Some of my favorite movie reviewers write for The New York Times, and thanks to the wonders of the internet, I can read them online. Of course, The New York Times had to go and put a limit on the number of articles each individual computer can access per month. So I simply find other and various computers (work, home, vacant office building) on which I can read the online newspaper. (Suck it New York Times! I will never, ever pay for your online access.)
For the past week, the Times’ three major film reviewers, A.O. Scott, Manohla Dargis, and Stephen Holden, have each recommended a current film that, in large part, is driven by a nostalgic reflection to search for and enjoy previous and more primitive forms of visual entertainment and technology. Scott recommends The Artist, Dargis champions Hugo, and Holden lifts up The Muppets. I have not yet seen either The Artist or Hugo, but I can already vouch for Holden’s opinion about The Muppets.
The Muppets works nostalgically in two ways. First and most obviously, it looks back at and attempts to reinvigorate a franchise that once held massive appeal to children and adults in the 1970s and 1980s. More subtly, The Muppets represents the most complete rebirth of a subgenre that was once a staple of Hollywood: the backstage musical. (I feel that it easily surpasses Chicago and Nine.)
Of course, the old television program which bore Kermit, Miss Piggy, and others was already and always nostalgic. The premise of the show was built around older forms of theatrical and vaudeville entertainment that had been driven out of style by commercial television and Hollywood. So the film re-doubles on the nostalgic impulse.
As it invites us back and asks us to revisit it, The Muppets presents a most pleasing invitation. It does more, much more, than simply say, “Look, here is a piece from the past. Love it!” Instead, The Muppets says, “Here is a terrific film about the past. Love it!” And I do.
The Muppets is aware of the nostalgic impulse and draws material from it, but the songs, dances, and jokes work on their own; they are more than simple reminders of the past. Numerous sight gags elicit laughter, and the comic dialogue, often occurring between muppet characters, is as quick and often smarter than what one would find any Apatow inspired bromance. One of the triumphs of the film is that the muppets become fully realized as characters alongside their human counterparts. Indeed, Kermit and Piggy seem to contain more emotional depth and baggage than Gary (Jason Segel) and Mary (Amy Adams).
I do not want to imply that either Segel or Adams failed. Both of them, along with Chris Cooper (who plays the film’s antagonist, Tex Richman) do what is required: they have fun. More than anything, Segel, Adams, and Cooper appear to have blast acting, dancing and singing alongside the half puppet, half marionette creations. Adams, more so than her male counterparts, appears particularly adept and joyful within the confines of the musical. Her solo song and dance number, conducted in a busy Los Angeles diner, was delightful and pleasing.
And it was during Adams’ song and dance that I finally realized that The Muppets, more than anything else, was a backstage musical. Sure, children’s entertainment and 70s and 80s icons were the material, but the genre was the backstage musical. The entire plot of getting the gang back together for a performance that is sure to fail but ultimately succeeds is right out of The Band Wagon (1953). Even the backstage romance between Kermit and Piggy fits into the subgenre.
Much like The Band Wagon, the most enjoyable and entertaining parts of The Muppets occur during the production of the performance, which in this case was a live television broadcast. My only complaint about the film is that it failed to produce more skits and scenes from the production.
One scene in particular deserves special notice. In an ode to the prior television show’s embrace of vaudeville, four muppets engage in a barber shop quartet rendition of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” as they give a bound and tied Jack Black a shave and trim. The Muppets cover of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” simultaneously emits love of the music, captures the frantic punk rock ethos, and pokes loving fun. I was both applauding and laughing; indeed, and this is not an exaggeration, I laughed so hard that I cried. Having Beaker sing Kurt Cobain’s incomprehensible lyrics was comic genius. I cannot recall any comic scene of recent vintage that was so pitch perfect in its material and delivery.
Director James Bobin uses his previous television experience to capture the original feel of the television show, but he does not succumb to the tendency to reduce the size of the screen and scope of the project. While The Muppets is a film about television, it is not a television show replayed on cinema’s wide-screen.
More than making me wistfully nostalgic for my childhood television shows or those grand Hollywood backstage musicals, The Muppets makes me hopeful that, in the future, wonderful, quirky films can rise and succeed. The glory of The Muppets is that it did not need its past to succeed. It is quite good as presently constituted.