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Is "The Muppets" a True Muppet Movie?

by Christopher Campbell
November 28, 2011 12:33 PM
26 Comments
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I finally caught "The Muppets" over the long weekend, and while I did enjoy a lot of it, I was bothered by how little it actually qualifies as a true Muppet movie. How so, if the film does feature Kermit the Frog, Miss Piggy, Fozzie the Bear and the rest of the gang (minus Rizzo, sadly)? Well, the Muppets are really just costars, supporting roles in a Jason Segel film rather than the main characters of their own. Some, like the barely present Rolf, seem as much to be celebrities making cameos as do Neil Patrick Harris and Selena Gomez.

It's bad enough that it takes forever (and at least two musical numbers) for a Muppet to appear onscreen -- not counting the relatively uninteresting new puppet, Walter, because he does not count. But the Muppets are also not the protagonists of the movie, not even close. Jason Segel's character, Gary, is. And to a near-equal amount, so is Walter. Amy Adams and the villain played by Chris Cooper are also more dominant figures than Kermit and friends.

This alone might not disqualify the film, because Michael Caine plays the protagonist in "The Muppet Christmas Carol," Kevin Bishop plays the protagonist of "Muppet Treasure Island" and Ashanti plays the protatonist of "The Muppets' Wizard of Oz." But wasn't Segel and cowriter Nicholas Stoller's desire to make up for these post-Henson works by returning to the earlier, better films? Jason Bellamy's review at Press Play says it well:

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. [...] 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.

"The Muppets" is a movie about some guys searching for the Muppets and making a lot of venerative references to their past, legitimate works. It's not unlike "The Artist" in the way it's a pretty unoriginal tribute. I enjoyed a lot of that movie, too, in spite of my general dislike for it. And at least it was silent; at times I wish I wasn't hearing the strange voices coming out of characters originally performed by Jim Henson and Frank Oz. Forget the faux versions of the Muppets in the movie (called Moopits), the "real" Muppets come off as frauds, too.

In a way, the Muppets of "The Muppets" are a macguffin. They could have been any beloved classic material. Silent films, for instance, or Looney Tunes. My fears a while ago that this would just seem like a redo of "Looney Tunes: Back in Action" weren't unfounded. I prefer Joe Dante's brand of fan fiction, though, more than Segel's. I'm probably in the minority there, but I believe Dante understands and translates the works of Chuck Jones, Friz Freleng, Bob Clampett and the other LT animators better than Segel gets Henson.

Sometimes I think Segel's character should have just kidnapped the Muppets, a la bad fans Annie Wilkes and Rupert Pupkin. I guess he sort of did, non-literally. There have been a few movies this year likened to "Field of Dreams," and this should be, too. Segel built something and the people came, but to me it still just seems like a baseball diamond in the middle of a cornfield.

Other movies it calls to mind are fandom-based films like "Fanboys" and the obnoxious documentary "Don't You Forget About Me." Also, the initially obnoxious, but ultimately wonderful documentary "Paul Williams Still Alive," which of course has a link to the Muppets . Maybe it's that I stood front row at a small club in Toronto after its premiere and listened to Williams sing "Rainbow Connection" live (along with part of the "Love Boat" theme), so it wasn't as big a deal to hear it redone in "The Muppets."

I'd rather watch the Paul Williams doc again than "The Muppets," and this has nothing to do with my nonfiction interests. I'd still rather watch the original three Muppet movies than any documentary any day. But someone please do get on distributing "Paul Williams Still Alive" soon. It's worth seeing and it might as well cash in on this Muppet nostalgia wagon.

I should note that others have mentioned another doc to watch instead of or prior to "The Muppets": "Being Elmo." Indiewire critic Eric Kohn writes:

The documentary makes a powerful case for the advanced intellect driving the Muppets' iconography. They can't keep that status alone; someone has to take them there. If younger viewers still need the Muppets, their salvation exists not in the movie theater, but on the countless hours of material available on DVD.

Then, of course, I again urge everyone interested in Muppets to see David Soll's "Puppet," which is now on DVD and airing on Documentary Channel. It presents a different path for those who grew up on Henson, more evolved rather than nostalgic. Sure, the modern puppetry focused on in the film makes far less money than Segel's work, but it's a lot more interesting.

Did anyone else feel like this wasn't a real Muppet movie? I know at least critic Simon Abrams is with me, writing in his review, "When I had finished watching The Muppets, I didn’t feel like I had seen a Muppet movie." How depressing.

Follow Christopher Campbell on Twitter: @thefilmcynic
Follow Spout on Twitter: @Spout

26 Comments

  • David | July 12, 2014 10:46 AMReply

    Nailed it and the sequel sucked as well. We are not haters, just fans who grew up watching the original show and movies at the theaters when they came out. These new films seem empty. When Frank Oz won't have anything to do with them, there is trouble in paradise.

  • James Hondo | March 27, 2014 2:38 PMReply

    You people are ignorant haters who just didn't bother to pay attention to the move.

