The back story goes something like this – in 2008, Jason Segel finds commercial success with a quirky comedy he wrote and starred in called Forgetting Sarah Marshall. The surprise hit offers the opportunity for Segel (who has now joined up with FSM’s director Nicholas Stoller) to a pitch meeting at the “House the Mouse built”, where they help convince the studio brass that they should be entrusted with reinvigorating one of the key brands of the Disney Empire. Almost four years later, we find what that meeting hath wrought – a self aware, unapologetically maudlin exercise in nostalgia and sheer entertainment, The Muppets.
Almost everyone born in the 70s and early 80s was practically raised by Hensonian creatures. Sesame-named streets led to a weekly variety show littered with the likes of Victor Borge and Mummenschanz. The Muppet Show introduced me to Paul Simon, Elton John, Alice Cooper, and Steve Martin. The rough assemblage of skits and song was itself dripping with nostalgia, a throwback to vaudeville and music hall where Fozzie’s jokes were even older than the shtick Milton Berle and George Burns would trot on stage to deliver.
All this led to The Muppet Movie, a near perfect time capsule for that time period, with wacky cameos and timeless songs crafted in part by the real-life Muppet Paul Williams. Subsequent films seemed to juvenilize the plots to the point where their last outing in 2005 was an awkward retelling of the Oz story.
Segel and Stoller have made a film more about what it feels to love the Muppets than any particular continuation of the past films. It’s a spiritual successor to The Muppet Movie, even including a theatrical recasting of the “Rainbow Connection” setting and a throwaway line by Sweetums shot at the original location in L.A. to make the point clear. Plotwise, it’s not exactly an exercise in originality, but the film does manage to play with expectations, diverging slightly at times from the cliché-ridden narrative path. We do get to ask such deep, metaphysical questions such as “Am I a man or a Muppet?”, and the filmmakers manage to add dollops of the surreal throughout.
Both Segel and Amy Adams, hailing from “Smalltown, USA”, provide the core human-actor element, along with a capable ensemble cast. While the voice of Jim Henson has been silenced for some time, the new generation of Muppeteers do exceptionally well in giving a wide range of emotions through the performances, and forgiving some changes in the timbre of some of the voices, it’s like the old gang is back together again.
This is a film unafraid to go broad with its range of emotions – for some it may be grating or even cloying, but if you’re prepared to settle into its charms, it’s a hell of a film. It’s got great moments of fun and frivolity, winking cameos and wonderful, catchy songs – It was a stroke of genius that they tasked Flight of the Conchords’ Brett McKenzie with the tunesmithing.
It has recently been announced that Segel has stepped away from the already announced sequel to this reboot, and that maybe a good thing. He and his partners have done well to reintroduce to an entirely new generation what made the Muppets so great in the first place, and hopefully new voices can be added so that they’ll continue to remain vital for years to come.
Disney has packaged The Muppets in a 2-disc “Wocka Wocka” edition that includes the Blu-Ray, a DVD (for your minivan?) and a digital download of the soundtrack (which for me accepted the code and then wouldn’t let me download the damn songs… ah, DRM).
The video (encoded in AVC, for those that care) is impeccable. You can practically stroke the felt of Kermit’s collar, so clear is the picture. The film is shot with loads of gloss, and the high production value shines through in this presentation. On home viewing I could even pick out the small details in the sets, including a lovely photo stuck on a dressing room mirror showing one of the African mask Muppets that sang with Belafonte on my favourite episode of the original show.
Similarly excellent is the soundtrack. Presented in a 7.1 home mix, this is reference material. The songs sound terrific, the explosions have “oomph”, and dialogue is always impeccably clear.
Intermission: There’s part clever, party completely annoying feature on the film – when you pause, instead of, well, pausing your film, you get a red curtained screen, with a number of Muppets popping in to say “Hi” on a random basis. You then get a brief clip from one of the supplemental materials on the disc. It’s certainly keeping in character with the film, but when you actually DO want to pause the film for a moment, it can quickly become annoying
Unfortunately, for the more aged of film nerds, there’s a slight lack of adult-aimed materials that they’ve added to the disc. Sure, we get a sense of the making of the film, but it’s all done “in character”, sure to entertain any nascent Muppet fan. While I might have revelled in video features showing the nuts-and-bolts about how they shoot a modern Muppet masterpiece, I’m sure for most these so-called “extras” will more than suffice.
Audio Commentary: This is the section where they can nerd out, but unfortunately Stoller and Segel, joined by director James Bobin (Flight of the Conchords), do little more than have a jokey, superficial discussion of this (and other) films. They do reveal some of the more challenging moments, but in all it’s a pretty disappointing commentary. I did appreciate, however, their clear love of the source material, and their occasional (though not frequent enough!) discussions of the humans behind the actual Muppets we’re falling in love with on screen.
Scratching the Surface (16 min): This is a tongue-in-cheek version of an EPK. While it’s as uninformative as almost every other EPK, this one’s doing so in a self-reflexive way that’s quite humorous (at least for one viewing).
The Longest Blooper Reel Ever. At Least In Muppet History… We Think (9 min): It’s completely insane to me that the Muppeteers can stay in character when flubbing lines, their hands still moving in time to their missed dialogue. You sometimes have to worry about their mental states, I fear.
Deleted Scenes (10 min): There are eight deleted scenes, all pretty fun by themselves, none so fantastic that you can’t understand why they struck them from the well paced theatrical version.
Explaining Evil: The Full Tex Richman Song (4 min): We get the full Chris Cooper rap here, sounding even more FOTC than the theatrical version (if possible). Almost cringe worthy, it’s really good they cut that down the way they did.
A Little Screen Test on the Way to the Read-Through (3 min): Another silly, cheap gag, but what the heck, more Muppets! That being said, these little bonus moments remind me more of what the latter films have tended to be like without the solid writing behind them.
Theatrical Spoof Trailers: I am so pleased these were included on discs – one of the more brilliant things Disney did leading up the film was to constantly surprise with these twisted takes on competing trailers. It’s a nice take on the power of editing, and a great little time capsule showcasing the films of 2011.
Soundtrack: Rather than including another shinydisc, you get a code to download the music from the film. The Oscar winning music… An Oscar given to a member of FOTC. Jeez, even typing this fact seems weird…
This all could have gone very, very wrong – Segel and Stoller’s script managed to thread a very fine needle, and have done nothing less than reclaimed for the Muppets their rightful place as incredibly relevant. In a world where CGI meatballs and Latina explorers entertain kids, it’s nice to be reminded that sometimes life can be a happy song, especially when there’s a green frog and friends there to sing along.
This review also appears at CriticizeThis.ca