Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Rank and File #1: Muppet Movies

Art is not a competition...but it sure is more fun that way.  Welcome to a new column where I apply a rigorous methodology to a particular group of films, then just rank them based upon my capricious whims.  In honor of the upcoming Muppets Most Wanted, the inaugural edition of Rank and File takes a look at the history of Muppet movies.

The Arena

The 7 theatrically-released feature length films starring Jim Henson's Muppet characters.

The Combatants

In the late 1970s, the most sensational, inspirational, celebrational puppets in the entertainment business became bonafide TV stars thanks to The Muppet Show, a comedy/music/variety extravaganza that was the perfect showcase for Jim Henson's whimsical sense of humor and vaudevillian instincts.  In that sense The Muppet Movie (1979) was a huge risk.  It's notoriously difficult to translate popular sketch comedy into feature film success (ask Lorne Michaels).  Gags and character traits that play like gangbusters in three-minute bursts tend to immolate when magnified at feature length, much like the proverbial ant under the lens.

But in a minor miracle, Henson managed to create a cinematic framework that accommodates both the do-anything-for-a-laugh credo of The Muppet Show and broader narrative goals that accompany the dreams of Kermit the Frog, Fozzie Bear, Miss Piggy, and the rest of the gang as they head toward their big break in Hollywood.  While celebrity cameos and fourth wall-breaking schtick are benchmarks of the Muppets' big-screen appeal, music is the true connective tissue here.  The Paul Williams-penned tunes, from "Movin' Right Along" to "I'm Going to Go Back There Someday" to the indomitable "Rainbow Connection," give the film a complex emotional palette and melancholy tone that belies the nonstop torrent of jokes.  Sure, there's a fair bit of mugging and ostensibly major conflicts are blithely dismissed, but it's done with tongue planted firmly in cheek.  As Kermit admits to his nephew Robin, movies approximate life in the service of larger themes and goals, and The Muppet Movie's celebration of friendship, perseverance, and imagination makes a brilliant case for giving storytellers the leeway to make it up as they see fit.

For his follow-up, 1981's The Great Muppet Caper, Henson tried to embrace a more formal approach.  Though the opening number, "Hey, A Movie," again extols the wonderful artificiality of filmmaking, it also prepares the audience for a more conventional experience, explaining that Kermit, Fozzie, and the Great Gonzo will be playing investigative journalists trying to unravel the mystery behind a European jewel heist.

Yet Caper has difficulty sticking to that conceit.  After an initial 15 minutes that establish the ground rules of the plot, it takes nearly an hour to be set in motion by a villainous Charles Grodin, who frames Miss Piggy for stealing his famous sister's necklace so he can pilfer an even bigger bauble from a gallery.  In between is lots of filler, some good (like anything involving the wacky tenants of the Happiness Hotel), some dull, and most of it focused on the weakest portion of the Muppet mythos: the on-again, off-again relationship of Kermit and Miss Piggy.  The latter tends to get a worse rap than she deserves, but in Caper she's alternately domineering, delusional, and deranged; she's the ultimate psycho lover setting a very poor example in her quest to land her frog.  The inspired lunacy of the climax restores most of the film's initial energy, but there's a lot of uneven ground to cover before then.

It pains me to use the word "mediocre" to describe a production as technically complex and lovingly handmade as a Muppet movie, but it's apt when talking about The Muppets Take Manhattan (1984).  With Henson focused on weirder, darker non-Muppet film projects like The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth throughout the '80s, Frank Oz took the reins as the director for the Muppets' third feature.  Oz is arguably the second most important puppeteer of all time and has good instincts as a director.  Unfortunately, Manhattan's script, which Oz co-wrote with Caper scribes Tom Patchett and Jay Tarses, is consistently the weakest link in a film that seems to have trouble justifying its own existence.

After a rocky introduction that involves the Muppets graduating from college together (riiiight), the first half of The Muppets Take Manhattan is not as poor as the film's overall reputation suggests.  Kermit leads his friends to New York City in the hopes of convincing a producer to mount their Broadway musical but, in a neat inversion of The Muppet Movie's conception of Hollywood as the easiest place in the world to find a job, the gang quickly discovers the difficulty of making it in show business.  Reduced to working a part-time job at a grubby diner, Kermit volunteers to stay behind and grind it out, transparently setting up a climactic third act reunion.

That's when things get really bizarre.  The movie crosses a line of decency and respect for its audience by thrusting Kermit into an unsettling sort-of romance with a perky human waitress (Juliana Donald), as well as saddling him a hokey bout of amnesia - caused when the beloved children's entertainment icon gets run over by a taxi - that turns him into a yuppie asshole.  As if that weren't enough, it then it veers into one of the oddest and most secretly disturbing endings for a mainstream family film: the recently revived Kermit performs in the opening night of the Muppets' Broadway musical, only to find that it's actually an elaborate ruse to shanghai him into a legally-binding wedding with Miss Piggy.  It's a moment teased so many times throughout the characters' history and it was probably bound to happen sometime...but did it have to be like this?

Other than launching the Muppet Babies cartoon in one of its few memorable sequences, The Muppets Take Manhattan left a bad aftertaste that acquired a more tragic dimension upon Jim Henson's death in 1990.  Born from an idea Henson had shortly before his passing (and shortly after he had sold his company to Disney), The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992) stands as a much more fitting swan song, though on paper, it sounds pretty iffy: a period literary adaptation with a highly structured plot that's the opposite of the shaggy, shambling vibe of the three previous Muppet films.  It also had to deal with the immense hole left by the departed Henson both as a filmmaker and a puppeteer.

