Tuesday, March 13, 2012

The Muppets VS The Great Muppet Caper

Just before the fourth Terminator movie came out, I came across a review of the first three films in the series. The critic made an interesting case for Terminator 3, stating that it was a good movie, but that it suffered in comparison to 1 and 2, which were pretty much classics.

I have to say that I agree with this observation. I saw Terminator 3 in the theater, and while it wasn’t perfect, it had a solid story and an ending that took some serious guts, as far as I was concerned.

That review stuck with me, and it sat at the forefront of my brain when I sat down with my kid to watch the new Muppet movie, which went by the pretty straightforward title The Muppets.

When you have a kid, you can tell how much they like a particular movie or TV show based on how often they want to watch it. In the case of my child, she had recently discovered The Great Muppet Caper, which was probably my favorite of the Muppet movies when I was her age.

So I sat down and watched it with her for the first time, and then she watched it by herself. Over. And over. And over again.

And if I had a spare minute while I was cooking, or doing laundry, or getting ready for work, I’d stop and take in five minutes of the movie. It was never time wasted.

If you’re down with puppets in general, and Muppets in particular, The Great Muppet Caper may just be a perfect movie. The plot goes a little something like this. Kermit the Frog and Fozzie the bear are identical twin reporters (yep) who manage to miss the biggest story of the year as it happens right under their noses. Namely, a rich and famous woman named Lady Holiday gets her jewels stolen.

So they head to England in hopes of keeping their jobs. Gonzo goes along, as he’s their photographer.

Meanwhile, in the UK, where Lady Holiday resides, Miss Piggy gets a job as Holiday’s new receptionist. Holiday leaves, Kermit comes in to talk about the stolen jewels, and there are fireworks. He and Piggy make a date for dinner, only Kermit doesn’t realize Piggy isn’t Holiday until they’re on the date, and Holiday has more jewels stolen (by her own brother).

Kermit and Piggy work out their issues. Piggy is falsely accused of stealing the jewels. The rest of the Muppets head to a local gallery to prevent the jewel thieves from stealing another of Holiday’s prized possessions. And?

Well, they manage to do it, because the Muppets are the good guys.

Also in the movie, there’s singing, and dancing, and a ridiculous number of jokes, and celebrity cameos, and a plot that reveals the villain early so the kids can follow along without too much trouble. As a kid, it’s fun and funny. As an adult, the technical wizardry of the dance numbers will absolutely blow your mind.

And the songs? Oh my, the songs. People all remember The Rainbow Connection, from the The Muppet Movie, but if none of the songs in The Great Muppet Caper is quite that song’s equal, that doesn’t mean they’re not brilliant.

Do you see why I mentioned Terminator 3 up there at the top of the review? Do you see? Because The Muppets cannot hope to best The Great Muppet Caper. It can only hope to get close to that level of achievement.

And you know what? It doesn’t come that close.

Don’t get me wrong, there are a lot of things to love about The Muppets. A whole lot of things, actually.

First, everyone looks just super-excited to be there. The songs, written by half of Flight of the Conchords, range from good to great. This movie is right in the continuity of the better-known, and better-loved, Muppet endeavors. It makes direct reference to The Muppet Show, The Muppet Movie, The Great Muppet Caper, and The Muppets Take Manhattan.

They sing the opening theme to The Muppet Show. They sing The Rainbow Connection, all the way through, start to end, and I’m not going to lie, I cried when it happened.

They remembered to have celebrity cameos. They remembered to reference the fact that they were in a movie.

Trust me, this movie gets an A+ for effort, and I’ll even throw on an extra plus just for getting the movie into theaters, and in front of an audience, and demonstrating that the Muppets, even after years of neglect, can stage a comeback.

And straight up, for accomplishing all that? I give Jason Segal, the writer and human-star of this film, high marks. He did a good thing, and for that I think parents and kids all over the world should be grateful.

And yet? And yet.

