Abby and I went to see the new Muppet movie. We may be the only two people in America who feel this way, but we were pretty underwhelmed by it. I should say that it isn't bad by any stretch. And despite Frank Oz's denunciation, The Muppets isn't a cynical cash-grab. It's everything you'd want from a Muppet movie, and very much in the spirit of the original television show and the first few movies. So why didn't it work for me?
A muppet named Walter, raised by humans and seemingly unaware of his muppetness, travels with his "brother" Gary (Jason Segel) and Gary's girlfriend Mary (Amy Adams) to see LA. Whilst there, they tour the Muppet Studios and find it about to be demolished. The only way to save it is to get the gang back together for one last show. Here's the problem: I don't care. Haven't we done two movies with roughly this premise already? It's been done. But you know what? I could even handle that if the new film were less saccharine or self-important. But the whole theme of the movie seems to be that the Muppets need to be saved because they're the Muppets and that's important to society, for some reason.
This is actually one of the things that worked for me. Part of the mirth of the Muppets is how self-aware they are. The gags were frequently aimed just over the heads of younger viewers: Cee-Lo's Fuck You sung by chickens or Beaker singing "my libido" (as "me me me mo") in a Barbershop Quartet rendition of Smells Like Teen Spirit. Occasionally the jokes are over-explained. Traveling by map is a pretty funny bit even without Fozzie saying "Hey, let's travel by map". The character "80's Robot" is pretty funny on its own without him explaining that he's offering Tab and New Coke (they're clearly visible on his tray). But in general, Muppet humor is the only thing that saves The Muppets from Muppet over-sweetness, and the jokes work best when they're stacked right on top of each other. Gonzo had a throw-away line about wireless toilets that I'm still laughing about.
If the camera lingered too long on New Coke jokes, it skipped far too quickly over the cameos. I barely recognized Dave Grohl as an imitation Animal. Mostly people just show up. Sara Silverman is a hostess at a diner, but all she does is show Amy Adams to a table (nothing like the legendary performance from Steve Martin in the original The Muppet Movie). For all the misses, there were a couple of magnificent hits. I'm looking at you Neil Patrick Harris and James Carville.
Puppetry is kind of an old-school special effect, so for me the mixture of puppets and CGI is actually a bit unnerving. In the spirit of the Star Wars re-hashes, the inconsistency is what's the most bizarre. If you're using CGI, why use puppets? Again, I realize I'm in the minority here, and nowhere is it written that you have to be all practical or all CGI. But the mix-and-match of non-realistic puppets with not-terribly-photo-realistic CGI... it really did not work for me.
Jason Segel is fine, I guess. At no point did I ever like Amy Adams. I take it back, she had the funniest line of the movie (when Kermit initially decides not to attempt a reunion, Adams comments that "this is going to be a short movie"), but apart from that, she was a plot device. The only person in the main cast that seemed to be having any fun with his part was Chris Cooper as the bad guy, Tex Richman, but even his reading felt off. The humans weren't playing it straight, nor were they trying to match the Muppets in over-the-topness. In fact, the only human who really, truly sold his performance was--and I never thought I'd say this--Jack Black.
...was problematic for me. A big problem is that I have no love for Flight of the Concords. I respect them as artists, but their music doesn't work for me. But the music in the movie (much of it written by FotC) has too many FotC hallmarks in it. State absurd premise ("Am I a man or a muppet?"). Make absurd premise even more absurd without changing much ("If I'm a muppet, then I'm a manly, manly muppet"). Invert premise, because it's not like you're doing anything else with it ("If I'm a man, then I'm a muppet of a man"). Lather, rinse, repeat. Chris Cooper rapping was... well... an old white guy rapping. Why it fell apart here but worked so well in Tropic Thunder is anybody's guess, but I just couldn't enjoy it. When Amy Adams started off her song in the diner about being alone... I was waiting for someone to walk up and ask her why she was singing, because it's the Muppets and they're terribly self-aware. I felt so embarrassed for her during that song, because all the other patrons just kept eating and ignoring her. I get what they were going for, but it truly did not work. The only new song that really worked for me was Life's a Happy Song, and even that was only good-but-not-great. There was no The Rainbow Connection or I'm Going To Go Back There Someday or Movin' Right Along.
Of note: the one thing that I've heard complaints about is the use of Starship's We Built This City On Rock And Roll. I honestly wasn't bothered by that. It's very much in the spirit of the TV show. It's an awful song, but it's a montage, whatever.
The Inevitable Realization
I don't like the Muppets. Not just the movie, I don't care for them as an institution. This is, frankly, flooring to me. I remember thinking pretty highly of the TV, but it has not aged gracefully. Neither have the early films. I still love the post-modern awareness and I have some very fond memories, but with the possible exception of A Muppet Christmas Carol, I don't enjoy them. Nostalgia backfire. I has a sad.
So I'll just reiterate my earlier point. The Muppets isn't bad. It's probably a really great Muppet movie, but it's not a great movie, no matter what everyone else on the planet seems to be saying.