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Jason Segel's THE MUPPETS proves it's time for Kermit & Co. to pack it in

by Jason Bellamy
November 26, 2011 7:15 PM
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Muppets in Car

In his effort to revitalize the brand, Jason Segel exposes his fondness for the Muppets as boldly as he exposed his naked body in Forgetting Sarah Marshall. No hidden agendas here, The Muppets is packed with full-frontal nostalgia that suggests not just Segel’s desire to relive the magic of yesteryear but also his fervent belief that the Muppets’ charms can cast an equally powerful spell today. The Muppets, which Segel co-wrote with Nicholas Stoller, opens with an outright appreciation of The Muppet Show and the not so subtle implication that Segel spent his childhood feeling as if the Muppets were part of his family. If you’re a hardcore fan and realize how much the brand’s spirit has strayed from its roots since Jim Henson’s death in 1990, this is exactly the kind of opening you want to see, and it’s equally encouraging when, not much later, Segel’s Gary and his brother Walter (a Muppet performed by Peter Linz) break into song. The film’s rousing opening number, “Life’s a Happy Song,” captures some of the cherished Henson-era optimism and sweetness in its title alone, and the lyrics have a casually playful absurdity to them that feels just right. But the capper is a massive dance routine at the end of the song, when the citizens of Smalltown, USA, come flooding into the frame to form a leg-kicking, jazz-handsing chorus, creating a spectacle that would rank among the all-time greatest Muppet moments if not for one small problem. None of them are Muppets.

Muppets Life's a happy song number

For a guy who so clearly gets the Muppets, Segel should be the first person to realize how utterly un-Hensonian this is. Henson’s Muppet movies are full of big musical performances, but always with the Muppets at the center of the action. In The Great Muppet Caper alone, there’s the black-tie dance sequence that includes Miss Piggy tap-dancing, the synchronized swimming number, also starring Piggy, and “Couldn’t We Ride,” with the whole crew on bicycles. The thrill of these Henson numbers is their audaciousness, the way Henson dared to make the Muppets part of the action in scenarios in which it seemed logistically impossible. Segel’s opening dance number takes the opposite approach. One moment Walter and Gary are singing their way through the streets, and the next moment Walter is gone, literally kicked from the frame, never to return until he’s wheeled in on luggage at the very end of the sequence as dozens of humans dance behind him. Audacious? Hardly. And it’s a sign of what’s to come. Segel’s core mistake is to repeatedly push the Muppets to the margins in a movie designed to give them the spotlight. Case in point: Of the more than 20 songs in Henson’s three Muppet movies, only one of them has a non-Muppet performer (“Piggy’s Fantasy” in Caper, in which Kermit vies with a voice-dubbed Charles Grodin, which is part of the joke). Yet of the six original songs in Segel’s film, only one of them is Muppets-only. One.

None of this is to suggest that Segel’s approach to the Muppets isn’t endearing in its own way. But The Muppets speaks to the ability of Segel and Amy Adams (as Gary’s girlfriend Mary) to be Muppet-like as often as it speaks to the appeal of the Muppets themselves. What’s particularly odd about Segel’s reboot, directed by James Bobin, is that it tends to miss most glaringly when trying hardest for the bull’s eye. Midway through the film, for example, the Muppets, who have been gathered together from far and wide to put on the traditional one-last-show, are faced with
cleaning and repairing their decrepit studio. After watching Scooter quietly push a broom for a few unproductive seconds it’s Walter who reminds the Muppets that this is the kind of stuff that they’re supposed to do to music, and he’s right. But Starship’s “We Built This City”? Uh, no. That scene might be intended as Segel’s nod to the Muppets’ recent successes on YouTube, where they covered Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” to hilarious results, but it lacks the Muppets’ own signature. It’s more like an Alvin & The Chipmunks cover: same song, different performers, no reinvention. Thus it smells like surrender, an odor that returns late in the film when the Muppets sing “Rainbow Connection” as the main act of their studio-saving telethon. Make no mistake, watching the gang
perform “Rainbow Connection” is lump-in-the-throat touching and realistic, too (not that the Muppets have ever been about realism), but it comes off like a concession – that the Muppets’ best days are behind them and the most magic we can hope for is an occasional performance of their greatest hits.

