Muppets Most Wanted review

On Saturday, 29 March 2014, Janice and I screened Muppets Most Wanted at the AMC Burlington Cinema 10. We enjoyed the latest film from Disney/Henson a bit more than its 2011 predecessor.

Muppets Most Wanted
More Muppet mania

As you might expect, Muppets Most Wanted combines self-aware puppets, celebrity cameos, and musical hijinks to good effect. The plot is simple enough for most children to follow: Immediately after the events of The Muppets, Kermit the Frog is sent to a Russian gulag in a case of mistaken identity, while his lookalike criminal Constantine takes his place as master of ceremonies as part of a devious plan.

I didn’t miss Jason Segal or Amy Adams, thanks to strong casting. There were many fun appearances in Muppets Most Wanted‘s globe-hopping story, but the main supporting actors are worth singling out. Ricky Gervais, playing Constantine’s henchman Dominic Badguy as smarmily as Charles Grodin was in The Great Muppet Caper, to which this movie owes several stylistic debts.

Tina Fey joins the song and dance show as Nadya, guard captain at the Russian Gulag (and a ringer for Rocky & Bullwinkle‘s Natasha). Ty Burrell matches wits with Sam the Eagle as Interpol Inspector Jean Paul Napoleon, who apparently went to the same academy as Inspector Clouseau.

As you might guess from the above, the movie does lean heavily on national stereotypes, but the jokes are clever enough for adults and broad enough for children without resorting to potty humor. The puppeteers can’t quite match the frenetic energy and raw talent of Jim Henson and Frank Oz, but they get pretty close.

Unlike some critics, I liked that the overall tone of Muppets Most Wanted was a bit more upbeat than that of The Muppets, and I thought its script and soundtrack were better. As with Mr. Peabody & Sherman, it’s hard to balance nostalgia with the expectations of today’s audiences, not to mention keeping a beloved franchise going into the future.

Overall, I’d give Muppets Most Wanted, which is rated PG for slapsticky humor and mild innuendo, an 8 out of 10, four out of five stars, or a B+. The Lego Movie is still the best family movie I’ve seen so far this year, but not by much.

This coming weekend, I hope to see superhero sequel Captain America [2]: the Winter Soldier. In between game updates, I still hope to post thoughts on the current genre television season and more!

Memento mori

We typically celebrate new life in spring, but it’s late this year. One downside of reaching middle age is that we recognize obituaries more than new people entering public life. The recent deaths of Muppet co-founder Jane Henson, film critic Roger Ebert, comic book artist Carmine Infantino are reminders of our mortality and that life is precious. There is always war and suffering in the world, but we tend to focus on individuals.

Promise of resurrection
We shall all return to the earth

After traveling to Chicago a few months ago for the wedding of my cousin’s daughter, Janice and I have dealt with less pleasant family news. Her Uncle Greg, who was always friendly and upbeat, died after a painful illness (at least partly caused by exposure to chemicals during the Vietnam War). We attended his wake and funeral in Pennsylvania, and it was evident from the turnout that he was much beloved by his community.

My cousin Socorro, who had taken me under her wing when I first visited my mother’s side of the family in the Philippines back in the 1970s, died unexpectedly in a fall. She had worked as a nurse in the U.S. and helped move me into college. Socorro returned home after illness, and her kind spirit will also be missed.

Three of my friends are still fighting cancer, and my thoughts are with them and their families. In the meantime, I have college chum David I.S.’s visit and a wedding in Upstate New York to look forward to later this month. No time to waste!

Death and humanism, Part 2: The Muppets

The Muppet Show characters
It’s time to meet the Muppets!

I’ve been a fan of the late Jim Henson‘s creations since watching Sesame Street and the original Muppet Show as a child in the 1970s. Henson’s gentle humor didn’t talk down to children, nor was he afraid of including adult jokes that sailed over the heads of then-innocent younger audiences.

Janice has an Animal puppet, and I have a Kermit the Frog — both from before we met. We’ve attended exhibitions of Henson’s work at the Smithsonian Institution and other museums, and we met his widow and son Brian, among other puppeteers. Henson’s gifts of joy and wonder have continued to appeal for generations, but is The Muppets as entertaining as its predecessors? Also, are we able to enjoy our foam and felt friends as we once did?

