The Review: Star Trek: Generations. Police Academy: Mission To Moscow. Trail Of The Pink Panther. Movie geeks will often debate the merits of sequels, prequels, interquels and lots-of-other-made-up-word-quels, but you can be sure that any film series that’s already been to the well six times has already taken quite a lot of the well water. But the Muppets have done more than that; on and off TV for over forty years, with two Sesame Street films and two TV films as well as countless other ventures which didn’t have the name Muppet in them, so you could be forgiven for thinking that the Muppets had seen their time come and go. But what if the very nostalgia for the good times gone by was what could make The Muppets great again?
Jason Segel obviously craves that nostalgia, having tried to write a puppet Dracula adaptation while a struggling actor. Much of his back catalogue has also been filled with meditations on nostalgia or reflection, as well as themes of family and relationships, and The Muppets is built around two clear aims: to evoke an emotional response from a collective fondness for the Muppets, which might burn stronger in anyone old enough to remember the TV series from the first time around, and to explore the nature of relationships and relationships and themes of loyalty and love, using both the Muppets and their human counterparts. The early stages of the film are slightly more stylised than many previous outings, but after that The Muppets settles very much into the kind of formula established in the first three Muppet movies of the Seventies and Eighties.
Those formula elements include a small central human cast, in this case Segel and Amy Adams as the romantic couple whose trip to LA kicks off proceedings, and as both have form in this area both are well suited to their roles; Chris Cooper is more of a left-field choice as the nominal baddie, but has his moments to be allowed to chew scenery. There should also be a wide variety of smaller cameos, which indeed there are, although your recognition of some and enjoyment of many will depend on how much US TV you watch. The songs range from good to excellent, Flight Of The Conchords’ Bret McKenzie adapting his usual intense wordplay style to a more traditional musical feel, although there could possibly be time for one (or two) more of them. Finally, in terms of the Muppets themselves, unlike many other supposedly great Muppet films which end up sidelining their stars, Kermit and Miss Piggy are centre stage, and although a handful of the Muppets Tonight-era Muppets get a look in at various levels, it’s the traditional Muppets that form most of the cast, so fans of everyone from Rowlf to Scooter and Animal to Bunsen and Beaker should be satisfied with the screen time for their Muppet.
What sets this apart from previous films is that the self-referential, fourth-wall breaking comedy that typified the earlier films is not only in place here to drive many of the jokes (and the Eighties Robot is a source of lots of them alone), but by referencing back to the TV series and earlier films, and the love that the charactes themselves had for those films, that sense of nostalgia sought is powerfully evoked, and there are a selection of moments spread throughout the first half of the film that could move a few of the grown-ups in the audience to tears. But the Muppets have always been about the laughs, and the last act of the film, when the telethon to save the Muppets themselves is in full swing, captures the random anarchy of the Muppets at their very best. Almost as if someone could distill pure joy and bottle it, for Muppet fans this is an absolute treat; there is still the odd rough edge (a slightly rushed ending that’s still playing out when the credits have started rolling, for example), but for the Muppets it’s the seventh time that’s the charm.
Why see it at the cinema: My one caveat for this would be that it’s maybe not suitable for very young children, judging by the amount of fidgeting in the screening I was at. For everyone else, the laughs, the tears and the pitch perfect recreation of one very particular Muppet moment demand to be seen on the largest screen you can find.
The Score (out of 10):
Final ranking of the Muppet movies
1. The Muppets
2. The Great Muppet Caper
3. The Muppet Christmas Carol
4. The Muppet Movie
5. The Muppet Treasure Island
6. The Muppets Take Manhattan
7. Muppets In Space
The Review: It’s easy to wonder today how many of the spate of animated movies which have followed in the wake of Toy Story and other Pixar classics would have been made in the days of hand-drawn animation. Certainly computer graphics have opened up the opportunity to increase the level of detail on the visuals, both in terms of quality and content, but if any lesson should be learned from Pixar, it’s that story is the key – get that right, first and foremost, and the rest is complementary rather than essential.
The story here is a classic juxtaposition – Gru (Steve Carell) is an criminal mastermind working in the tough and competitive field of criminal mastermindery, but whose previous schemes have not met the success he’d have liked. His efforts to achieve prominence in his chosen profession pit him against up and coming evil genius Vector (Jason Segel), and in his efforts to get one up on his new nemesis, he’s willing to take any steps necessary, even the adoption of three unwanted orphans who turn up on his doorstep one day to sell cookies. His underestimation of the implications of this development only serve to complicate his efforts to achieve his greatest challenge yet – to steal the Moon…
So the story itself is fairly solid, and there are a few standout elements. The first is Gru himself, Carell going for an indeterminate Eastern-European style accent that actually gives his character just that – character. It’s easy to warm to him and also to remain sympathetic, despite his oddball plans. The little ones in his care are also extremely entertaining, be it the perfectly balanced orphan trio or the vast array of freakish-looking yellow minions, and the movie isn’t afraid to play on some of their stranger physical characteristics, which also generate some of the bigger laughs.
But, and there is a but, that’s all that really stands out. If you’ve seen the making of that gets cycled on afternoon TV and satellite channels, you’ll have seen how good Julie Andrews is as Gru’s mum – but she actually gets about four lines in the final cut. The plot itself has some rough edges (these criminal masterminds are oddly civilised and very formal for a bunch of evil criminals, even the cute and cuddly kind) that diminish its impact. It’s not fair to expect everything to have the large emotional impact of (yes, them again) Pixar, but it only engages the emotions a little, and also ends up being mildly chucklesome rather than laugh out loud funny. Most of the rest of the supporting cast, including an oddly miscast Russell Brand, also leave little impact. It should please your smaller minions and it’s good value for the whole family, but this is more “Despicable Meh” than anything else.
Why see it at the cinema: There’s some well-handled action sequences and generally lots going on at any one time, so the cinema does do Despicable Me some favours.
Why see it in 3D: There’s moderately effective use of the third dimension during the running time, but the end crecits are the most prominent 3D showcase, with minions competing to see how far into the audience’s faces they can get. Ah, my eyes!
The Score: 6/10