  • nathan | August 17, 2013 3:04 AMReply

    I liked the movie, but I wanted more muppets and less people........I would have liked to have seen more Pepe. I liked Walter and Mary,I wanted to have a lot more time with the actual Muppets, not 10 minutes of the muppets, then switch over to 10 minutes of the people and back and forth.I'm sorry, but Segel is creepy looking and not funny at all.There was one thing that really bugged me though, when power went off and they only need $1 to save the theatre and hundreds of people in the audience, one would think that with over a hundred of people in the audience, a measly $1 should have been a no brainer, well, more like common sense.I still like the movie so it's alright, I just wish there was more muppets and less people for a true "muppet" movie

  • Lewis | September 11, 2012 10:32 AMReply

    Yeah, I have to admit this movie, even though on a DVD, was a waste of an afternoon better spent doing something else. And for Milque, I have to strongly disagree, the Muppets, especially with the CTW studios franchise, has always been all about a quircky, oddball, New Yorker's perspective on things.

    This movie lacked a lot of the subtle humor of it's predecessors, it was like Disney finally put their arrogant seal of ownership on the Henson franchise. The Muppets Studio in Los Angeles?! Please mutha!

  • Anastasia Elizabeth Rollason | August 18, 2012 3:47 AMReply

    I like the muppets

  • Artfade Tendencies | April 25, 2012 11:50 AMReply

    Amy Adams and Jason Segel hijacked the film from being about the Muppets
    to a terribly written example of bad relationships and greed. The musical numbers
    were mind numbing brainwash propaganda and the two human performances
    of Amy Adams and Jason Segel ruined the entire film. Here's hoping the sequel
    that is bereft of the nonsense of Jason does more justice to the Muppets.

  • Jose | March 27, 2014 4:17 PM

    You thought the songs were brainwashing propaganda lol what and you do reliase that the Jason and Amy's characters were just plot points to move the film
    and that this movie was supposed to show why people love the muppets right?

  • Amy B | April 4, 2013 3:26 PM

    Finally someone who agrees with me. The Muppets are a part of my childhood, (90's) I hope things improve in the next movie. Sadly I doubt it will get any better from here.

  • Hunter | April 8, 2012 12:04 AMReply

    This movie sucked. Everyone's saying it's great but it sucked. Never liked those Elmo scandals..

  • Jane | March 27, 2014 2:40 PM

    Then why bother to see the movie genius?

  • lulu brophy | March 17, 2012 2:40 PMReply

    i think the muppets are such a big bunch of shit and bitch kingdom and whenever i hear the word muppet i wanna be sick

  • Dean | March 27, 2014 2:55 PM

    Then why bother looking up something that has to deal with the muppets retard?

  • Don | May 28, 2012 11:26 PM

    Wow... your fucking heartless. The Muppets are awesome.

  • jojo | March 12, 2012 2:34 AMReply

    my kids were dissappointed , they wanted to see amy adams bare more skin.

  • Razy Cat | December 4, 2011 3:51 PMReply

    Well then, if bored with the Muppets then come by http://Xpets.TV/ and watch Razy Cat and his Chicago crew live the party lifestyle in the Chicago underground. It's a weekly short video show.

  • Sarah | November 29, 2011 1:15 PMReply

    I thought it sucked and the acting was terrible.

  • David | July 12, 2014 10:50 AM

    Hey Junko, we grew up on the originals, This movie sucked big time. We understood the movie fine. Muppet movies are not meant to be art house movies with secret meanings that know one but elitist art critics are supposed to get. Not Shakespeare either. It sucked and Frank Oz thought so as well.

  • Junko | March 27, 2014 2:47 PM

    The acting was excellent and the movie was beautiful you just can't understand the meaning of this film

  • MarvinK | November 29, 2011 2:13 AMReply

    I didn't care for the non-Muppet-oriented musical that the first half of the movie was, but I really enjoyed the second half of the movie. I agree with most of your points, but I think it was easily the best Muppets movie or special on TV or the big screen in decades. This isn't 'The Muppet Movie' .. but it's no 'Muppets From Space' either.

  • Danielle | November 28, 2011 8:45 PMReply

    I agree! I was like "where is Miss Piggy's karate chopping and what about the Bunson burner guy! I really wanted to like this film but it was just ok.

  • Steve Warren | November 28, 2011 3:22 PMReply

    Although I think you overstate the case somewhat, you've helped me put my finger on why I was underwhelmed. At least there was a stretch in the middle where the Muppets pretty much took over; but in creating this "dream role" for himself Segel proved to have a pretty loose grasp of his strengths and weaknesses.

  • john | November 28, 2011 2:52 PMReply

    I thought it was awful, the "musical numbers" sucked, Jack Black was wasted, Segel and Adams were embarassing--as if I was watching a bad Broadway show. And they couldn't come up with anything new musically for the muppets, they had to fall back on the Rainbow Connection! But I guess the true test is the kids. My kids thought it was lame.

  • Jason Oz | March 27, 2014 4:24 PM

    Yes it could be lame or maybe just maybe you and that imbecile Sarah down there just don't know what a good movie I feel as if the latter is the right answer.

  • Sarah | November 29, 2011 1:16 PM

    My kids also thought it was lame & really boring!!!

  • JBC | November 28, 2011 12:52 PMReply

    I certainly could have done without two of the cringe-worthy musical numbers (Amy Adams' song in the diner and Chris Cooper's "rap"), but I thought the film was cute. Sure, it was no "The Muppet Movie", "The Muppets Take Manhattan", or my favorite "The Great Muppet Caper", but I liked Segel's enthusiastic performance and thought it was clever to turn the focus toward the "The Muppet Show"-era.

    To your point, however, more Muppets would have made it even better.

  • Whitaker | November 28, 2011 12:36 PMReply

    Amy Adams is really gorgeous and very talented. It's an exquisite performance, just wonderful.

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