Movie Review: Muppets Most Wanted (2014)


Title: Muppets Most Wanted
Release Date: March 21, 2014
Director: James Bobin
Production Company: Walt Disney Pictures | Mandeville Films
Summary/Review:

As much as I enjoyed The Muppets, the movie did play it safe and nice.  Any restrictions on pure Muppet anarchy were removed for the sequel which picks up immediately from the end of its predecessor.  The Muppets are lured into going on a world tour by the vinous Dominic Badguy (played by the villainous Ricky Gervais).

Badguy is actually working for Constantine, the World’s Most Evil Frog (Matt Vogel). Constantine swaps places with Kermit (Steve Whitmire), leading the Muppets to various European destinations to pull of heists while the rest of the troupe performs (did Spider-Man: Far From Home kind of borrow this plot?).  Meanwhile, Kermit is stuck in a gulag in Siberia where he’s watched over by an obsessive guard, Nadya (Tina Fey), and forced to direct the prisoners’ talent show. A CIA agent, Sam Eagle (Eric Jacobson) and French Interpol agent Jean Pierre Napoleon (Ty Burrell) form a comic duo investigating the heists related to the Muppets performances.  I particularly like their “Interrogation Song,” which sounded like it could’ve fit in Hamilton.

Like it’s predecessor, there are touches of nostalgia with the plot being a throwback to The Great Muppet Caper, and a wedding scene and the song “Together Again” (which is now “Together Again, Again”) hearkens back to The Muppets Take Manhattan. It’s great to see the Muppets continue to be creative and funny over all these years and I look forward to watching their new program Muppets Now.

Rating: ***1/2

Movie Review: The Muppets (2011)


Title: The Muppets
Release Date: November 23, 2011
Director: James Bobin
Production Company: Walt Disney Pictures | Mandeville Films
Summary/Review:

After a 12-year absence, The Muppets return to the silver screen with a nostalgia-laden story seemingly formulated to tug at the heartstrings of Gen-Xers.  Nostalgia, Inc. has ruined many a good thing this way, but fortunately The Muppets strikes the proper balance between dropping in beats for fans to recognize and telling a new and original story. Ok, so it’s not exactly original since it’s the “getting the band back together” trope, but it’s done in the uniquely Muppet style.

The story focuses on two brothers, the puppet Walter (Peter Linz) and the human Gary (Jason Segel) who grow up as big fans of The Muppet Show.  Gary takes a vacation to Los Angeles with his longtime girlfriend Mary (Amy Adams) and invites Walter along so he can visit the famous Muppet Studios. During the tour of the now-decrepit studio, Walter learns that an oil baron (Chris Cooper) will be demolishing the Muppet Theatre to drill for oil and the only way to stop him is for the Muppets to raise $10 million before their original “rich and famous” contract expires. Walter finds Kermit (Steve Whitmire) and together they bring the Muppets back together to perform a telethon.

The movie has the requisite corny gags and lots of recreations of famous Muppets moments in the telethon.  But it also has a certain gravitas of old friends putting aside some bad history to come back together again.  Segel and Adams are fine in their roles as the human characters, but they do seem extraneous.  The one big exception is the musical number “Man or Muppet” performed as a duet between Segal’s Gary and Walter which is a hilarious performance. I hadn’t watched The Muppets before, and I was skeptical that it would be good, but I’m glad I finally caught up.

Rating: ***1/2

Movie Review: Muppets from Space (1999)


Welcome to Muppet Mondays! Over the next several Mondays I will be working my way through the various movies in the Muppets and Jim Henson oeuvre.

Title: Muppets from Space
Release Date: July 14, 1999
Director: Tim Hill
Production Company: Columbia Pictures | Jim Henson Pictures
Summary/Review:

If a pastiche of The X-Files, with a soundtrack full of 70s funk classics, that also acts as an unnecessary origin story for Gonzo the Great appeals to you, this movie will be your jam. For the first time since The Muppets Take Manhattan, this is an original story rather than a Muppet retelling of a classic story.  This is also the only Muppet movie ever, out of the 11 made thus far, that is not a musical, excepting some Muppetized covers of the aforementioned funk songs.

Like the other 90s Muppets movies, Gonzo (Dave Goelz) and Rizzo (Steve  Whitmire) take the lead roles.  Kermit (Whitmire) is still the leader of the Muppet family who all share a large house in this movie. Characters introduced in the short-lived 1990s tv series Muppets Tonight, Pepe the King Prawn (Bill Barretta) and Clifford (Kevin Clash) make their movie debuts. The basic plot involves Gonzo receiving messages from his alien family while a government agent, Ed Singer (Jeffrey Tambor), tries to capture Gonzo.

