show. Here, the lead humans got the tone exactly right, and felt like they belonged in this world. I even enjoyed Ricky Gervais' performance, which I had assumed was impossible. The cameos were, as many critics have pointed out, mostly superfluous (some stars literally showed up on screen for just one line, which is fine if you're Madeline Kahn ("Yeth?") but seems pretty pointless if you're a) not that famous and b) don't even get to interact with any Muppets), but the human leads have such great chemistry with the Muppet counterparts that they just seemed to fit. That's also why I didn't mind Kermit's exile, because he and Fey were so delightful together, and so much about the gulag is so funny and flat-out ridiculous (Danny Trejo for everything) that I never even thought about the fact that there were no other Muppets there. Still, many of the Muppets themselves felt relegated to cameos, and I wouldn't have minded spending more time with Fozzie and Animal and less with, say, Jon Hamm.

MMW isn't without its larger missteps too, notably the fantasy sequence in which Piggy and Kermit grow old together (they've never aged before but I guess that's no weirder than the original Muppet Babies fantasy sequence) and we see their absolutely horrifying offspring. The implications of a frog-pig romance have always been troubling, and it's something we should never be asked to think this much, let alone see its product. The movie generally drags a bit in the middle, and like I said too many of the original main characters are relegated to the sidelines. And come on, Miss Piggy wouldn't realize that Constantine isn't Kermit? But I quibble. I had so much fun that even the criticisms I agree with I mostly didn't notice until others pointed them out later (horrifying baby figs aside).

Maybe our responses are all about expectations. Critics who loved The Muppets found MMW inferior. I went in excited but very skeptical and was pleasantly surprised. For whatever it's worth, everyone in the audience I saw MMW with at the New York International Children's Film Festival, including adults older and younger than me and, of course, kids, seemed to be totally into it too. 

One thing I did wonder, amid the success of Constantine and the not-going-away-ness of Walter (and the perfectly valid criticisms of the sadness of hearing other people play these characters -- although I thought most of the voices were nearly perfect this time out): What would it be like if the new crop of undeniably talented Muppet performers were allowed to create their own characters? If Gonzo and Rizzo and other original Dave Goelz and Steve Whitmire characters stuck around but new ones joined them, and when their performers were ready to retire their characters did too? Basically, what if the Muppets were like SNL? Sesame Street does this successfully all the time. I don't even know when/where Pepe was introduced but he's become a Muppet star. The Muppets clearly work, and as I've said before their charm comes from their realness. Puppets work for adults and kids, and I think they always will. Why not have the courage to evolve the franchise? I'd miss Kermit and Fozzie, but I miss Jim Henson and Frank Oz more.