November 23, 2011

The Muppets (11/23/2011)

Lettergrade: B

The Muppets isn't the best movie that the Muppets have appeared in, but it's the only one since creator Jim Henson's death in 1990 that's clever, exciting, and actually funny. I really liked the movie, although I must admit that I didn't entirely love it... Whatever the flaws, though, it's a lot of fun to see these characters in a highly entertaining picture again which at long last remembers that Muppets were not originally designed exclusively for kids... adults were always intended to have as much fun with the characters, if not more.

The original Muppet Show and the three movies that were made while Henson was still alive were all very kid-friendly, of course, but they also contained a lot of subversive humor and even ventured into some pretty risqué territory now and again. The three post-Henson films that were made in the 90s (along with the TV shows, made-for-TV-movies, and video games of the '00s) didn't quite have the same spirit, never seeming to aspire to be much more than than "pleasantly amusing."

This new one is kinda like a revival of (and love letter to) the Muppets of eld. It's the product of co-writer / producer / star Jason Segal, who pitched the idea to Disney (owners of the Muppet name and characters on-and-off since the late 80s) after Forgetting Sarah Marshall made him a hot commodity in 2008. James Bobbin - of HBO's Flight Of The Conchords semi-fame - came in to direct it, and he recruited fellow Conchords alumus Bret McKenzie to rewrite several of the songs, resulting in some great musical sequences that have a very clear Conchord influence.

When Segal, his girlfriend Amy Adams, and his suspiciously puppet-like adopted brother Walter come to Los Angeles for a vacation, they discover a plot by the villainous Tex Richman, an evil businessman from Texas who is rich (and played with hammy aplomb by Chris Cooper), to tear down the dilapidated Muppet Theater so he can immediately start drilling for oil. The only way to stop him is to come up with 10 million dollars in the next few days. The three locate the reclusive Kermit The Frog, now living quietly in a mansion in Beverly Hills, and convince him to get the Muppets together again for one last telethon version of their old TV show.

The premise cleverly pays tribute to the original Muppet Movie made in 1979, to the getting-the-gang-back-together sequence from 1984's The Muppets Take Manhattan and of course to the original Muppet Show itself, which ran for five seasons between 1976 and 1981 and then for years afterward in syndication. The concept of that series (which was actually made in England, not LA) had Kermit as the manager of a vaudeville-style song-and-dance variety show that was rife with backstage crises, often due to the quirks and egos of the Muppet performers themselves.

This new movie certainly knows the source material inside and out, but the nature of having such a big ensemble to work with - both man and Muppet - means that many of the characters only get a few lines here and there. I really only remember Gonzo, for example, having one significant scene while many others don't even get that. The endless stream of celebrity cameos (a tradition as old as the Muppets themselves) is consistently delightful, but the picture feels a bit imbalanced overall, and I believe it's a result of the story work being generally kinda sloppy.

Once Segal and Adams meet up with the Muppets, their plot gets pushed into the background (as it should), but the picture surrenders a disproportionate amount of time to the never-before-seen Walter, who desperately wants to fit in and be accepted as one of the Muppets. The character, which members of the crew recently confessed was basically conceived as a Muppet Michael Cera, really isn't terribly interesting on the whole, and I would argue that he even should have been eliminated from the movie entirely. His story could have easily been combined with Segal's, better justifying Segal's presence in the first place, and possibly allowing more screen time for the established Muppets.

Adams is great as Segal's long-term girlfriend Mary, who proclaims early in the film - irony free - that she's always dreamed of visiting Los Angeles. In one of the many sly digs at the city, gun-shots and various assorted criminal activity can often be heard in background during scenes in their hotel and when they're out and about in Hollywood. She feels a bit neglected while Segal and Walter are off cavorting with the Muppets, but unfortunately, her story never really integrates with the rest of the movie in a significant way. There's a certain amount of symmetry between her plot and Miss Piggy's, which could, in theory, have made for some great Piggy/Adams (and Kermit/Segal) bonding scenes ala Miss Piggy and Joan Rivers in The Muppets Take Manhattan, but I don't believe the two women even have a direct conversation at any point.

