The James Clayton Column: 10 great things about The Muppets movie

Feature James Clayton 28 Mar 2014 - 06:15

As its sequel makes its debut in UK cinemas, James looks back at the 2011 The Muppets movie...

"We're doing a sequel!" they sing and, indeed, Muppets Most Wanted is now in theatres and folks really do want to see The Muppets... Again! (The sequel's working title).  In fact, if you scan most 'most wanted' lists you're likely to eventually find the Muppets somewhere in the midst of the myriad desired items.

Kermit, Miss Piggy and the rest of Jim Henson's ragtag felt-and-foam-based gang of handmade heroes are in demand and universally loved. Even so, it's probably reasonable to suggest that, for a while, people forgot just how much they loved them.

This is where the 2011 movie The Muppets comes in. Easily the most sensational, inspirational, celebrational, Muppetational reboot ever made, the James Bobin-directed comeback flick brought the whole band back together again in style and reignited the phenomenon (doo-doo, doo-doo-doo). Now reunited, everyone's favourite variety group are doing just fine - nay! Phenomenal! Doo-doo, doo-doo! - having made a righteous rainbow connection with the 21st century.

After years of relative quiet the Muppets were suddenly resurgent and relevant again, revived in deft and respectful fashion under the auspices of the Walt Disney Company (owners of The Muppets Studio since 2004). A decade ago a collective shout of "It's time to light the lights!" was followed by an inspired flurry of high profile activity - going viral on YouTube with a very-Muppet version of Bohemian Rhapsody, an acclaimed event movie in multiplexes and a TV holiday special with Lady Gaga all signs that the Muppets were back in favour and at the forefront of pop cultural thought once more.

Now, returning to the cinema, we arrive at Muppets Most Wanted - a fresh feature-length Muppet caper packed with glorious new songs, an obscene number of celebrity cameos and an absurd plot that sends our heroes touring round Europe while Kermit hangs around a Siberian Gulag with a few famous movie bad guys. It's an absolute blast of a misadventure that solidifies the Muppets' good name, but we wouldn't be enjoying Muppets Most Wanted without its direct predecessor. Reflecting upon it, I realise that the 2011 was a milestone moment - not just for the titular icons but for pop culture as a whole.

It's never too early for a retrospective feature and I'd like to take a look back at The Muppets and list ten things that it did extremely well or that I reckon had an impact on the wider world. It's a subjective list and you could probably run and run with your own reasons as to why the movie is something a little bit special. For what it's worth, here are my thoughts on The Muppets and some explanation as to why it should be continually lauded as a fantastical, entertaining and emotionally touching work of some significance...

It brought Jim Henson creations back to the big screen

Once upon a while ago, Jim Henson creations appeared at the cinema with more frequency and prominence - the heyday being the 1980s where fantasies like The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth rolled out alongside the original Muppet movie series. After something of a dearth in the aftermath of Henson's death, The Muppets manifested itself as a beautiful moment simply because it brought the great man's legacy alive again on the big screen. What's more, the fact that it was an original feature for worldwide theatrical release was a welcome, progressive step-up after several literary adaptations (though they are great adaptations) and smaller works for TV. The Muppets - and the fruits of Henson's imagination - deserve the cinematic platform.

It celebrated practical special effects

The 2011 reboot also provided a perfect opportunity for the talented Muppeteer team to showcase their skills and artistry and The Muppets stands as an exemplary celebration of practical special effects. Anything is possible with CGI and mo-cap animation, but stop-motion animation movies from studios like Aardman and Laika alongside the work of the Jim Henson Studio keep the old-school magic alive in the digital era. Puppetry is a remarkable artform and in reaching out to audiences (reaching movement physically made by the Muppeteer crew), The Muppets proved that there's still a place for old-fashioned crafts in modern pop culture.