In spite of the obstacles - or perhaps because of them - The Muppet Christmas Carol works beautifully on nearly every level: as a tribute to Henson's ineffable creative spirit (doubly poignant as it's directed by his son Brian); as a sweet and ingratiating holiday insta-classic; even as a surprisingly fresh and lively adaptation of Charles Dickens's picked-over novel.  Music is once again the secret weapon, with songwriter Paul Williams returning to the fold for the first time since The Muppet Movie.  However, the literary conceit gives the film a pleasing novelty, allowing Kermit to play a prominent role as Bob Cratchit, while Gonzo and Rizzo the Rat are brought to the fore as co-narrators, providing just the right dose of zany Muppet antics.  It's also the first Muppet movie to eschew the traditional cavalcade of cameos, featuring a charismatic lead performance by Michael Caine as Scrooge, who earns brownie points for taking the job seriously.

The Muppet Christmas Carol manages to steer the Muppets on a more sentimental tack that dovetails nicely with Dickens's traditional (and, it should be said, mostly secular) celebration of the Christmas spirit.  In comparison, Muppet Treasure Island (1996) represents a return to the characters' anarchic roots, while attempting to preserve the formula that made Christmas Carol a success.  Director Brian Henson again relies on catchy original songs, a villainous turn by a hammy British actor (Tim Curry), and the assistance of Gonzo and Rizzo as narrators/comic relief.  It's also a high-water mark for production values in a Muppet movie, with elaborate sets, an impressively large cast of puppets, and an epic score by Hans Zimmer.

The grandiosity comes as a price, however.  Though it sounds silly, Muppet Treasure Island feels too actorly; it's the Muppets putting on a show as always, but without most of the self-awareness.  The filmmakers do a good job of molding Robert Louis Stevenson's characters into their Muppet versions, though inevitably some are more fitting than others - while Sam Eagle finally gets a meaty role as the strict first officer on the treasure-seeking voyage, mainstays like Fozzie Bear and Miss Piggy almost have to be wedged in.  While not exactly on par with Christmas Carol, Muppet Treasure Island still delivers the goods via lavish production numbers and clever running gags that keep the audience engaged throughout its extended running time.

The late '90s were an interesting time for the Muppets.  Despite the critical success of their literary forays, projects like the variety show reboot Muppets Tonight and the feature film Muppets from Space (1999) suggest a corporate directive to make the characters hipper and more appealing to a new generation of kids who would ostensibly be put to sleep by "Rainbow Connection."  It's telling that Muppets from Space focuses heavily on Gonzo, putting his funky, thrill-seeking 'tude front and center as he attempts to investigate his origins.  It's a little grating - and kind of unnecessary, given Gonzo's prior comfort with being classified as a "whatever" - but all a loving nod to the Muppets' outsider-misfit roots, particularly when Gonzo is kidnapped by a rogue government agent (Jeffrey Tambor) convinced that the strange blue creature is an extraterrestrial.

Lasting for all of 88 minutes, Muppets from Space is a peppy but ultimately shallow experience studded with low wattage cameos from the likes of David Arquette and Hulk Hogan.  The eyebrow-raising lack of original songs - a first for the Muppets - is mitigated by the inspired left-field choice to populate the soundtrack with '70s funk and R&B.  It gives the proceedings a loose-goosey spirit that softens the harsh reality of Gonzo's existential crisis, and backgrounds the handful of wily montages (like the Muppets completing their morning routines to the strains of "Brick House") that hold up as the funniest parts of the movie.    

While Muppets from Space was essentially a flawed rebranding, 2011’s The Muppets was a true generational shift, placing creative control in the hands of people who grew up with the characters.  Producer, co-writer, and star Jason Segel emerged as the face of the reboot, trumpeting his fondness for all things Muppet - a nice marketing idea that unfortunately doubles as the fulcrum of the film’s narrative.  In the movie, he plays brother of Walter, a brand-new puppet character and Muppet superfan tagging along with Segel and his fiancé (Amy Adams) on their anniversary trip to Los Angeles.  When Walter overhears a rich oil baron (Chris Cooper) detail his plans to demolish the run-down Muppet Studios, he takes it upon himself to reunite the Muppets for a telethon to save their old stomping grounds from destruction.

The Muppets is a starry-eyed tribute, a well-meaning if sometimes misguided movie.  At its best, it's a fun amalgamation of old and new, notably in Flight of the Conchords star Bret McKenzie assuming the mantle of Paul Williams with his impishly clever original songs.  At its worst, however, The Muppets is a self-congratulatory hymn to Segel's clout in getting the movie made, as channeled through Walter.  He's an ok addition to the Muppet crew - kind of a Kermit lite - but Walter's story overwhelms the real stars until the movie shifts gears in the third act to stage a joyous re-creation of classic Muppet Show mayhem.  That's The Muppets in a nutshell: a little too halting and insecure, but ultimately worth the wait.

The Verdict

7. The Muppets Take Manhattan
6. The Great Muppet Caper
5. Muppets from Space
4. The Muppets
3. Muppet Treasure Island
2. The Muppet Movie
1. The Muppet Christmas Carol

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