A number of articles have appeared in the Hollywood Reporter and the New York Times over the last few months which quote unidentified long-time Muppet performers who disliked Segal and Bobbin's approach to the movie, claiming that they really didn't have a handle on the characters and that they sacrificed integrity in the name of jokes. Others, like Frank Oz (the long-time performer of "Miss Piggy," "Fozzie," and "Animal," among others) and Jerry Nelson ("Lew Zealand," "Statler," and "Camilla The Chicken," etc.), went further still, refusing to participate in the making of the film at all. One of the Hollywood Reporter articles even hints that some veterans who did participate considered removing their names from the final picture at one time, including Steve Whitmire, who inherited the role of Kermit when Henson died.

I think several of the complaints are a little silly, honestly, but I do agree with a few of them: The idea that the Muppets kinda broke up on poor terms and all went in separate directions - some bitterly - doesn't entirely seem in-character based on what we might remember of them from before. Kermit never seemed likely to live in a mansion in Beverly Hills, or to virtually abandon the old Muppet Theater and the Muppet Studios, letting them fall into extreme disrepair. We're never given a clear idea of what he's actually been doing all these years, although it's later mentioned that he built the house for Miss Piggy and himself to live in back in the 80s, before they had some falling out and she moved to Paris. And it does kinda seem, as the movie suggests, that Kermit must have exhibited some serious asshole celebrity behavior to everyone for the gang to split up in the first place. The film is highly self-referential to the reality that the Muppets haven't made a successful film or TV show in a while... why not have them part ways because they couldn't make money performing as the Muppets anymore, which, again, would be similar to a story point in the of middle Takes Manhattan where the gang is broke and can't get work on Broadway?

This section of the NYT article also reveals that Oz was developing a new Muppet script with Disney that he was to direct himself, but the simultaneous events of longtime head of Walt Disney Studios Dick Cook abruptly leaving the company in September of 2009 combined with Segal pitching his own take on the franchise meant that a deal was never closed on Oz's proposed sequel. A lot of the on-and-off-the-record grumbling from Muppet alumni might well stem entirely from these events, and indeed have nothing to do with how anyone actually feels about the movie that Segal and Bobbin were allowed to make. Or it could be that some of the long-time performers complained to the press in a show of solidarity to their longtime colleague Oz, who didn't get to make the picture he wanted to. Or it could just be one or two people within the company who were unhappy with how things went on the movie. Or maybe not. Only those involved know for sure.

I feel a little bad issuing minor grievances myself, frankly, because I, like many another Muppet fan, have been wishing for years that the characters would appear in another project where they were more like they were in the 70s and 80s, and this film, faults and all, largely gets things right. A lot of the old Muppet guard has also wondered aloud if Henson would have been happy with Segal's version, due to a mild fart joke and the occasional off-color reference. Henson didn't seem terribly adverse to small doses of that kind of thing when he was alive, and I doubt he'd have much of a issue with it now. More importantly, The Muppets is a witty movie involving his creations that people seem to really enjoy, and I cannot imagine that he would have a problem with that either.

November 12, 2011

Puss In Boots (11/12/2011)

Lettergrade: C-

My wife and I are big cat freaks, and as such DreamWorks Animation's Puss In Boots probably had our ticket money sewn up months before the film itself actually arrived in theaters. The first 15 minutes or so - wherein we are reintroduced to the Antonio Banders-voiced "Puss," a deadly feline soldier of fortune - are where the most potent anthropomorphized kitty material is rolled out. After the A material has been used, however, the picture wanders squarely into direct-to-video territory and never entirely returns.

Now the Puss character himself is great... He first appeared in 2004's Shrek 2 and for some reason stuck around while the sequels got progressively shittier in 2007 and 2010. The key thing that plagued parts 3 and (I assume) 4 was the unremarkable story work: The fairly non-existent plotting combined with the piss-poor character stuff and the borderline nauseating pop culture references (to say nothing of its unforgivable use of Smash Mouth songs). I think that the same is what prevents Puss In Boots from being much more than a moderately enjoyable time-filler on the whole. In fact, I might place it a little above the last several Shrek movies in that it's essentially a Shrek film where you don't have to put up with Shrek himself.