Maybe that’s true. Maybe what Segel’s film shows us is that Henson and Frank Oz, the puppeteers extraordinaire who through their voices and hands gave so many of these characters their spirit, are irreplaceable. As disappointing as it can be to watch the Muppets lose their identities in adaptations like The Muppet Christmas Carol and Muppet Treasure Island, the catch-22 of letting the Muppets be themselves is to be made increasingly aware that, with Henson and Oz gone, most of the performances can be nothing more than imitative. Credit where it’s due, Steve Whitmire’s Kermit is as strong as it's ever been – he’s mastered the subtle finger movements that make Kermit so thoughtful – but Fozzie and Piggy, to name two, are frequently off key, and Rowlf seems to have lost his personality entirely. When the new troupe nails it, as Whitmire and Eric Jacobson do when Kermit and Fozzie have a quiet conversation in hammocks underneath the stars, it warms the soul. But so much of what works in this picture is an allusion to the Henson era (the lens flares that recall The Muppet Movie) or a direct quotation of it (the cover of the “Rainbow Connection”), and as welcome as it is to see banjos hanging on the wall of Kermit’s office or to spot a photograph of the African-mask puppets from Harry Belafonte’s famous performance on The Muppet Show, these little details can make the film feel less like a reinvention for a new generation than like a fantasy camp for the old one.

Segel’s stroke of brilliance with The Muppets, beyond reviving the running gags and meta references that are key to the brand, is to backload the picture with the sort of colorful, chaotic and heartfelt performances that typified The Muppet Show, ensuring that the movie ends on a high note. I’m not sure what the shelf life is for the cover of Cee Lo Green’s “Fuck You” by about a dozen chickens, but I do know it’s precisely the kind of mischief Henson would be up to if helming The Muppet Show today and that it inspired much of the packed crowd at my screening to break into gleeful rhythmic clapping. Trouble is, so many of these thrills send us backward, not forward, like the goose bump-inducing recreation of The Muppet Show’s opening number, confining the Muppets to retro appeal. In the movie’s greatest shot, one that perfectly blends the familiar and the new, Kermit sits alone backstage, his hand on a small handle that he’ll use to throw open the oval hatch through which he’ll announce the start of the show, looking angst-ridden and full of questions. Will their material hold up? Will anyone come to watch? Will the crowd still love them? Segel’s film makes it clear that the answer to those questions is yes, but we’ve yet to see if someone can return the Muppets to their roots while moving beyond nostalgia. Segel’s film offers hope and also confirms fears.

Maybe the time has come for Kermit and the gang to cede the spotlight, not to eliminate the brand but to preserve it. Maybe the Henson-era characters need to be retired, replaced by Walters, Bobos and Pepes. It’s a tough task, immortality. Then again, part of loving the Muppets is believing in the dream.

Jason Bellamy ruminates on cinema at The Cooler and is a regular contributor to Slant Magazine's The House Next Door, coauthoring The Conversations series with Ed Howard. Follow him on Twitter.

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  • Movie sucked | August 3, 2013 1:22 AMReply

    Yup, this movie sucked ass. It can't hold a handle to Muppets Take Manhattan. Segel can get out and take his shitty writing with him.

  • J | December 2, 2011 11:21 PMReply

    So happy to say that you are in the absolute minority - beautiful movie :)

  • Cad | November 27, 2011 9:29 PMReply

    "Fuck you" in a Muppets movie? Yeah, that's what the original would have done. Christ I hate hipsters.

  • Jason Bellamy | November 28, 2011 8:13 AM

    Emmy. Ugh. I meant Grammy.

  • Jason Bellamy | November 28, 2011 8:12 AM

    Cad: I'm not sure who the hipster is. Segel, for including the "Fuck You" number in the movie, or me for implying that it's the kind of number Henson would have embraced. Regardless, if you think the "Fuck You" number is out of character (I'm assuming you've seen the new movie), I direct you not just to old episodes of The Muppet Show, which delighted in reinventing popular music (the Paul Simon episode is a fun example), but also to Green's Emmy performance from a year or two back, which of course was a tribute to The Muppet Show and very much in its spirit.

