Muppet Review Roundup

In today’s roundup:

  • The Muppets Take Manhattan (1984)
  • Muppets from Space (1999)


    The Muppets Take Manhattan
    (1984)

    2018 #48
    Frank Oz | 90 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English | U / G

    The Muppets Take Manhattan

    Apparently (so I read somewhere) at the time this was intended to be the end of the Muppets — the performers were fed up and wanted to move on to other things, and they conceived this third movie as a capstone on the whole affair. That seems inconceivable now — I mean, just how much Muppet stuff has followed it? To date, five more movies, at least two TV series I can immediately think of, plus other specials, countless guest appearances, a theme park attraction…

    I think that tiredness shows through in the finished product. Or maybe it’s just the changing attitudes — they’d just made The Dark Crystal, which maybe indicates they had a hankering for more serious fare. Supposedly the first draft was dismissed by director Frank Oz as being “way too over jokey”, which is surely a terrible criticism of a Muppet screenplay, but Jim Henson encouraged him to tinker with it to emphasise the characters and their relationships. This was partly in response to The Great Muppet Caper, a particularly wacky effort that hadn’t done well at the box office, so they were toning it down.

    Well, I regard the Muppets as primarily comedy characters, and so it’s no wonder this one seems to miss the mark. There’s some occasional funny stuff, the odd good skit, but mostly Take Manhattan just kinda plods along. Personally I thought Caper was a bit of a poor sequel, but this is less good again. It straight up lacks some of the things that make the Muppets so memorable — there isn’t a single fourth wall break, for instance. There’s all together too much focus on plot, even though it’s a very thin one, and the gang spend most of the movie split up, meaning it lacks their camaraderie. So much for focusing on the relationships!

    Muppets in Manhattan

    There are still celebrity cameos, at least, though I feel they’ve aged particularly poorly. Well, there’s Joan Rivers (even if her younger self is always unrecognisable to those of us who mainly knew her in later made-of-plastic years), Elliot Gould, and Liza Minelli, so it’s not all bad. Other than that, the credits explicitly name who the cameos are, but I didn’t even recognise half the names. In fact, the best one is some other Henson puppets: the cast of Sesame Street! Though the presence of puppets isn’t always welcome: a furious Miss Piggy rollerskating after a mugger, filmed in wide shots that I can only assume feature a human in a Miss Piggy suit, is the stuff of nightmares.

    Nonetheless, I shall give The Muppets Take Manhattan a 3 — just. That’s the same as I gave Muppet Caper, which is a shame (that film was more of a 3.5 whereas this is a 2.5), but it’s not so bad that I can give it an outright 2. It’s middling. It’s fans-only, I guess. Some bits work, some bits are good, but overall it’s not quite there as a Muppet movie.

    3 out of 5

    Muppets from Space
    (1999)

    2018 #75
    Tim Hill | 85 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English | U / G

    Muppets from Space

    I’m afraid things aren’t going to pick up here: Muppets from Space is the lowest rated Muppet movie on IMDb. Personally, it would not be my pick for the worst film starring our felty friends… but it’s not that great, either.

    Hailing from the same era that gave us the likes of Independence Day (which gets directly spoofed), Men in Black (some of them show up), and The Phantom Menace (no references that I could detect, but they came out the same year, so…), you can see why the Muppet movie makers would’ve been inspired to move into the sci-fi realm. The plot concerns finally explaining just what Gonzo is, which is not only unnecessary but feels kind of against the spirit of the thing — no one knows what he is, there’s only one of him, that’s kind of the joke. Well, not after this film…

    Related to that, there’s almost a good thematic thing about belonging, and who your real family is or can be, but it’s only loosely nodded at early on before sort of popping up right at the end, without enough building blocks in between to really make it work as a payoff. But we don’t come to the Muppets for the themes, we come for the gags, and in that respect From Space is… fine. Well, I mean, it’s not really all that funny… or interesting… It just kind of toddles along until an underwhelming ending (it would’ve been better if (spoilers!) it turned out the aliens weren’t Gonzo’s people, thereby leaving what he is a mystery). And there’s a Dawson’s Creek cameo, because they were filming in the studio next door, which obviously feels terribly dated now, but that’s how these things always go I guess.

    So, I didn’t actively dislike it in the way I did Muppets Most Wanted (that’s why I’m giving it a 3 rather than a 2), but that might be the kindest thing I can say about it. Like Muppets Take Manhattan, it sits firmly in the middle of the field — not expressly unlikeable, if you enjoy the Muppets, but with nothing to elevate it.

    3 out of 5

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  • Muppet Review Roundup

    In today’s round-up:

  • The Muppet Movie (1979)
  • The Great Muppet Caper (1981)


    The Muppet Movie
    (1979)

    2017 #77
    James Frawley | 91 mins | TV | 1.85:1 | UK & USA / English | U / G

    The Muppet Movie

    “The Muppets Begin” in their big-screen debut, which sees Kermit going on a road trip where he encounters most of the key Muppets one by one, while being chased by a businessman who wants Kermie to be the poster-frog for his frog legs restaurant.