The good news is that director James Bobin and actor and co-writer Jason Segal have made a strong effort to be faithful to Henson’s spirit and to keep the Muppets as wacky as ever. The Muppets is filled with celebrity cameos, allows us to revisit familiar characters and songs, and should be fast-paced enough for the children of original fans.

The movie follows brothers Gary (Segal) and Walter (voiced by Peter Linz) as they grow up and eventually visit the dilapidated Muppet Studios. Walter uncovers a plot by evil oil baron Tex Richman (Chris Cooper) to buy and tear down the Muppets’ former digs, so Gary drags his girlfriend Mary (Amy Adams) along for the ride to reunite the Muppets and hold a telethon to save the theater.

Segal’s love for the Muppets is apparent, and Oscar nominee (and future Lois Lane) Adams’ talents, first seen in Enchanted, are put to good use for various songs. The bucolic Smalltown is nicely contrasted with the Muppets’ latest road trip and the glamorous yet seedy Los Angeles. Cooper is surprisingly game as the villain, even breaking into a rap number, and Rashida Jones is an impatient studio executive.

Other cameos include the indefatigable Mickey Rooney, musician Dave Grohl, and actors Alan Arkin and Emily Blunt. Comedians Whoopi Goldberg, Zach Galifianakis, Jim Parsons, Sarah Silverman, and Jack Black also appear, continuing a tradition from the TV series and 1979 movie.

With iconic characters such as Superman, Mickey Mouse, and Bugs Bunny, their supporting casts grow over the decades and often overshadow them, so I was glad to see the focus back on Kermit in this year’s Muppets. Gonzo, Rizzo the Rat, and Pepe the Prawn are all present, but not dominant. I miss Henson as the voice of the friendly frog, but there were numerous visual cues to his ensemble variety show (one of the best, along with The Carol Burnett Show).

At the same time, I understand why Frank Oz — the original voice of Miss Piggy, Yoda, and many more — chose to step away from this production. I think the filmmakers tried to honor Henson’s idealism, but they were a bit down on the franchise, saying, “It has been years since we were together in the public eye,” even though Disney and Henson Studios have put out several Muppet movies.

There were a few times in The Muppets when Kermit seemed even more discouraged or Miss Piggy was even more of a diva than usual, but I think they were balanced out by the overall sweetness of the script and live-action supporting cast. To me, the moments that felt true included a barbershop quartet singing Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and chickens clucking Cee Lo Green’s “Forget You.”

We also saw The Muppet Show‘s opening credits from a new angle, Animal in anger management therapy, as well as old favorites such as “Rainbow Connection.” Overall, I’d recommend The Muppets to anyone who’s still a kid at heart. (The recent comic books weren’t bad, either.) The movie is rated PG-13 for humor and slapstick, and I’d give The Muppets a B+, a 7.5 out of 10, or about three out of five stars. I’m glad I was able to see the film with fellow fans.

My favorite Muppet movies are The Muppet Movie, Muppet Christmas Carol, and Muppets From Space (I’d put The Muppets on par with the last one). I’m less fond of The Great Muppet Caper, The Muppets Take Manhattan, and Muppet Treasure Island. There are also several fun holiday specials — I’m partial to Emmet Otter’s Jug Band — and other TV shows, such as Fraggle Rock and The Storyteller.

Like Segal and company, I’m not sure that many children with their noses in videogames or being shuttled from soccer to dance practice and homework will appreciate The Muppets, but as with classic Star Trek, I think it’s worth making an effort to expose them to Henson’s humanist values of playful curiosity, determination in the face of adversity, and most importantly, kindness and acceptance of all.

Despite an untimely death, Jim Henson left a legacy of family-friendly entertainment as well as more mythic material, such as Labyrinth, The Dark Crystal, and Farscape. I’ve got posters of the Muppets and Farscape cast on my bedroom walls, “It’s Not Easy Being Green” on my lips, and a little bit of Henson in my heart.