  • Josh | November 27, 2011 8:29 PMReply

    Great review, even if I disagree almost wholeheartedly. The problem I have with this movie is similar to yours--that Jason Segel and Amy Adams dominate too much of the opening 20 minutes--but then after the first act is over, the movie completely refocuses its aims to the Muppets as an ensemble. Why even use Segel and Adams as conduits to the rest of the characters when it's been proven in past films (The Muppet Movie being the chief example) that humans don't need to be the driving force?

    Having said that, I couldn't help but enjoy the hell out of this movie. I was beaming for almost all of it; as much as you see the reenactments of The Muppet Show as confining it to retro status, I guess I see it as a reaffirmation that the sensibility the Muppets embody is timeless while still being old-fashioned. Frankly, more than anything else, I want Disney to revive the Muppet Show. As you say, Camilla and the Chickens covering "Fuck You" is EXACTLY the kind of thing that would've shown up on the Muppet Show. That plus the obvious love from various celebrities (and James Carville) proves that you could make the variety show all over again.

  • Josh | November 28, 2011 6:33 PM

    Jason, as with the review, I agree with some of your points--there's no question that the perspective is shifting between Walter, Gary, and Kermit throughout the entire movie, and it's to the story's detriment--but I suppose I didn't have a problem with paying so much homage to the past as Segel and company do here. I'm sure that my nostalgia got the best of me with this movie in some respects, but where you see the reenactment of the Muppet Show intro as thrilling but not an attempt to create something new with these characters, I just found it thrilling. While I agree that the DVDs, movies, and YouTube clips make the content more readily accessible, I would argue that kids today aren't rushing out to rent those DVDs or movies, or go to YouTube to watch the Ramblin' Man segment from the Steve Martin episode. (Also, the DVDs were either not successful enough or Disney isn't willing to pay for music rights for the last two unreleased seasons.) I do think that the Muppets' strength lies in the variety-show format, even if I would place The Muppet Movie as one of the best family entertainments ever.

  • Jason Bellamy | November 28, 2011 8:09 AM

    Josh: The scene with the chickens absolutely reaffirms that the old diagram still works. No argument there. And if the movie had been full of scenes like those, I would have said it went back to the future, so to speak: embracing its roots as a way to revive the series.

    But when so many of the thrills -- at least for me -- were allusions to or quotations of the past (reenacting the intro to The Muppet Show and "Rainbow Connection" being the biggest examples), well, that isn't following the old design to make something new so much as it's reissuing the initial release. Is it enjoyable? Absolutely. But beyond making a new generation aware of the Muppets, it doesn't do anything to revive the brand, which is supposedly the goal. Twenty years ago, it would have been different, but with all the Muppet movies and three seasons of The Muppet Show available on DVD, and so much spread around YouTube, the original is still out there, ready to entertain just like it on initial release.

    What's interesting to me is that I had big concerns about Walter going in, because I feared it meant that Segel might be giving up without really trying: that he'd make Walter the center instead of Kermit and the gang. But I was wrong. Walter fits perfectly. And in retrospect the entire movie should have been told from his perspective (instead the perspective jumps from Walter's, to Gary's to Kermit's and then back again), which still would have left plenty of room for tributes to the past.

    A while back, Press Play's own Matt Zoller Seitz wrote that the Muppet brand of comedy always worked best in short bits, the kind we get on The Muppet Show. I only sort of agree with that (worked best? probably, but Henson's Muppet films sustain the magic for me just fine). But the Segel movie suggests that, indeed, the best way to revive the franchise would be to go back to a wild variety show format. The Muppets was like a Super Bowl performance for a group that needs to grind away in the garage for a while to rediscover its sound.

  • Hokahey | November 27, 2011 3:13 PMReply

    I'm not an expert on the Muppets. I was never an avid fan, but I caught enough glimpses of the Muppet Shoe to recognize what was great about them. I had enough appreciation for them to recognize that it takes much too long for this film to get to the big show during which most of the nicely done nostalgic bits happen. Too bad this movie didn't get the Muppets on stage a lot sooner!

  • Keil Shults | November 27, 2011 12:59 AMReply


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