The Magic is Back
There has been a tremendous amount of talk in our world about reboots, successful or not, and I just got back from experiencing the year’s single best relaunch of a tired property. Deb, Kate, her guy Mike, and I saw The Muppets and pretty much smiled all the way through, guffawing with pleasantly regularity and wiping away a tear every now and then.
Ladies and gentlemen, please pay attention, because this is how it’s done.
It starts with understanding the property, what has worked in the past and what has not. More than that, though, it is loving the property and all it is about. No one at Disney had the first clue what to do with the property since buying the characters from Jim Henson’s heirs. Yes, Henson wanted the House of Mouse to take care of his people after he was gone, and they’ve held on to them without really having anyone loving them.
You need passion to bring back a property that has been deemed tired and irrelevant by most. Jason Segal demonstrated that passion, oddly enough, in Forgetting Sarah Marshall. He parlayed that into a meeting with the Disney execs and showed them he had the clue: he loved the Muppets and their wacky world.
Thankfully, Disney let him make the movie and then backed away. They didn’t step in and exert any creative control, just kept an eye on Segal and the filmmakers. As a result, we got a movie that contained everything good about the Muppets and avoided trying to be hip and cool. The premise is simple enough, in Smallville, er, Smalltown, Jason and his brother Walter grew up to love and look after one another. But, the time had come for Jason to propose to his girlfriend of ten years (Amy Adams), and neither brother was ready to live apart from the other. Walter, as it turns out, is a Muppet, hence his fascination with them since childhood. The trio head west to visit Los Angeles starting with a tour of the Muppet Theater and Studio, which is when the real plot is launched.
In tried and true manner, Kermit finds out an evil oil baron is ready to seize control of the property to access the oil beneath. If the Muppets can raise $10 million in two days, they can exert a clause in the contract and regain control. SO, it’s time to put the band back together again and we’re off.
There are lovely touches here that sets this squarely in the familiar Muppet world when they hosted a successful television series. There are clips and stills, many scenes include images of Jim Henson, and the metajokes acknowledge the songs just sung the travel shortcut via map, and the successful use of montage to move the story along. Along the way, people sing, people dance, and the evil Baron, a deliciously wicked Chris Cooper, cackles and raps (complete with subtitles).
It’s knowing humor, especially as the Muppets regroup, and find a two hour television slot to host a telethon. We’re treated to wonderful cameo appearances, as in the best of the early Muppet movies, and there’s someone to gasp at for every age. (Neil Patrick Harris gets the best cameo line with “No, I don’t know why I’m not hosting this.”) There’s a joy to watching this film without knowing all the details so when one particular cameo turns up, everyone over the age of 10 burst into laughter simultaneously.
Walter eventually comes to accept that he may be Jason’s brother, but he is a Muppet at heart and is readily welcomed to the group. The Jason and Walter story parallels nicely some of the other long smoldering issues within the Muppets themselves, notably, of course, Kermit and his love for Miss Piggy.
Not all of the humor works, not all of the songs are great but when it works, it works big. Amy Adams’ character, and her arc with Jason, is uneven at best, but she gamely sings and smiles on cue. We get several beloved tunes from the past mixed in with the new pieces and selected rock snippets that are perfectly positioned.
Treating the characters, their personality and history, with respect, affection for the source material, and an understanding how make a contemporary film all got whipped up into a delightful, frothy mess. If only some of the other high profile reboots this year received similar time and attention.
Welcome back, Muppets. I missed you.