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Review: The Muppets (2011)

The Muppets (2011)

Directed by: James Bobin

Premise: An oil tycoon (Chris Cooper) plans to tear down the Muppet Studio. A trio of fans (Jason Segel, Amy Adams, voice of Peter Linz) track down Kermit the Frog (voice of Steve Whitmire) and convince him to reunite the Muppets for one last show in an effort to save the studio.

What Works: The Muppets is a lot of fun. The new film carries on the best elements of the previous films with memorable characters, silly gags, and amusing musical numbers. But one of the most impressive qualities of The Muppets is how it handles the world its characters inhabit. The picture recognizes the length of time since the last Muppets movie (and even longer time since a truly classic Muppets film was made) and gradually reintroduces the audience to the characters. Every movie creates its own sense of reality, or diegesis, and that has to be established within the first few minutes. The diegesis of most films is easy to recognize either because it mirrors most people’s daily life or because it shares the rules and expectations of other movies. But the diegesis of the Muppets has always been awkward. On the one hand, the cast is populated with puppets who act cartoonish but then it also has human characters that are largely bound to what the audience would recognize as reality. This is a tough combination to get right but the filmmakers manage to make it work by starting in that more recognizable human reality and then gradually moving toward Muppet reality. This eases viewers into the world of the Muppets and gives the audience a way to understand what they are seeing. It also allows for the most critical element of this or any film: creating empathy for its characters. It is hard enough to create empathy for human actors and even harder to create it for a puppet. But by staring with a largely human cast and then gradually handing the story over to the Muppets, the film does that successfully. This film introduces a new Muppet character, named Walter. This picture is really Walter’s story and by end it is a very engaging tale of a person looking for a place to belong. 

What Doesn’t: The Muppets is a nostalgic film in much the same way that Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull was nostalgic for the adventure films the early 1980s or Superman Returns was nostalgic for the Christopher Reeve Superman films. Although The Muppets is more successful than either of those other throwbacks it does suffer a little from its self-consciousness. Part of the appeal of the Muppets, especially for family audiences, is that they are wholesome and yet very entertaining; that combination is hard to find in today’s media environment. While the newest Muppets film resists contemporary trends toward edginess, the filmmaker’s deliberate attempts to avoid tainting the Muppets’ reputation holds the film back. Earlier Muppets pictures contained a certain irreverent and even anarchic quality. This Muppets film is so self-conscious and plays it so safe, hitting the audience over the head with its niceness, that the picture is a little underwhelming. Ultimately, The Muppets may be more of interest to adult viewers who grew up watching the earlier films than it will to younger viewers.

Bottom Line: The Muppets is a very entertaining film. Although it plays things a little too safe, it will be a satisfying picture both for Muppets enthusiasts and for a new generation that is unfamiliar with the characters.

Episode: #367 (December 11, 2011)