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Is "The Muppets" a True Muppet Movie?

By Christopher Campbell | Spout November 28, 2011 at 12:33PM

I finally caught "The Muppets" over the long weekend, and while I did enjoy a lot of it, I was bothered by how little it actually qualifies as a true Muppet movie. How so, if the film does feature Kermit the Frog, Miss Piggy, Fozzie the Bear and the rest of the gang (minus Rizzo, sadly)? Well, the Muppets are really just costars, supporting roles in a Jason Segel film rather than the main characters of their own. Some, like the barely present Rolf, seem as much to be celebrities making cameos as do Neil Patrick Harris and Selena Gomez.
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The Muppets no muppets

I finally caught "The Muppets" over the long weekend, and while I did enjoy a lot of it, I was bothered by how little it actually qualifies as a true Muppet movie. How so, if the film does feature Kermit the Frog, Miss Piggy, Fozzie the Bear and the rest of the gang (minus Rizzo, sadly)? Well, the Muppets are really just costars, supporting roles in a Jason Segel film rather than the main characters of their own. Some, like the barely present Rolf, seem as much to be celebrities making cameos as do Neil Patrick Harris and Selena Gomez.

It's bad enough that it takes forever (and at least two musical numbers) for a Muppet to appear onscreen -- not counting the relatively uninteresting new puppet, Walter, because he does not count. But the Muppets are also not the protagonists of the movie, not even close. Jason Segel's character, Gary, is. And to a near-equal amount, so is Walter. Amy Adams and the villain played by Chris Cooper are also more dominant figures than Kermit and friends.

Muppets Jason Segel and Walter

This alone might not disqualify the film, because Michael Caine plays the protagonist in "The Muppet Christmas Carol," Kevin Bishop plays the protagonist of "Muppet Treasure Island" and Ashanti plays the protatonist of "The Muppets' Wizard of Oz." But wasn't Segel and cowriter Nicholas Stoller's desire to make up for these post-Henson works by returning to the earlier, better films? Jason Bellamy's review at Press Play says it well:

For a guy who so clearly gets the Muppets, Segel should be the first person to realize how utterly un-Hensonian this is. Henson’s Muppet movies are full of big musical performances, but always with the Muppets at the center of the action. [...] Segel’s core mistake is to repeatedly push the Muppets to the margins in a movie designed to give them the spotlight. Case in point: Of the more than 20 songs in Henson’s three Muppet movies, only one of them has a non-Muppet performer (“Piggy’s Fantasy” in Caper, in which Kermit vies with a voice-dubbed Charles Grodin, which is part of the joke). Yet of the six original songs in Segel’s film, only one of them is Muppets-only. One.

"The Muppets" is a movie about some guys searching for the Muppets and making a lot of venerative references to their past, legitimate works. It's not unlike "The Artist" in the way it's a pretty unoriginal tribute. I enjoyed a lot of that movie, too, in spite of my general dislike for it. And at least it was silent; at times I wish I wasn't hearing the strange voices coming out of characters originally performed by Jim Henson and Frank Oz. Forget the faux versions of the Muppets in the movie (called Moopits), the "real" Muppets come off as frauds, too.

Moopits

In a way, the Muppets of "The Muppets" are a macguffin. They could have been any beloved classic material. Silent films, for instance, or Looney Tunes. My fears a while ago that this would just seem like a redo of "Looney Tunes: Back in Action" weren't unfounded. I prefer Joe Dante's brand of fan fiction, though, more than Segel's. I'm probably in the minority there, but I believe Dante understands and translates the works of Chuck Jones, Friz Freleng, Bob Clampett and the other LT animators better than Segel gets Henson.

Sometimes I think Segel's character should have just kidnapped the Muppets, a la bad fans Annie Wilkes and Rupert Pupkin. I guess he sort of did, non-literally. There have been a few movies this year likened to "Field of Dreams," and this should be, too. Segel built something and the people came, but to me it still just seems like a baseball diamond in the middle of a cornfield.

Other movies it calls to mind are fandom-based films like "Fanboys" and the obnoxious documentary "Don't You Forget About Me." Also, the initially obnoxious, but ultimately wonderful documentary "Paul Williams Still Alive," which of course has a link to the Muppets . Maybe it's that I stood front row at a small club in Toronto after its premiere and listened to Williams sing "Rainbow Connection" live (along with part of the "Love Boat" theme), so it wasn't as big a deal to hear it redone in "The Muppets."

I'd rather watch the Paul Williams doc again than "The Muppets," and this has nothing to do with my nonfiction interests. I'd still rather watch the original three Muppet movies than any documentary any day. But someone please do get on distributing "Paul Williams Still Alive" soon. It's worth seeing and it might as well cash in on this Muppet nostalgia wagon.

I should note that others have mentioned another doc to watch instead of or prior to "The Muppets": "Being Elmo." Indiewire critic Eric Kohn writes:

The documentary makes a powerful case for the advanced intellect driving the Muppets' iconography. They can't keep that status alone; someone has to take them there. If younger viewers still need the Muppets, their salvation exists not in the movie theater, but on the countless hours of material available on DVD.

Then, of course, I again urge everyone interested in Muppets to see David Soll's "Puppet," which is now on DVD and airing on Documentary Channel. It presents a different path for those who grew up on Henson, more evolved rather than nostalgic. Sure, the modern puppetry focused on in the film makes far less money than Segel's work, but it's a lot more interesting.

Did anyone else feel like this wasn't a real Muppet movie? I know at least critic Simon Abrams is with me, writing in his review, "When I had finished watching The Muppets, I didn’t feel like I had seen a Muppet movie." How depressing.

Follow Christopher Campbell on Twitter: @thefilmcynic
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This article is related to: The Muppets, Muppets, Discussions, Documentary, Fantasy, Paul Williams Still Alive, Being Elmo, Puppet