THE FELT-LINED COUNTDOWN: The Muppets

11 May, 2019 at 8:38 pm (film, muppets)

PREVIOUSLY: Three years after this, the next film picks up mere seconds after this film’s conclusion, and dueling Kermits vie for control of the troupe in a trope-filled trip across Europe.

TITLE CARD: The Muppets (2011)

Well, it’s a small thing, but the second The Muppets begins, with the above title card floating in a hazy 4:3 aspect ratio in the middle of a wide screen, this film marks itself as separate from all other Muppet films: by unadorned use of pop music. The Muppet Show was, of course, no stranger to either use of or focus on a contemporary hit or a died-in-the-wool radio classic, let alone folk songs or ballads. But while covers and musical guests filled out the television shows, the films have always seemed to eschew anything except original music. The Muppets has its fair share of original songs, but the very first impression is one of nostalgia, deliberately evoked by Paul Simon’s ’72 release “Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard”. For a film that’s about creating a bridge between the current generation and the previous, culminating in a demonstration that the fans of the Muppets never really went away, it’s a clear (possibly manipulative) way of evoking the past. This is undercut only by the fact that young people may not actually connect with a chipper playground tune by half of a sixties folk-duo, and not-young people, like me, may have the song already firmly and inexorably assigned in their heads to the Royal Tenenbaums montage.

About a third of the way through the film, we have a second pop needle-drop, with the accumulated Muppets rebuilding the dilapidated Muppet Studios to a montage of Starship’s “We Built This City”, a tune I still vividly associate with watching animation from Kidd Video one Saturday morning in 1985. It’s a strange choice, in that apparently it’s a song that has largely been reduced to the internet’s lazy choice for “worst song ever” (an achievement I usually still reserve for Dave Barry’s choice of “MacArthur Park”), and again therefore doesn’t seem like the likeliest of affecting bridges between the old generation and the new.

The next two homages feel more appropriate: two skits in the Muppet Telethon do a good job of capturing the kind of viral reappropriation the Muppets had excelled at in 2008 and 2009. The first is the eyebrow raising of Camilla and the chickens covering Cee Lo Green’s “Fuck You” — a very strange thing to see as the title of an entry in the Muppet Wikia pages — which is fun in that since the entire song is performed in Chicken, the existence of profanity is skated over, but still feels like an edgy choice for a Disney production. Similarly, the necessity of kids having to ask their parents, “Hey, what’s a “libido”?” is handily evaded by having Beaker sing and therefore garble that particular word in the barbershop quartet cover of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit”.

A mulatto, an albino, a mosquito, mee mee mee mo(Both these songs, by the way, are performed in abbreviated versions in the film’s montage of the telethon numbers, but get full, extended versions on the soundtrack. I gambled the the $1.29 each on iTunes, and it turns out I much prefer the full-length editions. “Teen Spirit” removes all of the Jack Black, thus emphasizing the barbershop quartet harmonies, and “Cluck You” enjoyably pushes its simple punchline to a full two minutes, twenty-eight seconds.)

It’s a curious blend of Muppet Show technique with Muppet Movie expectations, culminating in a cast-wide rendition of “Rainbow Connection”, perhaps the Muppets’ most famous contribution to pop culture. Henson was always interested in pushing the boundaries of filmmaking and each Muppet film, as well as Labyrinth and The Dark Crystal elevated puppetry at an inventive and technical level. However, this is not how they’re commonly thought of, and whether that’s because filmmaking technique is an illusion unappreciated by most audiences or because even the Academy tended to think of the films as family fare and therefore beneath acclaim is a thesis best investigated by someone else. Instead, I will more simply posit that it seems clear that the Muppets are associated with music, and the original songs from the films are loved and respected. Which makes The Muppets interesting in two aspects. Firstly, the very existence of juke-box additions to the canon (which have mostly disappeared by Most Wanted, if one ignores both “I Hope I Get It” and “Working on a Coal Mine” from the gulag variety show), and secondly that The Muppets was the first film to finally crack the Oscar® ceiling.