I noted in my review of The Muppet Movie, that The Muppets pioneered a style of self-referential, ironic humor that became widespread in the 1990s, and by the late 90s/early 2000s had really played itself out (see The Emperor’s New Groove for a notorious example). Unfortunately, the Muppets have fallen victim to the worst of 90s comical excess in this movie with cringe-worthy moments of Hulk Hogan making a threat to his wrestling foes and Katie Holmes appearing as her character from Dawson’s Creek. Rob Schneider and Andie McDowell have bigger parts in the movie which shows they were really scrapping the bottom of the barrel for human cast members.

Nevertheless, there are moments of great hilarity in this movie, and when avoiding pop culture references, Muppets from Space can be great, anarchic fun.  It is clearly the weakest of all Muppet movies, but don’t let that stop you from watching it at least once.  After it’s still the Muppets, and the Muppets on their worst day are still pretty great.

Rating: **1/2

Movie Review: Muppet Treasure Island (1996)


Welcome to Muppet Mondays! Over the next several Mondays I will be working my way through the various movies in the Muppets and Jim Henson oeuvre.

Title: Muppet Treasure Island
Release Date: February 16, 1996
Director: Brian Henson
Production Company: Walt Disney Pictures | Jim Henson Productions
Summary/Review:

Muppet Treasure Island follows the same formula as The Muppet Christmas Carol: Adapt a 19th-century British literary work, cast a veteran English actor in the starring role, have Gonzo (Dave Goelz) and Rizzo (Steve Whitmire) as the audience identification Muppets, and have the rest of the Muppets portray supporting characters and the chorus. I remember seeing this movie in the theater and was a bit underwhelmed, but on rewatch Muppet Treasure Island proves to be the rare movie that ends up being better than I remembered.

Much more so than the often somber A Christmas Carol, a pirate story plays to the Muppets’ anarchic strengths.  Tim Curry brings roguish charm to Long John Silver, and Kevin Bishop is a a good-natured Jim Hawkins with a nice singing voice.  Kermit (Whitmire) is perfect in the role of Captain Smollet. The music numbers are enjoyable, especially the bonkers setpiece “Cabin Fever”. I also love the running gag of rats going on a cruise.

Rating: ***1/2

Movie Review: The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992)


Welcome to Muppet Mondays! Over the next several Mondays I will be working my way through the various movies in the Muppets and Jim Henson oeuvre.

Title: The Muppet Christmas Carol
Release Date: December 11, 1992
Director: Brian Henson
Production Company: Walt Disney Pictures | Jim Henson Productions
Summary/Review:

The first Muppets movie made after the death of Jim Henson offers some big changes from the earlier films in the franchise.  First of all, it adapts a well-known story to be told with popular Muppets playing most of the characters, and many other Muppets acting as a chorus. Second, the trio of Kermit (Steve Whitmire), Fozzie (Frank Oz), and Miss Piggy (Oz, again) are no longer the lead Muppet characters, but instead Gonzo (Dave Goelz) narrates the film as Charles Dickens with Rizzo the Rat (Whitmire) as his sidekick. My guess is with Henson deceased and Oz pursuing lot of projects outside the Muppets, that Goelz and Whitmire now had seniority among Muppet performers, and I like the approach they took foregrounding their characters rather than trying to recreate the work of Henson and Oz. The final big change is that the star of the movie is not a Muppet at all, but the very human actor Michael Caine playing Ebeneezer Scrooge.

The movie has some good gags and I enjoy the Gonzo/Rizzo rapport.  Statler (Jerry Nelson) and Waldorf (Dave Goelz) as the ghosts of the Marley Brothers are also great. Paul Williams returns to provide music for the soundtrack, which works well within the film, but is not as classic as his work on The Muppet Movie.  Ultimately though, A Christmas Carol has been overdone and there’s not much The Muppets can add to it.  The movie is more of a really well-made tv special than a feature-length film.

Rating: ***

Movie Review: Labyrinth (1986)


Welcome to Muppet Mondays! Over the next several Mondays I will be working my way through the various movies in the Muppets and Jim Henson oeuvre.

Title: Labyrinth
Release Date: June 27, 1986
Director: Jim Henson
Production Company: Henson Associates, Inc.| Lucasfilm Ltd.
Summary/Review:

Surprisingly, I’ve never watched this Jim Henson production before, despite the fact that it came out when I was 12, the ideal age to watch this movie. I remember hearing that the movie was a dud, and believed the criticism, although in later years I learned that Labyrinth became a cult classic.  There’s a lot of talent involved in this movie – Jim Henson as directory, George Lucas as producer, Monty Python’s Terry Jones as the main scriptwriter, and David Bowie lending his talents to his performance as Jareth the Goblin King and his music to the soundtrack.

