Monday, November 28, 2011

Saturday, November 26, 2011

A Muppet Caper, Albeit Not A Great One

In Greek, nostalgia literally means the pain from an old wound. It’s a twinge in your heart, far more powerful than memory alone. This device isn’t a space ship, it’s a time machine. It goes backwards, forwards. It take
s us to a place where we ache to go again. It’s not called a wheel, it’s called a carousel. It lets us travel the way a child travels. Round and a round, and back home again. To a place where we know we are loved.

- Don Draper (video here)

The Muppets are the one thing from my ch
ildhood for which I feel genuine nostalgia, the

refore it was with a skeptical eye that I viewed the new movie “The Muppets.” While a film like this has the advantage of a built-in fanbase and material, it also runs up against the challenge of competing against all of the pre-established Muppet canon: ie in order to be successful this movie has to be better than watching three back-to-back episodes of “The Muppet Show” on DVD.

It is not. The film is a failure, albeit an admirable one.

What they did right

The smartest thing the filmmakers did was with their protagonist, Walter. Using him,
a was a very clever idea. And his serving as the impetus for Kermit to “get the band back together” and host a reunion show, with hijinks along the way, was a great premise. There were also a ton of great in-
jokes and references to reward the long-time fan. long-time Muppet fan, as the vehicle through which we rediscover these beloved characters

The music is terrific, particularly the opening song (“Life’s A Happy Song”), which is wonderfully catchy, upbeat, and non-ironic.

The movie left me expecting a cameo from the Flight of the Conchords (which of course would have been perfect), though I didn’t know that FotCC’s Bret McKenzie was the music director. That is an indication that he’s succeeded in setting the same tone with the film as his TV show.

Pixar’s opening short “Small Fry,” a cartoon showing the “Toy Story” cast with their new owner, is the best part of the whole film. (This is, I will freely admit, a back-handed compliment.)

Kermit has a robot butler named 80s Robot. I found this hilarious.

What they did wrong

Well, basically everything else. First off the movie is horribly paced, dragging through an unusually long 98-minute run time full of too many maudlin sequences and too few actual jokes. Like an episode of the old timey “Muppet Show,” this movie needed to be jammed with sight gags and throw-away lines that the director hurls at the audience at a frenetic pace. Instead we got a lot of filler, much of it involving some falling out between Piggy and Kermit that wasn’t funny the last 12 times they did that.

The human characters were not terrible, but they also added exactly nothing. What was the title of the movie? The Muppets not The Humans. Every scene with them was an unnecessary distraction from the huge cast of Muppet characters, the movie’s villains, and our protagonist Walter. Gonzo, who was basically the star of every Muppet movie from “A Muppet Christmas Carol” on, has maybe five lines in the whole thing!

They did a lot of breaking of the fourth wall (“This is going to be a short movie!”, etc.), but they don’t really go all the way with it. One of the beauties of this kind of Muppet humor is the way they would always make fun of themselves and their own reliance on stilted clichés … and yet for a movie that is full of clichés and hackey plot contrivances, they leave a lot of jokes on the table. The movie is full of product placement, but they never make fun of it. The villain’s scheme is eye-rollingly uncreative (oil? really?), but never gets made fun of.

Also the cameos could have been cooler … while they have a lot of great cameos, they’re a bit mismanaged:
  • Jim from The Office doesn't even have a line
  • As mentioned above, a Conchords cameo would have been great
  • David Grohl appears but not during the Nirvana song
  • Elmo should have volunteered as their celebrity guest star
  • Tina Fey needed to appear alongside her Muppet alter-ego

  • How they could have fixed it

    OK so apart from cutting out the massive amount of filler and replacing it with jokes, the main thing they needed to fix was the climax. The idea of doing a show as the climax is great, a la “A Mighty Wind,” but they made some crucial mistakes. Rather than just feature a series of cool musical numbers, the third act is full of plot twists, villains coming back yet again, and some stupid relationship crap with the humans.

    The stupidest part is how the show-stopping finale is this whistling number that the Walter character pulls out of his Muppet-behind at the last minute, which is performed right after this show-stopping rendition of “Rainbow Connection.” WHAT THEY NEEDED TO DO was have Walter backstage, unable to find his confidence, until he sees some old interviews with Jim Henson, a montage that reminds us the Muppets ran out of popularity because this man was taken 25 years too early, leaving the entire audience in tears. Something in the same spirit as this:

    (Henson's name isn't even mentioned in the film, and we just see a photo of him for a fraction of a second!)

Then Walter sings “Rainbow Connection.” You’d have to establish along the way that he had learned to play the banjo, which would have made sense if he hero-worshipped Kermit. It’d be easy to do something like that … which of course they didn’t with his bizarre, super-human whistling abilities. Then right after “Rainbow” cut straight to the denouement without any more business with the villains.

Also they go to copious lengths to set up that Animal’s anger management prevents him from playing the drums, but it never delivers. He just starts playing the drums at some point, and nothing happens. Animal should have lost control and wiped the villains out in one stroke, instead the day is saved by this random character from the episode with Vincent Price...

...a character who has an oddly large presence in the film and more lines than Gonzo.


I do not understand how this movie is getting such good reviews. Rotten Tomatoes has it at an astonishing 98 percent, but it’s a cinematic failure. However, you can definitely tell that the people who made it love the Muppets, which is why it’s less obnoxious than you might expect. I really wanted the film to be good, and if they’d made some changes it could have been great. But if people enjoy something that I didn't, it doesn't bother me and if it gets a few more kids watching “The Muppet Show” on DVD, then that’s a success.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Thursday shows roundup - 11/17

OK so this is going to be pretty weak, but that's what it deserves. The only one worth watching this week was Parks and Rec, and even then that wasn't great. The will-they/won't-they with Ben and Leslie isn't working. We've seen this a million times before and we don't want to see it here. We want Leslie to be happy.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

TV show round up - 11/10/2011

#1 Community

So in an unusual turn of events, Community wins this week. The episode relies on eccentric interplay between the different characters in an everyday situation without becoming gimmicky. We see the classic "Jeff is kind of a rogue and has to learn lessons" and the Britta/Shirley interchange in the car works really well. Note that they seem to have completely forgotten that Shirley got pregnant, had a baby, and remarried her ex-husband -- a storyline which was completely forgettable. Allison Brie is perfect in this ep too.

#2 The Office

The antics between Dwight/Pam and Jim are hilarious. Robert California owns every scene he's in.

#3 Parks and Rec

So this has gotta be the only time Parks and Rec came in last place on this ... the episode isn't terrible, but the Ben/Leslie "they want to but they musn't!" is such a played trope and it's not much fun to watch. All the stuff with Ron and Tom is terrific, of course, and April insisting that she's "the moon" hits just the right tone for the character.

I do love how the typically self-effacing, modest Leslie can finally brag on herself talking about Model UN.


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