    It feels like a succinct distillation of the Muppet style, driven by gentle surrealism, meta humour, musical numbers, and a ton of cameos. How well the latter have aged in four decades is debatable — I knew a fair few (James Coburn, Telly Savalas, Elliott Gould, Bob Hope, Richard Pryor, Steve Martin, Mel Brooks, Orson Welles), but, looking at the list on Wikipedia, there were plenty I didn’t get. Time has also added humour where none was intended: Gonzo’s comment that he wants to go to India to become a movie star isn’t actually a Bollywood reference — Jim Henson picked the least likely place Gonzo could become a movie star, unaware they produce twice as many movies as Hollywood. Oops. On the other hand, I don’t know if the subplot where Gonzo seems to fancy chickens was ever just wacky, but today it feels weird and kind of disturbing.

    Aside from the recognisability of the cameos, the Muppet style has aged pretty well — some things that were once outré just become part of the culture as time wears on, but much of the Muppets’ material is still entertainingly irreverent today.

    4 out of 5

    The Great Muppet Caper
    (1981)

    2017 #87
    Jim Henson | 94 mins | TV | 1.85:1 | UK & USA / English | U / G

    The Great Muppet Caper

    The second big-screen outing for the Muppets casts Kermit, Fozzie Bear and Gonzo as reporters who travel to England to investigate a jewel theft. Of course, this being a Muppet movie, the plot is less important than the crazy comical antics.

    To that end there are some good songs and sequences: the opening number about it being a movie, the Happiness Hotel song, a couple of dance routines centred around Miss Piggy — one of those underwater! There are plenty of good individual lines as well, particularly when it breaks the fourth wall, which is often. Favourites include the commentary on the opening credits, noting an exposition dump, a gag about brief cameos, and a variety of neat running gags, in particular one about Kermit and Fozzie being indistinguishable identical twins.

    Other sequences are sadly less effective: the one in the park (even if the use of bikes is quite impressive); or, most disappointing of all, an extended skit with John Cleese. It also comes up short on the cameo front. There are a couple, but they don’t feel as frequent or all as well-known as in the first film. Maybe it shouldn’t matter, but it’s part of the Muppets’ schtick, so that aspect is left feeling rather anaemic by comparison to some of their other movies.

    Overall, The Great Muppet Caper is a solid, largely entertaining Muppet outing if you like these characters and their style of humour, but otherwise nothing exceptional.

    3 out of 5

  • Muppets Most Wanted (2014)

    2016 #41
    James Bobin | 103 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English | U / PG

    After the success of their 2011 revival, this sequel sees the Muppets embark on a world tour at the behest of Dominic Badguy (Ricky Gervais). Meanwhile, Kermit is mistaken for a master criminal and sent to a gulag run by Tina Fey.

    As irreverent and cameo-filled as ever (so many famous people, you won’t even know who some are!), something just doesn’t work this time — it’s neither as funny nor as charming as their last outing.

    With the recent TV series receiving mediocre reviews too, it looks like they’ve killed off the Muppet renaissance as soon as it started. Shame.

    2 out of 5

    For more quick reviews like this, look here.

    The Muppets (2011)

    2013 #18
    James Bobin | 98 mins | TV | 16:9 | USA / English | U / PG

    The MuppetsHow I Met Your Mother’s Jason Segel (I believe he’s also in some movies from that Judd Apatow chap) co-writes, exec-produces and stars in this revival for the once-beloved puppet-y puppets.

    Art mirrors life in the story: the Muppets have been all but forgotten, their old studios fallen into ruin, but when Segel’s brother (who happens to be a Muppet) overhears an evil developer planning to knock them down for good, they set about getting the old Muppets back together for a last-hurrah TV special to save their studio, and in the process restore their popularity. I say “art mirrors life”, because this is the first Muppet movie for twelve years, and it seemed to result in a wave of nostalgia and appreciation for the puppets (including a forthcoming sequel).

    Segel — alongside British director James Bobin — has created a film that embraces the Muppets’ anarchic nature and old-fashioned entertainment style, while also integrating them into the modern world, to one degree or another. Things like the small-town roots of Segel, his brother and girlfriend (Amy Adams) are consciously dated, based in a movie-reality rather than the real-world, where the whole town might break into a song-and-dance number… but they know they’ve just done a song-and-dance number. Such breaks of the fourth wall abound, and constitute most of the film’s best bits.

    Between a straightforward ‘get the band back together’ plot, some standard subplots about acceptance and growing up, and a host of celebrity cameos, it’s tempting to say the film must have written itself; A bird, a plane, or a Muppet?but the skill lies in making it all seem so effortless, when I’m sure it was anything but. There’s an awful lot going on for such a simple tale, which keeps things moving and means the next delight is never more than a few moments away, be it a surprise cameo, a witty film spoof, or one of the entertaining songs (one, Man or Muppet, managed to get an Oscar. I didn’t even think it was the best.)

    Some viewers and critics seem to have fallen head-over-heels for this Muppet reboot. It’s not that good. But it is an entertainingly irreverent hour-and-a-half-and-then-some, just as likely to win new fans as please old ones.

    4 out of 5