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Posts Tagged ‘James Bobin’

I don’t know, I’ve been feeling just a bit down recently what with everything that’s happening in the world, and while none of the films I’ve seen recently have been exactly out-and-out bad, none of them have actually been particularly cheery either. So it was a relief to watch a movie which was genuinely a tonic for the spirit, even if that tonic took a slightly peculiar form. I’m not sure what the fact that my spirits were lifted by a film featuring a big musical number about the Russian penal system performed by Ray Liotta, Danny Trejo, Jemaine Clement and Tina Fey says about me, but it should certainly tell you that the Muppets have a new movie out, James Bobin’s Muppets Most Wanted.

Muppets-Most-Wanted-Poster

Picking up seconds after The Muppets finished, Most Wanted opens with a jaunty, charming, and deeply cynical number entitled ‘We’re doing a sequel’ (sample lyric: ‘There’s need to disguise/The studio considers us a viable franchise’), and so it (obviously) proves. Riding the wave of their rekindled success, Kermit, Fozzie, Miss Piggy and the rest are persuaded to take on Dominic Badguy (Ricky Gervais) as their new manager, and embark upon a tour of various easily-stereotyped European vacations.

However, is all exactly as it seems? Probably not, as the start of the tour coincides with the escape from a Russian gulag of Constantine, the world’s most evil frog and Kermit’s near-exact double (this requires, obviously, a dual performance from Kermit, which he delivers with his customary aplomb). Soon enough Constantine has taken Kermit’s place and set about repurposing the tour for his own nefarious ends, while the hapless guiding force of the Muppets troupe finds himself packed off to Siberia to serve the rest of Constantine’s sentence.

With neither Jason Segel nor Amy Allen coming back for this movie, the key human roles this time round are taken by Ricky Gervais, Tina Fey as the chief guard at the gulag, and Ty Burrell as outrageously stereotyped French detective Jean Pierre Napoleon. That said, this film is focused much more on the Muppet regulars themselves (Walter from The Muppets retains his high profile role, which the film inevitably makes a few knowing jokes about). That’s not a problem, obviously, because you do go to a Muppet movie because you want to spend time with the Muppets themselves – but the human performers do get some good, juicy material. There are also a staggering number of cameos, most of them lasting no more than a few seconds, featuring everyone from Lady Gaga to Christoph Waltz.

The new film is also less founded in nostalgia for the Muppets’ late 70s heyday, and possibly as a result I found it less emotionally engaging than its immediate forebear: it’s much more of a straightforward comedy. Does this make it a less completely satisfying experience? Perhaps so, but it’s still an extremely funny film. (I should point out that the only thing I was inclined to criticise The Muppets for, the lack of any credit for Jim Henson, is repeated here. The Disney corporation may be the legal owner of the Muppets these days, but they will always be Henson’s creations.)

There were a lot of young families at the screening of Muppets Most Wanted which I attended, but for all that a fairly perfunctory message about responsibility and friendship has been written into the plot, I think it would be a mistake to consider this a children’s film – there are a lot of brightly coloured fuzzy characters for the youth audience, of course, but just as crucial to the Muppet formula are the endless, knowing self-referentiality and off-the-wall humour. And there are some jokes here which only an adult audience, and a fairly sophisticated one, are going to get: a gag about a remake of The Seventh Seal featuring the Swedish Chef, and a reprise of the famous mirror routine from the Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup. Also, there’s a ridiculous running gag about European working practices which is smarter than the jokes in most adult-oriented comedies.

The script hangs together well, the jokes are good, the cast is excellent, and most of the songs are very funny as well. As I mentioned, it may not pack quite the same punch as the previous film when it comes to heart and soul, but even so in terms of wit, intelligence and a simple sense of fun Muppets Most Wanted puts most comedies to shame, no matter what audience they are made for. If they can keep up this standard of inventiveness and charm, the Muppets could outlive all of us.

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Looking at the new films opening a week or so ago, for a moment I thought I’d had a bang on the head and was experiencing the delusion that I was in the 1970s: for the big three releases consisted of a Star Wars movie, a Hammer Horror, and a big-screen outing for the Muppets.