One might expect something huge from this confluence of talents and be disappointed by the smaller film that ensued. If you take the film on its own though, it is a wonderfully imaginative story that draws up fantasy folklore with impressive visuals. Jennifer Connelly plays the fantasy-obsessed teenager Sarah who resents having to babysit her infant brother and asks the goblins to take him away.  When Jareth does in fact take Toby to his castle he allows Sarah 13 hours to solve a labyrinth to recover her brother. The resourceful Sarah uses her knowledge of fantasy tropes to find her way through with the help of the cowardly dwarf Hoggle (Brian Henson), the gentle giant Ludo (Ron Mueck), and the overly courageous fox Sir Didymus (performed by Dave Goelz and voiced by David Shaughnessy).

Compared with present day fantasy and adventure movies, there’s very little preamble before Sarah jumps into her adventure in the labyrinth, and a brief conclusion as well.  While more grounded in the real world than The Dark Crystal, the movie is wonderfully fantastic with impressive sets, puppetry, and animatronics. On the downside there’s some poor chroma key work in some scenes especially the one where the Fierys are dancing.  This film falls into the part of Bowie’s career when he was making over-produced, synth heavy pop, although the songs are better than his work on Tonight.

I’m so used to actors in their 20s playing teenagers that I’m impressed that Connelly was actually 16, because she seems older. She does a good job of portraying the age when one begins to put aside childish things for grownup responsibilities.  Although, as we learn, those childish things will always be there when we need them.

Rating: ****

Movie Review: The Muppets Take Manhattan (1984)


Welcome to Muppet Mondays! Over the next several Mondays I will be working my way through the various movies in the Muppets and Jim Henson oeuvre.

Title: The Muppets Take Manhattan
Release Date: July 13, 1984
Director: Frank Oz
Production Company: Henson Associates
Summary/Review:

I saw The Muppets Take Manhattan more than once in the movie theaters as a ten-year-old, and then numerous times on cable tv, so I’ve probably seen it more than any other Muppet movie.  But it’s still been decades since the last time I watched it so my memories of it were vague. I know from reading Jim Henson’s biography that Henson was moving on to bolder visions at the time and this movie was an opportunity for Frank Oz to gain experience directing. The movie’s style is different from its predecessors and has more of a sitcom feel to it, but nevertheless still has the Muppets’ anarchic cleverness and humor.

Because the Muppets never have the same origin story, this movie introduces the idea that the Muppets met at college and after a successful senior theater performance are encouraged to take their show to Broadway. (This movie also features a fantasy sequence where Miss Piggy imagines the Muppets as babies, thus creating a whole ‘nother origin story spun off as The Muppet Babies). Unable to find a producer, the group splits up while Kermit stays in New York carrying out various schemes to get his show funded.  There’s also a sequence where Kermit suffers amnesia that I completely forgot about (hah!). Kermit ends up working in an advertising firm with other frogs who  are clearly all the Muppet performers offering their loving impersonation of Jim Henson saying “hmmm.”

There are some great bits involving a group of rats working in a dinner where Kermit also gets a job.  There are also the requisite cameo performances.  Dabney Coleman, of course, plays a villain, while Liza Minelli and Ed Koch play themselves.  But my favorite cameo is Gregory Hines who plays a roller skater in Central Park who ends up refereeing an argument between Kermit and Miss Piggy.  This movie also famously shows Kermit and Miss Piggy’s wedding, although I remember seeing an interview with Kermit on tv where he said it was just a movie and not real life.  Miss Piggy disagreed.

Rating: ***

Movie Review: The Dark Crystal (1982)


Welcome to Muppet Mondays! Over the next several Mondays I will be working my way through the various movies in the Muppets and Jim Henson oeuvre.

TitleThe Dark Crystal
Release Date: December 17, 1982
Director: Jim Henson & Frank Oz
Production Company: Henson Associates | ITC Entertainment
Summary/Review:

Technically, this is not a Muppets movie but it was the next step in Jim Henson’s vision to create an original live-action movie featuring only puppets and animatronics on screen. I remember watching this several times as a child (and imitating the Chamberlain’s “hmmms”) even though I didn’t like it much due it’s creepiness and the fact that I didn’t enjoy fantasy stories as child.

Rewatching this as an adult I still find a lot of the characters and scenes to be nightmare-fodder and now that I’m more well-versed in fantasy, I can tell that the plot is not at all original. It’s particularly disappointing that the gelfling Jen (voiced by Stephen Garlick, performed by Jim Henson) is a protagonist with no real character beyond being the one to heal the crystal.