The picture quasi-explores the backstory of Puss, and details his childhood in a Spanish orphanage where he was friends with the duplicitous Humpty Dumpty, voiced by Zach Galifianakis. Humpty (pictured right) harbors a life-long obsession with finding the Magic Beans of legend so he can then logically climb the resulting beanstalk up to the Giant's Castle in the clouds, which houses the Goose Who Lays Golden Eggs... etc. Long story short, Puss and Humpty have a falling out, and Puss is implicated in a bank robbery, forcing him to flee the town in disgrace. Years later, the two cross paths again and reluctantly join forces to continue the quest to get the beans from crazed hillbillies Jack and Jill , who are not both played by Adam Sandler, but instead voiced by Amy Sedaris and Billy Bob Thornton, both of whom must have needed the work.

Humpty's intentions aren't entirely pure, of course, and once his ulterior motives are revealed, almost none of what he does or says in the film makes any sense on any level whatsoever. My head is still hurting from trying to comprehend it all, really. If the movie has a key problem it is that it spends far too much time on its uninteresting villain and that the overly convoluted plot that never really builds much steam.

And it occurred to me part-way through the movie that I don't even know much about the "Puss In Boots" nursery rhyme in the first place, apart from the very general premise of there being a cat who wears boots. A quick Wikipedia search resulted in this:
"Master Cat; or, The Booted Cat" (early French: Le Maître Chat, ou Le Chat Botté), commonly known as "Puss in Boots", is a French literary fairy tale about a cat who uses trickery and deceit to gain power, wealth, and the hand of a princess in marriage for his penniless and low-born master.

Doesn't seem to have much to do with the movie, huh? Not a lot of swordplay or mock Zorro shit in there... they didn't even stick with Puss's original nationality. Now the film never claimed to be closely based on it in the first place or anything, but you know what I'm saying…

I think the moment that finally set my curiosity off was when Little Boy Blue showed up for a brief comedy cameo. At that point, it became clear to me that a key concept throughout all the Shrek adventures is to work in fairy tale and nursery rhyme references ad nasuem (ala Seth MacFarlane) without much relevance to what the source material is even about (also ala Seth MacFarlane). Even if you only know the poem's first line (as I do) - "Little Boy Blue come blow your horn" - you can probably guess that it's a mocking piece about some public figure who was deemed to be arrogant and self-aggrandizing. The character in the movie is literally blue. And he has a horn (which, mercifully is never blown, at least not on camera). Outside of that, his presence in the film really isn't designed to do much more than trigger a fuzzy memory of something you maybe kinda sorta remember, but don't really know too much about.

This sort of thing bothered me even back in the first picture, released in 2001, which always came off like a mean spirited "fuck you" letter to Disney in my opinion, seeing as DreamWorks SKG co-founder Jeffrey Katzenberg (and current DWA chief) was unceremoniously fired from Disney in 1994, and used his renowned salesmanship to convince director/producer Steven Spielberg and media mogul David Geffen to launch a new media company almost as an act of pique against his old employer. Shrek threw a bunch of public domain characters from fairy tales and nursery rhymes together into into a hodgepodge concept which briefly mocked and satirized storybook cliches and conventions before turning around and using many of them toward the end of the movie. But the references and uses were random, senseless and almost indiscriminate... As if pointing to some massive in-joke that we, the audience, were on the outside of.

Is it stupid that I'm putting any effort at all into complaining about this? Perhaps, but in response to that charge, I will tell you that part-way through the flick, I looked around the packed theater and saw at least a dozen faces staring down at smartphones, completely oblivious to the film or even to their own kids who had dragged them to see it. The dude sitting across the aisle from me, who wore an oversized Raiders hat and pants that were at least three sizes too baggy, tore his eyes away from whatever was happening on his iPhone exactly once: To let out a solitary, perfunctory laugh at an early gag that his kids had found hilarious.

We're still a few months away from parenthood ourselves... my hope is that I will remain a guy who actually pays attention to children's movies and cares about them being good and making sense, as opposed to this guy I'm talking about, who had resigned himself to attending a movie with his kids in body only and clearly couldn't have given less of a shit about what was happening on screen.

Who knows... maybe I'll get there. Or maybe I'll get lucky, and my kids will want to stick to movies that aim a little higher than Puss In Boots does.

My journal entry on 2007's Shrek The Third, the last Shrek movie I will ever pay to see.