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I liked ‘The Muppets.’ I didn’t love ‘The Muppets.’ I still laughed enough to consider it money well spent, but the movie had serious script problems that got in the way of it being a truly great comeback. I don’t think I’m saying anything especially mean-spirited, so why does it feel like I’m uttering unforgivable heresy?
People love the Muppets; they have generations of fans who are ecstatic that these characters are back on the big screen in a prominent way. But if you’re one of the people who thought the big-screen comeback was less than perfect, you have to duck and cover. We’re not allowed to do anything less than love ‘The Muppets,’ and if we’re just going to be so negative, we shouldn’t say anything at all.
So what exactly were my problems with ‘The Muppets’? (SPOILERS) I thought the movie spent more time telling us that the Muppets used to be funny rather than just showing them be funny. I don’t think Jason Segel is a flawless screenwriter, and perhaps his sentimentality got in the way of crafting a story the Muppets needed in order to make them relevant to a generation unfamiliar with them; at times the movie feels like a fawning love-letter to how ‘The Muppet Show’ used to make Segal feel when he was a little kid.
It’s a busy script. The movie tries to address the conflicts of: brothers Gary and Walter growing up and growing apart, Gary moving his relationship forward with his girlfriend Mary (Amy Adams), Walter finding a place in this world where he can blossom, the Muppets coming back together after a break-up and saving their old theater. It doesn’t spend enough time addressing each conflict at any given time; ‘The Muppets’ bounces around, leaving problems unaddressed for long periods, but apparently that’s OK because it’s the Muppets and remember how they made you feel when you were eight years old? It (unintentionally) coasts on this idea that your wistful nostalgia for the Muppets is enough to make you care about them now.
I better understand Frank Oz’s complaints about the script not being true to the characters; you can make a movie that asks, “What would happen if the Muppets all turned into jaded cynics who grew apart from each other?” It just turns out that the answer is kind of boring for long periods of time and straining to find a joke. And for the record, it doesn’t make Frank Oz a “sourpuss,” it makes him the guy who is able to comment on the new corporately-owned direction of a creative project that he gave thirty years of his life to.
Watch the trailer for ‘The Muppets’
I sat in an audience packed with kids and they grew restless for huge chunks of the first hour; they didn’t grow up with ‘The Muppet Show’ and they didn’t have this connection their parents had to it. They just wanted to see the cute, colorful talking animals do funny things, and it really doesn’t happen until the last third of the movie when they finally put on another Muppets revue. That telethon segment is a blast, and there were other funny jokes during the course of the movie (I really liked 80s Robot), but “made me laugh” and “excellent movie” are not synonymous.
My concern, though, is that anyone who publicly offers criticisms of ‘The Muppets’ — and other beloved properties — gets labeled a grouch, a cynic, impossible to please, or — my personal favorite — as an over-thinker. This world doesn’t address any theoretical problems the movie might have; it attacks the critic and ignores the criticisms.
This is a growing problem with movie fans and the conversation about movies. Let’s all just admit there’s no original ideas left in Hollywood; every movie is based off a pre-existing franchise: a comic book, an old cartoon, a book series, a video game, a toy, an amusement park ride or it’s a sequel, a prequel or a reboot to something we already saw and liked. These franchises all come with built-in fanbases, and those fanbases support the product no matter what — because when they discovered those characters, it really meant something to their personal development. When a dissenter comes along and offers his or her objective thoughts on the flaws of this new movie version of those characters you love, the fans take it as a personal attack.
And since the Internet has given everyone a chance to sound off and instantly get validated with a friend’s “like” or “upvote” or “retweet,” we don’t ever have to get into debates defending the things we love anymore. All we need to do is find other people who already agreed with us. Another joy of the Internet: thanks to its anonymity, you can personally attack anyone who didn’t see the movie with the exact same perspective as yours.
If this is the way pop culture is going, what’s the point anymore? You have your thing, I’ll have my thing, we’ll never share. No one new will discover it because we’re afraid to be confronted with flaws in this thing that means so much to us. So we’ll only share it with other people exactly like us who have a slavish devotion to it — rather than new or young audiences finding their own unique joy in it. And it will wither away when our generation dies because new kids won’t understand that “thing” we loved so much when we were their age.
Way to totally understand Jim Henson’s message!
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