It crossed generation divides

Appealing to all ages is an almost impossible endeavour. The Muppets is one of those rare creatures that achieves the extraordinary feat and is remarkable as a film that genuinely does have something to offer everyone and, thus, it overcame generational schisms. Touching upon the nostalgia of those who loved The Muppet Show and other vintage Muppet productions while simultaneously setting out to embrace the children of the 21st century, the film's blend of old and new successfully catered to the disparate demographics. Few pop-cultural brands have that kind of cross-generational allure - only Star Wars and Lego instantly come to mind and, in the latter case, I'd argue that The Muppets blazed a trail for the latter's recent first brick blockbuster. Kermit and his companions proved their timelessness and family value, simultaneously smoothing over estranging age group divisions.

It was an accessible and appealing musical for the masses

Generally speaking, people eager to please the masses don't tend to pitch musicals. The genre is saddled with a lot of stigma and it's figured that live-action musicals are an alienating proposition for people who don't fit into a very particular, stereotyped niche. Kudos are due to the makers of The Muppets for wholeheartedly embracing the format and going at it with Great Gonzo gusto to produce the most Broadway of Muppet movies. The grandstanding song-and-dance numbers - vital to the narrative drive - are spectacular, catchy, gloriously comic and quite often, touchingly profound. No one - not even the most stubborn anti-musical moopet - could come out of "Life's a Happy Song" without a smile on their mug. It may be that The Muppets resounds as an uplifting and witty musical feature that breaks down resistance to stories that stop and sing about it. In a way, it's very similar to Flight of the Conchords. Speaking of which...

It gave Bret McKenzie a major league platform and won a Flight of the Conchords member an Oscar

Flight of the Conchords co-creator James Bobin turned out to be the perfect fit for The Muppets, but the movie wouldn't have been anywhere near as sweet without the input of one half of "New Zealand's fourth most popular guitar-based digi-bongo a-capella-rap-funk-comedy folk duo". On point as music supervisor, Bret McKenzie can take a lot of credit for the superb soundtrack but his biggest contribution is in the writing of two original songs that, I reckon, rank among the best in Muppet history. Life's A Happy Song and Man Or Muppet are beautiful masterpieces and the latter won the Academy Award for Best Original Song. That's not only an Oscar win for the Muppets, but also an Oscar for a member of Flight of the Conchords as well so - boom! - double geek victory.

It had Chris Cooper rapping

For more proof of Tha Motherflippin' Rhymenoceros Bret McKenzie's lyrical genius, look to Let's Talk About Me - Tex Richman's rap about how great and rich he is (he uses "more greens than Vincent Van Gogh", apparently). Hearing fearsome veteran thesp Chris Cooper drop dope rhymes like "I got more cheddar than some super-sized nachos/got cashflow like Robert has De Niros" is a weird highlight to savour and the perfect example of how Muppets productions bring out the bizarro best from willing celebrity guest stars. The Muppets definitely kept the surreal tradition going strong.

It offered the only acceptable cover version of Smells Like Teen Spirit

Certain songs should never be covered. If they're not performed by the original artist - the individual or group who gives the track its absolute meaning and forms its essential context, soul and authentic character - the song has no purpose. Nirvana's Smells Like Teen Spirit is one of those songs and no karaoke version or tribute can cut it. The only exception to this rule is the a cappella take performed by Link Hogthrob, Sam the Eagle, Beaker and Rowlf (The Muppets Barbershop Quartet) in The Muppets. Oh, and while I'm at it the cluckin' ace Camilla and the Chickens cover of Cee-Lo Green's Forget You is far better than the original.

It was beneficial liberal brainwashing

Fears that Disney ownership would undermine the Muppets' slightly-countercultural, satirical edge were proved to be unfounded when spectators took stock of the ideological principles underpinning The Muppets' plot. The baddie is greedy, heartless big business (embodied by avaricious oil baron Tex Richman) and the film's thematic concerns appalled the Fox Business Network and other conservative media outfits who collectively condemned The Muppets as a promo piece for a Hollywood liberal (or possibly Communist) agenda. If the film's "Fozzie Bear Good, Businessman Bad" message is indeed explicit brainwashing of children I'm all in favour, because indoctrinating kids to distrust fossil fuel and cold-hearted capitalists is, in my view, a beneficial form of mind manipulation. Maniacal laugh!