And yet the movie is a solid B.

Now, I don’t think there’s any shame in that, and as I said, I don’t think the B is from lack of trying. It’s just that it gets some things kind of wrong.

The first problem isn’t really anyone’s fault, and I’m not sure it can be fixed at this point. The characters just ain’t what they used to be. On a puppet level, Fozzy just looks odd. I suspect they either changed his design, or he looks different in HD than he did on my screen back in the old days.

A lot of the voices are off, even when they get the mannerisms about 95% right. Some of that can’t be helped. Jim Henson, despite all our wishes, refuses to rise from the dead to reclaim his rightful place as Kermit. On the other hand, Frank Oz (if what I read is correct) simply refused to be in the movie, causing Fozzy and Piggy to not quite be themselves.

Can I blame the guy? Probably not. He said he didn’t like the script, and again, if what I read is correct, he had his own plan to bring the Muppets back. Could he have done it? And as successfully?

We’ll never know. But I gotta admit, I’d just about kill to read that script.

If you want my opinion (sure you do!) I don’t think that Oz had what it takes to get the project off the ground. Segal isn’t a movie star, really, but he is one of the stars of a highly-rated TV show. And he has famous friends who like him and were probably willing to come down to the set, for free, just to keep costs down.

There are a lot of references in the movie about how to get The Muppet Show back on the air, they need to bring in a star. I think that Segal declaring, loudly and clearly, why he’s on the screen so often.

Ironically, however, that’s also the problem with the movie.

If you know your literary tropes, you’ve probably heard the concept of the Mary Sue. You find this person more often in fan fiction than in actual, on-the-shelf fiction, but it happens sometimes there, too.

If you don’t know the concept, it’s basically this. I decide to write a story about Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Only it turns out Buffy has a new friend. And the new friend might not have my name, but he certainly looks, and sounds, and acts a lot like me. And in the story I get to be The Most Important Character In the Whole World. I rescue Buffy. I come up with a plan to get Xander and Willow together.

And so on.

The irony here is, Jason himself isn’t the Mary Sue, I don’t think. No, that honor belongs to a new character named Walter.

Walter is a puppet/Muppet, and at the start of the movie he discovers the Muppets, and worships them, and goes to their old studio which has fallen into disrepair, and then finds out that someone bought the studio and is going to tear it down, and he goes to find Kermit and Get the Old Gang Together for One Last Show to Save the Studio.

As plots go, this is maybe a little on the nose, and also a little bit of genius. The Muppets, who have fallen out of favor, get back together in order to save their studio. It mirrors real life so oddly perfectly that it kind of blows my mind.

The fact that it worked and the Muppets had a hit movie for the first time in more than a decade? It’s so meta I want to laugh and cry at the same time.

But with Walter in there?

Frankly, it’s a problem, and an unsolvable one. By putting him front and center at the beginning of the movie, it makes him the hero. He saves the Muppets, because he loves them. Kind of like Jason Segal did.

And there you have it. The very definition of a Mary Sue.

Recently it was announced that the next Muppet movie would not star Segal, which seemed to make people anxious about the next film. The truth is, I don’t know Jason. Maybe he’s really busy. Maybe he figures he did what he needed to do, and now he wants to find a way to launch a Krull sequel.

But I like to think that he knows something a lot of people haven’t figured out yet. If he stuck himself into the next movie, it wouldn’t be a Muppet movie. It would be the Walter/Jason Segal show. Just like this one was.

I don’t want that. And I suspect Jason doesn’t want that either. What we both want, next time, is a full-on Muppet movie, full of the bizarre anarchy and familial love that you find in the best moments of the Muppets.

I hope we both get it.

But in the meantime, I hope Jason (though I can’t imagine he’ll ever read this) knows that I truly appreciate what he did. He brought the Muppets back into the limelight, so my kid and I can share them. And that’s a truly special thing.

So here’s to you Jason. And here’s to the Muppets.

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