With those reservations, The Dark Crystal is nevertheless an impressive work of film-making. The puppet and animatronic work is jaw-dropping and shows a clear progression from the innovations made for the two Muppet movies that preceded it.  The movements and facial characteristics of the Skeksis is particularly impressive.  The movie really creates a dream-like alternate world unlike anything else seen on film.

I can see why this movie was not received well at the time of its release and why it’s also become a cult classic.  It’s easy to miss the greatness of what The Dark Crystal is for the even greater possibilities of what it could’ve been.

Rating: ***

Movie Review: The Great Muppet Caper (1981)


Welcome to Muppet Mondays! Over the next several Mondays I will be working my way through the various movies in the Muppets and Jim Henson oeuvre.

Title: The Great Muppet Caper
Release Date: 26 June 1981
Director: Jim Henson
Production Company: Henson Associates | ITC Entertainment
Summary/Review:

A sequel that confusingly really isn’t a sequel because the Muppets play different characters but with the same names.  This was how it was explained to me as a child, especially to make sense of why Kermit and Miss Piggy were romantically involved in the movies, but Miss Piggy’s love is unrequited on the tv show.  At any rate, I don’t think I’ve watched The Great Muppet Caper since I saw it in the theaters long ago with my father, (perhaps I saw it later on tv, but never as often as the other Muppet movies I watched as a child).  The Great Muppet Caper has a reputation for being a disappointing follow-up to The Muppet Movie, but even with a sophomore slump, I think it holds up remarkably well.

In this movie Kermit and Fozzie are twin brothers who work as reporters, with Gonzo as their photographer, who travel to London to investigate the theft of fashion designer Lady Holliday’s (Diana Rigg) jewels. There they meet Miss Piggy, Lady Holliday’s new receptionist with aspirations for modelling, and several other Muppets who populate the fleabag Happiness Hotel.  Lady Holliday’s brother, Nicky (Charles Grodin), and a trio of models are behind the jewel heists and its up to the Muppets to foil their plot.

Much like it’s predecessor, this movie relies on meta-fictional humor and recurring sight gags.  Movie tropes, particularly heist movies, are parodied and there are grand song and dance numbers that harken back to Astaire & Rogers and Ethel Merman, except they feature Miss Piggy.  While The Muppet Movie wowed us with Kermit riding a bicycle, this movie shows the whole cast of Muppets bicycling and performing tricks!  Throughout the movie, Muppet characters seem to move autonomously in remarkable ways.

The criticisms that I have for this movie is that it feels very episodic and the humor is not as sharp. Joe Raposo’s soundtrack doesn’t include any songs as memorable as Paul Williams’ Muppet Movie soundtrack.  And the cameo performances aren’t as funny, with one notable exception. John Cleese and Joan Sanderson appear as an upper-class British couple carrying on the most boring, awkward conversation as Miss Piggy breaks into their house.

The Great Muppet Caper is not the all-time classic of its predecessor, but it’s still a funny and creative step forward for Jim Henson and the Muppet performers in film-making

Rating: ***1/2

Movie Review: The Muppet Movie (1979)


Welcome to Muppet Mondays! Over the next several Mondays I will be working my way through the various movies in the Muppets and Jim Henson oeuvre.

Title: The Muppet Movie
Release Date: May 31, 1979
Director: James Frawley
Production Company: ITC Entertainment | Henson Associates
Summary/Review:

It’s hard to review this movie objectively without the lens of nostalgia.  On the other hand, I’ve grown to expect that my childhood faves will disappoint me, so the fact that this movie holds up so well is a testament to its greatness. The Muppets transition to movies by making fun of Hollywood tropes – particularly road trip buddy comedies, sappy romances, and lets-put-on-a-show – while still being a loving tribute to movies and entertainers in general.  The meta-fictional humor in this movie was unusual at the time in in retrospect it must have inspired a generation that made that kind of humor widespread in the 1990s.

The Muppet Movie also has several moments that still make me think “how did they do that?” such as Kermit playing on a log, Kermit bicycling, Fozzie driving a car in long shots, and over 250+ Muppets singing and dancing at once in the finale.  Even learning things like Jim Henson spending hours in an underwater tank to perform Kermit in the swamp doesn’t diminish the sense of awe.

The movie is also fun for the cameos where one can test their memory of 1970s celebrities.  Luckily, you don’t have to know who Dom Deluise, Carol Kane, Steve Martin, Mel Brooks, or Cloris Leachman is to laugh at their performances (I do wonder how much Orson Welles was paid for his one line, and if he showed up on time for the filming). Last but not least, there is the terrific music by Paul Williams.  “The Rainbow Connection,” “Movin’ Right Along,” and “I’m Going to Go Back There Someday” are classics of the American music book.

Rating: *****