Directed by James Bobin
2011, 98 mins., Rated PG
The Muppets occupy Hollywood? Well, not really. Perhaps (if this movie had been made a bit later), a Muppets encounter with the Occupy movement might have made for a more interesting reboot of the franchise. As it is, The Muppets is an often charming and funny film that is weighed down by its very slightness and over dependence on worn out kid’s movie clichés. While kids and their Generation X parents will get a kick out of the familiar nuttiness, self-parody, celebrity cameos, and pop culture references, “The Muppets” doesn’t entirely live up to the 98 percent positive rating it racked up on Rottentomatoes.com.
The film’s plot is a textbook example of what Slavoj Zizek calls “Hollywood Marxism”-when the villain is a greedy corporate type, who is defeated by a reassertion of the socially-redeeming underlying values of good ‘ol Free Enterprise. The Muppets version more accurately could be called Disney Marxism: it’s the triumph of the Little Guy-the theme the House of Mouse is so famous for. Here, the bad capitalist is oilman Tex Richman (Chris Cooper), who plans to foreclose on the Muppet Theater in order to tear it down and drill for oil.
The only way Kermit the Frog can save the theater is to raise $10 million so he can buy it back from Richman. Meanwhile, an emerging Muppet named Walter arrives in Hollywood on vacation from Smalltown, U.S.A. with his human brother, Gary (Jason Segel), and Gary’s fiancée of 10 years, Mary (Amy Adams). They arrive just in time to help Kermit reunite the gang and put on a telethon to raise the money. Complications arise with Miss Piggy’s diva antics and Tex Richman’s greedy tenacity: at a key moment in the film, he evicts the Muppets from their theater by thundering: “this is private property!”
Despite the self-referential silliness that characterizes the film (characters are constantly calling attention to the film’s budget, musical numbers, use of montage, etc.) the film doesn’t apply this satirical grounding to the film’s central premise: we’re supposed to be cheering Kermit as he raises this huge amount of capital for a real estate purchase. The fun and frivol of “putting on a show” proves to be an expediency for assembling gobs of cash in this recession-free universe.
Further, Kermit is a “little guy” in stature, but not status. He lives, like a one-percenter, in a mansion! The class differences among the Muppets go unexplained and unexplored: entertainment mogul Kermit and Vogue editor Miss Piggy are clearly “bourgeois,” and Gonzo even owns a toilet factory. But other second-tier Muppets like Fozzie Bear have to sweat it out as wage earners. In one funny scene, we find Fozzie working in a cheesy casino, fronting a faux-Muppet band called the “Moopets,” with Dave Grohl filling in for Animal on drums.
Class analysis aside, “The Muppets” is at it’s best when it indulges in anarchic wackiness and unapologetic nonsense. The best bits are most reminiscent of the original TV show, such as when Gonzo’s chickens perform Ceelo Green’s “Forget You.” Another engaging aspect of the movie is the way the Muppet and human universes intersect and commingle: at times the Muppets are the serious ones, and the humans behave like cartoon characters, and vice versa. This aspect of Muppet-human tensions ties into the film’s other main theme: the need to grow up and find one’s identity. Both Muppet Walter and human Gary realize they haven’t yet “found” themselves; part of the film’s resolution involves their finding their places in their respective worlds.
Jason Segel, who co-wrote the film, clearly demonstrates a special relationship to the material and has a good sense for the Muppets’ humor. He also seems to have a sense for the audience-a lot of the gags are targeted to Gen Xers who grew up with the Muppets. For example, Kermit’s butler/chauffeur is “Eighties Robot,” a dingy toy robot that spouts outdated phrases like “gag me with a spoon.” This approach would be natural for Segel-after all, he originally appeared in “Freaks & Geeks,” the short-lived TV show about eighties youth that became a Gen X touchstone.
Although the film flirts with “deep” themes, nothing is taken too seriously (which is good). Problems are solved almost as soon as they arise, with a song and dance number and plenty of schmaltz. The storytelling at times feels like it’s on autopilot, and the film’s sweetness veers towards saccharine. Chris Cooper should’ve put a “no rapping” clause in his contract. Still, it’s a good time, and provides an excellent springboard for a discussion with the kids about economics and private property!