It took me a long time to write this post. This is not an easy movie for me to review. Being a GenXer who grew up watching “The Muppet Show” and “Sesame Street,” I have a soft spot for Jim Henson’s creations. Apparently, I’m not the only one. So I went to watch “The Muppets” in the theater last week, I kept thinking to myself, “Just who is the target audience here, me and my fellow GenXers, or my generation’s children?”
The 2011 movie is a love letter to Jim Henson from co-writers, Jason Segel and Nicholas Stoller, songwriter Bret McKenzie, and director James Bobin. It is also a spiritual successor to the 1979 film “The Muppet Movie;” so much so that watching it is almost mandatory in order to understand much of the 2011 film’s plot. (Not a problem for me.) Then again, all throughout Jim Henson’s works, much of his humor was geared toward the grown-ups. So by writing for himself and his generation, Segel successfully captures the original Muppet style. As much as critics point out how Henson and Frank Oz have been replaced, the Muppets remain in character. The problem with this movie has nothing to do with the original cast.
The first problem is the introduction of the newest character, Walter. Walter plays the brother of Jason Segel’s character, Gary. Walter lacks a sense of belonging, being a Muppet in a world of humans. Walter represents the bridge between the audience and the original cast, and the bridge between generations. Walter is a blank slate. He is too bland, too generic. There are plenty of generic Muppets out there as background players. But Walter is the star; he has the most air time of all the Muppets. The movie could have been better if Walter had any personality, but especially if he acted like his human brother, Segel. As Gary, Segel acts like a Muppet in a human body. He always has a “Muppet face” on: eyes wide open, with mouth agape. Granted, it’s a difficult trick to pull off, but what looks good and natural on a Muppet, looks frightfully disturbing on a human.
The second problem is the editing. The movie was cut from three hours to a run time of 108 minutes. The cuts are most notable in the blink-and-you-miss-it cameo appearances. Some celebrity appearances were left on the cutting room floor. When compared to the previous Muppet movies, where celebrities appeared in full scenes, the rapid fire cuts in this movie is inexcusable. I blame the first time movie director James Bobin for this. You can’t direct a feature-length movie the same way you would direct a TV series, or an MTV Europe Music Awards show.
My final nitpick is the climax. The plot of the climax is that they are two minutes short at the end. We all know Walter is going to pull off a show-stopping finale, so I feel no need to give a spoiler alert. But what would be a spoiler is if I told you what Walter’s “special talent” turns out to be. Because we are given no hints or foreshadowing during the film.
Don’t get me wrong. I was grinning ear-to-ear leaving the movie theater. And that’s the bottom line, as Henson surely realized. And I also love the “Toy Story” short that played before the movie. The irony is that we have two companies, Jim Henson Productions and Pixar, that have been bought by Disney because these two companies do a better job at providing family entertainment than Disney has been able to do the past couple of decades (at least since “The Lion King.”) The 2011 movie “The Muppets” ultimately succeeds because Disney took a hands-off approach to the project. Sure it’s not perfect. But it keeps the message of doing your best, believing in yourself alive. And in a cold, cynical world dominated by lowest common denominator entertainment, we need Kermit and his gang now more than ever.