Movie Review: How THE MUPPETS Made Me Cry

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Not that any of you know me from Adam, but I don’t cry that often at movies.  With few exceptions—the end of Schindler’s List, or when Morgan Freeman accompanies Tim Robbins on the beach in The Shawshank Redemption—my tears don’t flow, which is why I was so shocked when The Muppets casually gutted me.

It happened so fast.  Kermit has this first-act song, “Pictures in My Head,” where he recalls his bygone glories with the Muppets, and I was totally fine until Kermit, worrying that their time together was for naught, laments, “Did anybody watch/Or even care?/Or did something break/We can’t repair?”

Cue the waterworks.

This wasn’t wistful nostalgia.  I have my childhood loves, and the Muppets aren’t among them.  I enjoyed the TV show and some of the movies, though I never obsessed over them the way others in my family did; the further I move from my youth, the more I struggle to recall what exactly Gonzo did, or who Beaker and Bunsen were, or if anyone ever realized that Animal was a psychologically tormented animal in search of relief that no drum set could provide (in fact, my biggest complaint with this new movie is that co-writers Nicholas Stoller and Jason Segel assume their audience knows everything about the gang; they offer little in the way of introductions for the uninitiated).

Furthermore, 99% of The Muppets plays like wacky comedy, mixing Jim Henson and the Flight of the Conchords (that last inspiration is not a stretch, considering the involvement of chief Conchords architects James Bobin and Bret McKenzie).  This is a movie that makes Cee-Lo Green’s abominable “F— You” song tolerable by reimagining it through squawking chickens, a movie that gives Academy Award-winner Chris Cooper a solo rap number (you read that correctly; John Laroche gets funky) and has its characters repeatedly break the fourth wall and includes a cameo from that awful faux-Asperger’s guy who stars in that dreadful “Big F— Bang Theory” program.  Nothing else in The Muppets has—or even strives for—the impact of Kermit’s first song.

I get it now.  It’s that idea of seeing icons humbled.  I didn’t revere the Muppets, but I knew them well enough to know that they stood for positivity and an ineffable enthusiasm.  How could they not; you live/work in a crumbling theater; you’re surrounded by folks like a Teddy Bear who only tells godawful jokes and a daredevil alien whose stunts always misfire; and you’re consigned to a life wherein a random guy is forever shoving his hand up your butt and working your mouth so you can speak.  That lifestyle leads to either ultimate spirit or crushing despair.

For a few seconds, the movie drops the veil.  Kermit has always been the most melancholy of the group, but I’d always chalked up his (slight) gloom to the daily frustrations that accompanied corralling a bunch as unruly and wild as the Muppets.  That’s sad in a way a kid can understand, the sad you get when a sleepover runs too long (most likely because some mom keeps delaying picking up her child); you love your friends, but after a night of horror movies and no sleep, you just need to be alone.

Except for Kermit, it wasn’t just ringleader-related stress.  It was insecurities about his own talent; it was worries that the Muppets’ popularity would wane and vanish; it was the fear that night after night of performances not only dulled their creative edge but also frayed the emotional boundaries holding the Muppets together.  It was uncertainty and doubt and loss and buried pain and all those things you don’t know (shouldn’t know) when you’re a kid.  Kermit wasn’t an icon; he was just a scared frog moving to keep misery at bay (twenty minutes or so after this song, the movie drops the revelation that Kermit broke up with Miss Piggy shortly after their wedding because he was too scared of commitment.  That’s some Big People Problems, right there), and now that things have stopped…

Well, it casts a pall over nearly forty years of entertainment.  For the rest of the film, whenever the filmmakers would cut to a picture from one of the older movies or run a clip from “The Muppet Show,” I felt like a kid looking through scrapbooks after his parents divorce, parsing through seemingly happy memories and realizing that no, everything was not all right.

Most of you probably won’t feel the same way, and you can enjoy The Muppets for what it is: a bright, sloppy, easygoing musical-comedy that never flags and ends before it wears out its welcome (I wish one could say the same about Muppet Treasure Island).  But for those superfans—or even for those who need to believe that heroes never stumble—you have been warned.  The Muppets can break your heart, if you let it.

Disney’s Muppets Blu-ray looks wonderful; the HD transfer maintains director James Bobin’s intentional softness of image while still allowing for ample detail; you can count the fuzz on the Muppet puppets, if you’d like.  The 7.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track compliments the picture perfectly, providing robust yet clear aural support.

Features are extensive and pleasantly silly.  The commentary between Segel, Stoller, and Bobin should delight anyone familiar with the Forgetting Sarah Marshall or “Undeclared” commentary tracks; it’s just them riffing on the movie.  After that, there a tongue-in-cheek “Scratching the Surface” featurette, ten minutes of deleted scenes, the full Chris Cooper rap song, a long blooper reel, a goofy script read-through sketch, and—best of all—seven trailers that find the Muppets spoofing other high-profile 2011 releases.  The three-disc set also includes DVD and digital copies and a Digital Code to download the film’s soundtrack.

While The Muppets contains the expected wall-to-wall gags, I found myself responding stronger to the film’s undercurrent of pain.  It’s a good movie with some unexpected insights.

The Muppets streets on March 20th.  Click HERE for Amazon’s listing.

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