Thursday, December 18, 2014

'The Muppets' revival combines tradition, commercial demands

FULL DISCLOSURE: I've never been a Muppet guy.

Hand puppets have the same effect on me that clowns have on some other people.

That goes triple for Miss Piggy. Even as a lad I sensed that her vaulting narcissism was a precursor of cultural things to come. And her obsessive pursuit of poor, sweet, clueless Kermit was far more terrifying to me than anything on "Night Gallery."

All that said, I found "The Muppets" movie to be highly tolerable, and agreeably low on the Miss Piggy involvement scale. It is of course the pet project of Muppet-mad Jason Segel, who's co-written the script and some of the songs for this movie-musical, presented by director James Bobin with some of the cheekiness he brought to "Flight of the Conchords."

In the movie's kooky internal reality, Segel is Gary, a guy whose best friend is a puppet. Their dream, fulfilled at the movie's outset, is to visit the defunct Muppet theater, now a museum.

They become involved in a plot by a greedy oilman (Chris Cooper) to turn the theater into a drilling platform. It falls to Gary, his puppet friend and girlfriend (Amy Adams) to summon the Muppet diaspora (Kermit, Piggy, Fozzie Bear, et al) for a fund-raising TV telethon to save the Muppet legacy.

Every subplot has a song, some are better than others. Adams gets the short stick, but fares better than Cooper, whose "rap" is even more atrocious than it's meant to be. Segel has conspicuously given himself the best number ("Am I a Muppet or a man?").

Muppet purists have complained about some of the updated touches - Fozzie Bear lets rip with a few farts - but in general Segel/Stoller/Bobin walk a pretty steady line between Muppet traditionalism and contemporary commercial demands. Maybe you don't need so much Segel, but you don't get another Muppet movie without him (or Jack Black, Rashida Jones, Neil Patrick Harris, Selena Gomez and a dozen other celebrity cameos).

I understand why traditionalists cringe, but to them I would say: Don't get piggy. The corporate money behind the Muppet revival comes from Disney, which attaches an animated Pixar short film featuring the "Toy Story" characters, a very funny riff on the idea of Happy Meal toys.

Gary Thompson Daily News Film Critic
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