It gave audiences a sweet, tuneful and empowering "You're okay!" message

"It's not easy being green" resonates as a lament for the lost and lonely, and the Muppets always offer some form of fuzzy comfort. Soul-searching and a sense of inadequacy are both right at the heart of the reboot and are potently expressed in both the plot - the Muppets fail in their efforts to raise the money needed to save their theatre - and in the plight of new character, Walter. Over the course of the movie, our confused protagonist comes to terms with himself in spite of his epic insecurities (see Man Or Muppet), finds courage and even realises that his unimpressive talent (whistling) is, actually, a pretty cool skill of some use. The self-affirming "You're okay as you are!" sentiments (sing it! "I've got everything that I need, right in front of me!") are potently stirring and The Muppets echoes the reassuring, less-unrealistically-aspirational attitudes of other recent family-friendly films - something discussed at length in this excellent article by Den Of Geek's own Louisa Mellor.

It set up Muppets Most Wanted and cleared the way for more Muppet movies

Muppets Most Wanted picks up right where the grand finale of The Muppets left off, and it may be that the 2011 film was worthwhile simply as a means to get to the manic fun of the sequel. Viewing it as a franchise reboot (though 'brand reinvigoration' may be a more apt label), The Muppets did a superb job at laying the foundations for a future series in terms of  (re)establishing characters and reaching an audience. Muppets Most Wanted keeps that momentum and energy going and it's to be hoped that more Muppet capers will come in the near future.

The goodwill, creative zest and old-fashioned magic is still alive and kicking in the 21st century and it's chiefly down to The Muppets - a film that, on reflection, resonates as a singular work of special genius.

James Clayton is still singing Life's A Happy Song on a daily basis to perk himself up and, consequently, he's now convinced that life is a fillet of fish. Yes it is. You can visit his website or follow him on Twitter. You can visit his website or follow him on Twitter

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The lyrics are awwwwwwwwwwwwwwful.

And one thing that really grated on me was Kermit's speech about family to every single Muppet EXCEPT those from the 80s onwards. No Rizzo, no Clifford, Clueless, Polly... Some notion of family.

It didn't have Ricky Gervais.

Seriously though, I felt The Muppets just nailed the tone of human-muppet interaction in a way that Most Wanted (except for Ty Burrel and Sam the Eagle) didn't.

Actually, Rizzo is stood at the front during that speech despite not appearing at all in the rest of the movie

Did he? I thought he didn't appear until the finale. My bad.

They still very, very deliberately omitted a whole load of Muppets from the 90s. That's not what family is supposed to be about.

One of the most memorable moments for me was Man or Muppet and seeing Jim Parsons in human-muppet mode.

I've watched the film about 7 times and I well up every time Rainbow Connection starts... I remember sitting in the cinema watching the first time during the final show and thinking "Oh dear, if Rainbow Connection is in here, I'm in trouble" ... thankfully I wasn't the only one reaching for tissues.

Rizzo shows up a couple of times when they're cleaning the theatre as well. But yeah, it's a shame some Muppets were given short shrift. I think, though, it had the priority of reintroducing the core players who had been at the heart of it since the early Jim Henson days, which I think is perfectly fair enough, but it does seem unfair that some Muppets didn't even show up in crowd scenes.

Especially since they went to the trouble of including many, many below minor characters from The Muppet Show, and yet ignoring some of the most prominent 90s Muppets.

I'll look out for Rizzo more next time I watch it. I'd missed him completely, apart from in the finale (when he's one of many rats). I was very pleased to see him get a line in one of the trailers for MMW, I hope Bobin and Stoller see sense and bring back the brilliant pairing of Gonzo and Rizzo.

I agree with every word written here about the 2011 movie. Unfortunately, the sequel is utter, utter rubbish.

But they changed history! The original Muppet Show was made at Elstree in the UK, not in Los Angeles in the US. Imagine what that movie could have been like if they'd stuck to historical fact. Kermit & Co would have gone wandering down Elstree High Street, stepping into Tescos and realising that they were 30 years too late! Then they could have turned the movie into a time travelling tale, going back to the 80s to prevent the sale of large parts of the Elstree Studios to Tescos!

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