A Man and a Muppet and a Muppet and a Man“Man or a Muppet” struck me as a clever combination of fun and melodrama when I first watched the film in cinemas. I enjoyed the strange appearance of Jim Parsons as the human version of Walter, and the slightly unflattering version of Jason Segel in Muppet form. I was pleased when it won the Oscar®, even if its competition was unusually lacking that year, which takes a little bit of the oomph out of the victory. It’s a significant accomplishment from which I wouldn’t want to detract. However, I did find that the song didn’t hold up upon repeat viewing. Its visual drama remained, but the emotional impact didn’t, and the lyrics revealed themselves as particularly lacking in complication or nuance, particularly when compared to the more creatively varied verses in Most Wanted.

In fact, I generally found that The Muppets suffered significantly upon second viewing. Many bits that I remember enjoying lay flatter on the screen now that I was no longer in the mood to cheer for the Muppets’ return. It had proved itself successful, and I allowed myself to be slightly more critical, and found many odd flaws in its construction. My first genuine laugh came during the introduction of Amy Adams’ character Mary, with the absurdity of her teaching kindergartners to repair a car and that they were sad at the approach of a week off from school. And then when these skills as an electrician came back to have a practical plot purpose later in the film, I was simultaneously pleased and disappointed. I think I prefer it when absurdism is its own reward. A similar chord was struck with Chris Cooper’s character’s inability to laugh. I remember thinking this was hilarious — the kind of deconstructive touch that I was enjoying throughout the script — and to have a person say “Maniacal Laugh” instead of doing one was pleasantly nuts. In practice, the second time ’round, I found myself picking apart Cooper’s performance: why was the way he said “Maniacal laugh…” so lacking in mania? It fell limply off the screen now that I was expecting it. And later when Uncle Deadly decides to switch sides and show “that’s a maniacal laugh for you!” I was again irritated that a surrealist element was rendered concrete by giving it a plot purpose.

Sometimes the deconstructive touch worked wonders. I thought the scene where Walter does an Edward G. Robinson-esque impression of Cooper, and it’s immediate misdirect with the Star Maps was concentrated genius. And I particularly liked the way that it was like pulling teeth for Walter to make his point to Kermit that the Muppets provided people with the third greatest gift ever.
Children, Ice Cream, and then... Laughter! The third greatest gift ever!

Also the Third-Best Male Athlete of the Year, ’99-’00

Speaking of, let’s reinvestigate Walter. In the Most Wanted review, I spoke of his uselessness and that I had a general recollection of being dissatisfied with his role as savior of The Muppets. I don’t like to jump on TVTropes or various internet bandwagons, as I feel like they are used to dismiss instead of evaluate. Walter’s role is to be a Muppets superfan, someone to show them they are still loved and to bring them back from a self-imposed obscurity. This is difficult, as it means he’s supposed to be a stand-in for the intended audience — young, naive, open to wonder and excitement — but also for the veteran audience — knowledgeable about all things Muppets, wanting to restore the cast to their former glory. It’s an uncomfortable fit for him to have both things projected on to him.

The other aspect that makes him irritatingly close to being a trope is the way in which people listen to him. Walter’s introduction to Kermit is fine. He’s injured breaking in, but brought into the Frog & Pig Mansion to recover, and Kermit politely listens, but has doubts. Once they overcome his reservations and go to get everyone else together, Walter’s impact on other Muppets feels less believable. The fact that his well-chosen compliment to Gonzo is what unlocks Gonzo to use his “Destroy My Entire Plumbing Business” detonator stretches credulity, but isn’t disastrous, as we don’t mind Gonzo’s mercurial whims. But when he talks to Piggy, in her role of editor of Vogue, and she simply listens to him without ego or dismissal is simply unrealistic. He’s just some schlub! Who is he to address her by name and with such familiarity? The fact that she doesn’t simply brush him aside, just because he was part of the giant pile of people that made up “Muppet Man” is part of what makes his presence feel like he has undue influence and is more wish-fulfillment than character.

