I finally got around to watching the new Muppets film. It wasn’t a question of whether the film would be good. Jason Segel was writing it; I knew it would be both faithful to the characters and a lot of fun. I think it was more a matter of being burned out after what I can only describe as a sub-par year at the movies. That made me a little risk-shy. The film would be good, sure, but would it be good enough?
The short answer: Yes.
The longer answer is, of course, more involved.
Although I aspire to be a sci-fi/fantasy writer, those genres don’t exclusively dictate my choice of entertainment material to consume. I enjoy comedies and dramas, mysteries and musicals. My love for a story is not about the genre, or about any particular set of requirements. It’s about the situations the characters are faced with, and the choices they make. It’s about the feelings they experience, and the feelings the story makes me experience.
My trips to the cinema have grown less frequent of late. In part, that’s because of a tight schedule. In part, that’s because of a tightening budget. But whenever there’s something I really want to see, I’ll find the time and the money. The real reason is that there is so often nothing on that I want to see. I’m not interested in paying good money to watch comedies that abuse their characters just for the fun of it, or dramas that are more concerned with making a point than moving the audience. I’m not interested in spending two hours on sequels to movies I didn’t see when they first came out because I didn’t care. And I doubt I’m alone.
I go to the movies to be inspired.
You know what I mean. That choice line that sticks in your mind for days, not just because of the catchiness of the line but because it meant something to the story. That character who feels like someone you know, or want to know, or want to be…or are. That final shot, that final chord of music, that send you out of the theater wishing that you could drive to Mount Everest right now and climb it, because you think anything is possible. Or just feeling good about yourself, about the world, and about the relationship between the two of you. Those are the sorts of movies I want to see. These days, half the movies that fit that description come from Pixar, and I’m not sure I’m comfortable getting my fix by sharing the theater with a bunch of sugar-charged tots.
Why can’t there be more films like The Muppets? Why can’t there be more sweet movies for adults?
The whole film drips with nostalgia. Everything – from the musical numbers, to the paintings in Kermit’s mansion, to the less-than-heartwarming “You’re irrelevant” speech of a television executive, to a very amusing joke involving Kermit going through his old Rolodex, to the nature of the performances in the Muppet telethon – reminds us that these characters are from a different time. It wasn’t necessarily a simpler time, since no time is simple. But it felt that way to the people who grew up groaning at Fozzie’s jokes. And it certainly felt that way to Jason Segel. Every line, every shot, invites us to share in the feelings of acceptance and family that he obviously received from the Muppets as a child…and still does.
Of course, Segel makes sure that The Muppets is actually a Muppet movie. The film is filled with the sorts of gimmicks and trademark moments that have become associated with the Muppets – the meta-jokes about the script, the celebrity cameos, all the recurring characters that their fans know and love. But there’s more going on here than the fulfillment of audience expectations. This whole film is an expression of love and appreciation from Segel to his childhood heroes, and it shows. He managed not only to play one of the two human leads, but to insert his real self into the story – as Walter, Segel’s character’s twin brother. Walter looks like a Muppet, idolizes the Muppets, and wants more than anything to go to California and be a Muppet himself.
Maybe that sounds too meta to you. But consider this: by the end of the story, Walter has achieved more than he has ever thought possible. He’s assisted his heroes in their darkest hour (well, as dark as the Muppets universe ever gets), and consequently has won a place among them and earned their approval. It’s hard for me not to read this in a meta way. Segel was the driving force behind this movie, clearly believed in it when no one else even saw the need for its existence, and so he has brought the Muppets back to the screen and back to our hearts. When Kermit waves Walter forward to join the Muppets, Segel is effectively inviting himself to join the legacy…and by that moment, he’s earned the right to do so. To see his arms draped around a couple of his felt friends in the closing credits is to realize his devotion to them and what they represent, and to appreciate his willingness to stand naked before the world (spiritually, I mean…this isn’t Forgetting Sarah Marshall) and to say, “These guys matter to me.”
This expression of sheer love and gratitude is something no one does anymore. I think that’s because it risks coming off as cheesy and corny. And you know, it certainly isn’t a complicated or “adult” emotional response. But why should that be a problem? What’s so bad about having a few childlike spots in our character?
Nothing, I say. Not a blessed thing.
Thank you, Jason. Thank you for giving me not only two enjoyable hours in the theater, but a wonderful feeling that should be experienced more than it is – joy. And if you haven’t already seen The Muppets, well, hopefully it’s still playing in a theater near you so you can grab some of that feeling yourself. I promise there’s enough for everyone.