Well, there’s no point hiding it: I’m too young to have grown up with the Muppets. Perhaps you could say that I’m a retro lover – like squillions of other Gen Ys before me – but the fact remains that I never watched The Muppet Show as a kid, saw the Muppet movies quite late , and really all round just preferred Aladdin.
So I guess I fall in the target audience of new fans that Disney seems to have been aiming to primarily please with their latest Muppets movie – The Muppets (2011). The audience of older, diehard, Muppet fans are merely hinted at by writers Jason Segel (Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Knocked Up) and Nicholas Stoller (Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Get Him to the Greek).
But, sorry Disney, you didn’t quite reach me.
Now, put down the pitchforks for a second. The movie did well, or so people tell me. It grossed 158 million worldwide, according to Box Office Mojo, which is comparable to The Emperor’s New Groove. This is also a little under half of Twilight’s gross – although I’m not exactly sure what that means – and it ranked number two in the box office for a while, losing only to Breaking Dawn – Part 1. And box office statistics aside, I could not find a single review slamming it. The closest I found is one blog that stated:
“Ignore the thankless Amy Adams music number, shoehorned in for contractual reasons (one can assume), forgive the over indulgence of Jack Black (one of many cameos) and don’t expect storytelling innovation.”
But this is then countered by:
“Settle down for something wondrous, and wondrously artificial — an hour and a half of proof that the Dream Factory can still squeeze out more than one happy song to sing along.”
So am I just wrong?
My gripe with the film isn’t the over abundance of sing-alongs (the Muppets were never ones to shy away from a song after all, even if these movie versions are more song than wit); or the extended, predictable cameo of Jack Black; or even the simplistic and overt storyline, since, let’s face it, the Muppets were never renowned for complex plot movements when there was unique and quirky characterisation to be explored…
…Ah, and there’s the problem.
The Muppet Show was original, funny, and endearing because of its characters and its humour. But the characters in this movie felt like cameos. There was never enough of them; never enough substance to their appearances. It didn’t feel like a Muppet movie, but rather a movie with Muppets in it. Which is fine for Treasure Island, (which still had a more in-depth character focus) but for something called The Muppets, you sort of expect the Muppets to feature with quality and not just quantity.
illustrated by Caroline Meathral
Criticism aside, I liked the angle. The Muppets are over, no one cares about them anymore, except for two fans from Smalltown who, after discovering an evil oil tycoon’s plot to destroy the Muppet Theatre in the hunt for oil, convince Kermit the Frog to get the Muppets back together for one last show. Even if it was repetitively hammered into our brains, the plotline was clever – a comeback about a comeback, with plenty of emotional references to losing your dream, just as the Muppets were always about finding it. And I liked that they didn’t try to give the movie a modern setting. It felt modern and was technically set in our time, but visually it was set in a past era, which lured the adult viewer into a feeling of nostalgia right from the word go and the child viewer into a world intriguingly different to their usual movies.
But the adult humour – aimed at the fans that grew up with The Muppet Show – although dry and witty, was too sparse to be appreciated, and the movie itself, even as a kid’s movie, felt superficial. I felt that even though the setting and the humour were enjoyable, and the theatrical style of the acting and the sets was spot-on for the script, all that did was cleverly hide the fact that, at a deeper level, there just wasn’t enough that stood out about it.
And for an indisputably generational show, why didn’t the movie try to talk more to the fans of the generations who have loved it previously? It would have taken so little to make them happy: a sketch from iconic characters like Bunsen and Beaker, The Hecklers, The Swedish Chef, and Pigs in Space; rather than just cameos, montages, or nothing at all, a few in-jokes and maybe some generational humour. While the movie aimed, and rightly so, at making the Muppets appealing for a new generation, it is the past fans to whom the movie really had the opportunity to mean something. However, it just felt like what they wanted was given only a brief acknowledgement while the movie focused instead on being a new-age kid’s movie with a slightly different image and a new style of character.
But perhaps this truly is just a kid’s movie. I can say that it was a genuinely heart-warming family film that was clearly written with a lot of love. Maybe I’m just too old, and Disney made the right choice in aiming it at the youth of today rather than instilling the film with subtle humour or putting irony into the songs for only the adults to pick up on. The Muppets always were for kids after all, and since songwriter Bret McKenzie (Flight of the Conchords) has won an Academy Award for his song “Man or Muppet”, they must have done something right.
I suppose there were two options for the movie from the beginning. Disney could have targeted the nostalgic audience of the characters’ youth with a quirky, dry and witty trip down memory lane. Or, they could have handed the kids of today yet another overly colorful musical feature – albeit in a refreshingly new and heartwarming style. They happened to pick the latter.
But with a heavier emphasis on the interactions of the characters and a little more attention to the tone of the humour, couldn’t they have achieved both?