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The Muppets (2011): ***½

Directed by James Bobin

The Muppets is an incredible nostalgia trip. It is fascinating in that it isn’t aimed at gaining a new audience for the decades-old Muppet characters; it is aimed squarely at people who grew up watching them but are now adults. Like me. As such, I thoroughly enjoyed it.

The movie cleverly places a protagonist in the same situation of people in my age bracket. Walter (a puppet) grew up watching the Muppets, and now wonders what has become of them. He is the impetus that drives the plot, and the plot involves the Muppets themselves recreating their former glory. As such, anybody who is at all nostalgic for the Muppets is almost sure to be delighted.

Structurally, the movie is very straightforward: In Act 1 a problem is discovered by Walter that needs the Muppets to be reunited to solve. In Act 2 the Muppets are reuinited in a series of very funny episodes (my favorite being Rowlf’s, obviously), then try to figure out how to solve the problem. In Act 3, they try to enact their solution. But a surprising plot is not something you really look for in a Muppet movie. What you look for are the character interactions, the jokes, and the winking wall-breaking that are the Muppet trademarks. And they’re all here en masse.

Wisely the filmmakers decided to include the entire sweep of history of these characters. They all have baggage now. Some of their relationships have shifted over time, and they’re all in one way or another estranged. There are wonderful moments of honesty awkwardness as these old friends try to rediscover their friendships and get past the strain of the years. Can they really be just like they used to be? The central relationships between Kermit & Piggy, and Kermit & Fozzy, are genuinely touching. You get the feeling that they all wish they could have said more how much they cared for each other before the estrangement. Maybe then things would have been different. Kermit has a very lovely and moving song (“Pictures in My Head”) with a repeated refrain of, “Is there more I could have said?” Is it too late now? Especially for Kermit & Piggy?

Speaking of music, The Muppets has a series of incredibly catchy songs, including the Oscar-winning “Man or Muppet,” which serves as an important plot point for the two main characters. Considering that the music supervisor was on half of Flight of the Concords, I suppose it isn’t that much of a surprise that the music is catchy and memorable (except for the villain’s rap, which was purposefully bad, so it’s forgivable even if it isn’t enjoyable).

Because the movie is so focused on the three trios of main characters (Walter, Mary, and Gary on one side and Kermit, Piggy, and Fozzy on the other, and Richman, Bobo, and Uncle Deadly as the villains), many of the other Muppet characters do not get as much screen time, which is sure to disappoint anyone who is a big fan of any particular character. I, for instance, would have loved to have seen more Rowlf (though he does get one of the best jokes of the movie) and more Honeydew/Beaker (though they do get an excellent deleted scene in the upcoming special features). Rizzo, for instance, who was such a mainstay throughout all of the 1990s, doesn’t get a single line.

There are some nice, funny, wall-breaking jokes in this movie that I really appreciated and that I thought were definitely in the spirit of the Muppets: 80s Robot, traveling by map, time for a montage, and fart shoes all come instantly to mind.

Like the original Muppet Movie, this one is full of celebrity cameos, some as characters and some playing themselves... or caricatures of themselves at least. And apparently there were about a dozen more celebrity cameos that ended up being cut for time. It is used for great effect in one scene in which two of the newest generations of celebrities (Selena Gomez and that Rico Rodriguez kid from the Disney Channel) seem to have no idea who Kermit is and vice-versa, and in another scene where Kermit goes through an old rolodex of former Muppet Show hosts.

In a way, though, the entire premise of this movie is a bit false. Sure, there hasn’t been a Muppet movie or TV show in over a decade. But in the last few years they’ve owned YouTube with funny videos like their “Bohemian Rhapsody.” The Muppets may have been out of mainstream media, but they never really disappeared the way it’s portrayed in this movie. That said, the disconnect between the Muppets and the world in this movie tugs powerfully at the hearstrings and the nostalgia strings. The Muppets is a movie with genuinely moving moments, and if you ever liked the Muppets, it will be extremely hard to resist.

It is my favorite movie of 2011. But considering the number of 2011 movies that I actually saw wouldn’t even fill up a top-ten list, well, it might not be saying that much. Still, it is the only movie I saw twice in the theaters. So there’s that. And this: I absolutely loved it.


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