Walter’s next arc then comes out of nowhere. Fifty-two minutes in is where Kermit invites Walter to be part of the show and suddenly the issue of Does He Have Talent is thrust into the plot. This feels very strange and bolted on. The arc of the character up until this point is about belonging and identity. Jason Segel’s Gary, as his foil, is similarly immature and unable to let go of his childhood fixation. Walter’s fixation is the Muppets, but Gary’s is protecting his brother, to the detriment of his own growth and maturation. Segel plays Gary as a big, goofy naïf, which works fairly well — and may or may not be based in an awareness of the judgmental meaning of “muppet” in British slang — but makes the “Man or Muppet” number come as a sudden transition instead of a gradual realization. Gary reacts to Walter’s welcome into the Muppets with instinctive jealousy, and his arc culminates with him proudly, no longer jealously, standing in the wings after Andrew Bird’s Walter’s epic whistling number.

The celebrity operators at the Muppet TelethonBut the idea that Walter is supposed to have a talent, that he needs to perform to belong feels very bolted-on at minute fifty-two. If his arc is deciding that he’s a “very manly Muppet”, and that he can dispel his mirrored Sheldon Cooper-self into a mist of particles, then there needs to be a transition from fan to member, granted. But there’s no previous indication that such a transition would be predicated on joining in The Muppet Telethon. So when Kermit suddenly asks him to join in the production, leading to the great revelation that he can whistle the fund-raising to a epic ten million dollar close, that does feel like the story transitions from him being audience surrogate to Paste-On Savior. Why couldn’t Walter join the Muppets in a capacity like Scooter or Beauregard? Why couldn’t he somehow mastermind the phone outreach, telling callers what they’ve been missing by not seeing Muppet antics on their screens? Not everyone needs to step out onstage, and the fact that he is moved into that slot — Scooter, out of nowhere, literally says his performance will “prove [he has] what it takes to become one of the Muppets” — so that he can refuse the call and then be the linchpin for success is a false step in my eyes.

However, it would be wrong of my to say that Walter annoyed me in this movie. I think the weight of this moment is over-egged, and I think one too many strangers listened to him like his opinion was valued just because he happened to be standing next to Muppets that they knew, but he was perfectly fine as a humble, germane addition to the crew. Issues about how tall he actually is next to Jason Segel notwithstanding. (No pun intended.)

Aside from that, I just want to make sure that I mention how much I enjoyed Alan Arkin’s cameo — the Sarah Silverman and Donald Glover appearances were fun, and the Judd Hirsh and James Carville cameos were inexplicable, but Arkin really made a characteristically wonderful little meal out of his role — but that, overall the Celebrity Human Score of The Muppets lingers at a respectable 24. And it would be remiss of me to not comment on Kermit’s inexplicable outfit that he dons to stroll through a strangely fake Monmartre with Miss Piggy. It is on fleek, as the Official Scrabble Dictionary would allow me to say.

Kermit is wearing a slate grey Armani cashmere blazer accented with a stunning midnight black silk scarf...

RATING: Children, Ice Cream, or Laughter? LAUGHTER. As I mentioned earlier, I probably would have given this film a solid ICE CREAM (none of that soft-serve malarkey) upon first viewing, but on second, I see too many flaws. Most seem like directorial/editing slips of tone or pacing, because they mostly seem like there were grounded reasons for choices, but that they didn’t make it all the way to the audience.

NEXT: We finally get the grant cinematic answer to the question, “What the hell is Gonzo, anyway?”

 

Related Links:
The Muppet Wikia entry about all the different identifiable ways Muppets laugh is pretty great.
Jared Mobarek’s review of The Muppets
Two discussions about the nature of the Mary Sue as a trope, one in general and one as it applies to The Force Awakens. I found no serious discussion about whether Walter qualified.

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