Now, like most people of my vintage I have fond memories of the original Muppet Show and several of their early movies, and so I went along to see James Bobin’s film hoping for a few laughs and a pleasantly nostalgic hour or so.

It has, of course, been 12 years or so since the last theatrical Muppets release and it is clear that the makers of the new film are worried that today’s younger generation may have no idea who the Muppets are and what their schtick is. So the new movie has been carefully written to ease newcomers in – it’s quite a long time before any of the big-name characters make a proper appearance.

Instead, in the first act we meet Gary (Jason Segel, who also co-wrote), a young man from Smalltown, USA, whose life is mainly distinguished by the fact that his brother Walter is a Muppet (basically, this means… oh, for crying out loud, I’m not going to explain what a Muppet is) – the circumstances behind this rather odd situation are not gone into, possibly wisely. Walter in particular is a life-long fan of the original Muppet Show, and when Gary goes on holiday to Los Angeles with his girlfriend Mary (Amy Adams), Walter goes with them so he can visit the Muppet studios.

However, the Muppets haven’t worked together in years (an example of the knowing self-reflexiveness that runs through the movie). During the visit, Walter sees Statler and Waldorf selling the property to evil tycoon Tex Richman (Chris Cooper) – unless the Muppets can find $10 million in two weeks, the theatre will be ripped down so he can drill for oil on the site. Aghast at the prospect of the destruction of such an iconic place, Walter persuades Gary and Mary to help him reunite the Muppets so they can mount one last show to raise the money they need.

Well, the plot is not going to win any awards for originality, but, the Muppets being who they are, the film is aware of this and isn’t afraid to make a few jokes about it. One of the keys to the Muppets’ success is the fact that they’re not afraid to combine outrageous silliness with some of the smartest comic writing anywhere to be found, and the film continues this in spades. This movie is relentlessly, irresistibly funny, whether that be in its dialogue, its (very catchy) original songs, its sight gags, or its broader ideas. (If you’ve ever wanted to see a Cee-Lo Green song reinterpreted by a choir of chickens – and who hasn’t – this is the film for you.)

On the other hand, the film doesn’t skimp on the pathos which has also been part of the Muppets’ long-term appeal. Watching the film, I was intellectually aware that most of the cast were (spoilers) bits of foam rubber, felt and ping-pong balls – but somehow this didn’t seem to register. Seeing the Muppets come back together again and rebuild their various relationships was, absurdly, very moving. Not only did I laugh myself breathless all the way through, but at a couple of points I also found myself tearing up. (Not that I’ll be telling anyone that, of course.)

I’m not sure how much of this emotional connection will be shared by the younger audience this film is clearly pitching for – although, at the same time, this is also more of a nostalgia piece than any of the other Muppet films. It harks back almost constantly to the 1970s Muppet Show, features new versions of a number of classic Muppet routines, and there’s even a very obscure gag referring to the original 1980 Muppet Movie that will probably only be appreciated by hard-core Muppet fans and people with freakishly overdeveloped memories.

The film is perhaps slightly disingenuous in the way that the villain and other characters repeatedly declare that the world has moved on and the Muppets are old-fashioned and irrelevant, only for this to be wholly disproven in the climactic scenes: this movie would hardly be being made if Disney didn’t think there was a market for it. I’ll be curious to see if the deserved success of this hilarious, charming, and unexpectedly touching film produces a more extended return to the limelight for Kermit and his friends, but my hopes that the answer will prove positive are without reservation.

Well, almost without. For a film about the Muppets battling to avoid being assimilated by a soulless, grasping, corporation, there’s something bleakly ironic about the fact that the end credits declare it to be based on ‘Disney’s Muppet Characters and Properties’. In other words, there’s no mention of Jim Henson, their original creator. I know that the Henson family sold their rights to the Muppets years ago and that Disney are under no legal obligation to acknowledge Henson in this movie. But there’s what’s legal and there’s what’s right, and the omission of even the slightest credit for Jim Henson anywhere prominent in this film left a slightly sour taste in the mouth at the end of what was otherwise a wholly joyous experience.

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