Wicked Witches: The Wicker Man (1973)
by Steve Habrat
As horror moved into the 1970s, the genre was becoming extremely savage, bloodthirsty, and unforgiving. Exploitation horror was gaining momentum and even the arty offerings didn’t hesitate to get right in your face with bludgeoning images of sex and violence. Subtlety was slowly getting buried six feet under, but one British horror film chose to take a different approach to creeping you out big time. That film would be director Robin Hardy’s 1973 Pagan musical-horror film The Wicker Man, an unsettling look at religion that slowly works up to a fiery climax that has become one of the most well known finishes in movie history. At first glance, most probably wouldn’t be quick to label The Wicker Man a horror film. It’s got a folky atmosphere with a number of strumming musical breaks, several of which feature free-spirited ladies dancing around in the nude. Once called “the Citizen Kane of horror films” by the film magazine Cinefantastique, The Wicker Man slowly grows on the viewer before fully revealing an ugly side. Undoubtedly, it will take the viewer a moment to adjust to it, especially when a pub breaks out into song in the first ten minutes and Hardy presents a slow-motion sex scene. But as Hardy lures us deeper into this island and allows us to mingle with the inhabitants, you’ll start to feel a churning sense of dread as Christopher Lee’s Lord Summerisle seals Edward Woodward’s Sgt. Neil Howie’s fate.
The Wicker Man begins with devout Christian Sgt. Neil Howie (played by Edward Woodward) arriving at Summerisle Island, where he is sent to investigate the mysterious disappearance of a young girl named Rowan Morrison. As he opens his investigation, the straight-laced Neil meets with locals who claim never to have heard of Rowan. As Neil explores the island, he witnesses several couples having sex in the open air of a park, observes the island’s doctor attempting to rid a young girl of a sore throat by putting a frog in the girl’s mouth, wards off the seduction of the innkeepers beautiful daughter, Willow (played by Britt Ekland), and bursts in on a graphic school lesson. To Neil’s horror, he is wandering around on an island full of Pagans. After finding Rowan’s grave and discovering that buried in her place is a hare, Neil meets with island’s leader, Lord Summerisle (played by Christopher Lee), who explains the history of the island, which is known for its fruits and vegetables. Enraged by his meeting with Lord Summerisle, Neil launches his own investigation of the island’s May Day festivals and in the process, he makes a shocking discovering that puts him in mortal danger.
What makes The Wicker Man such an uneasy experience is the exploration of religious extremity. We are asked to identify with a devout Christian, a virgin who trembles at the very idea of polytheism worship and open sexuality. While in front of the chuckling islanders, Neil wears an authoritative mask and a rigid stance, although it is easy to see that he is repulsed by what those around him claim to believe. Behind closed doors, he kneels beside his bed and prays furiously to his one true God. On the other side of he room lays the nude Willow, knocking on the wall and singing a hypnotic folk song in the hopes of luring the uptight Neil into her bed. She dances and sways around her room, seeming to cast a spell through her motions as Neil fights furiously to repel her advances. He sweats and stumbles, clinging to the wall as if an unseen hands were trying to drag him from the room. Early on, Hardy lets us know that Neil suffers from his religious beliefs, but he slowly allows us to glimpse the insanity of the islanders as they march in their animal masks and unveil their true intentions with our God-fearing protagonist. It’s horrifying what they will do for a successful crop season, a stomach-churning plot that reeks of lunacy and blind devotion. Even scarier is the way they smile proudly as they look upon their work, singing proudly and loudly up to their glowing sun god.
The two men caught in the center of this religious exploration are Christopher Lee’s shock-haired Lord Summerisle and Edward Woodward’s Sgt. Neil Howie, both who give drastically different but equally exquisite performances. Woodward is sensational as a man who just can’t open his mind up to the possibility that others do not believe what he believes. He is constantly irritated by the practices of the islanders and he even attempts to intervene when he catches an earful of what is being taught to the children in school. In a sense, we do feel bad for him when we see him struggle to stay pure, but it’s tough when he is basically a victim of his own faith and repression. However uptight he may be, you can’t help but feel for him when he is sacrificed at the hands of madness during the climax. On the other side of the spectrum is Lee’s Lord Summerisle, the island’s unhinged leader that smiles sarcastically as Neil accuses him of sacrificing the girl he is there to find in a Pagan ritual. By the end of the film, as the island wind ruffles up his hair and he explains that they have lured Neil into a trap, you’ll truly be convinced that Lee has never been more terrifying. He’s a realistic villain—a bonafide cult leader convinced that bloodshed is the answer to the island’s recent misfortunes. Lee is completely engulfed by the performance as Hardy zooms in on his euphoric signing with his faithful band of followers.
While I must confess that The Wicker Man didn’t entirely win me over at the beginning, the film grows on you with each passing second. I feared that I would never warm to the way Hardy works in some folky musical numbers, but they possess a pull that becomes hard to resist. The final chant around the burning wicker man is unforgettably scary, especially when complimented by Neil’s terrified pleas to God. The film also looks gorgeous, boasting breathtaking cinematography that makes great use of its picturesque Scottish locations. Overall, as far as the “Citizen Kane of horror films” praise is concerned, I don’t particularly believe that the film is scary enough to really earn that title. Sure, it is thought provoking and it certainly is a one of a kind, but it doesn’t scare the bejesus out of you. It disturbs more often than it terrifies. However, this isn’t to say that The Wicker Man isn’t a really good film. It’s handsomely made, sharply acted, cleverly written, and it features one of the most powerful climaxes in horror movie history. You will undoubtedly be playing it back in your mind the next day, but it won’t have you switching on a nightlight for weeks after.
The Wicker Man is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
Les Misérables (2012)
by Steve Habrat
Two years after Tom Hooper’s The King’s Speech took the world by storm and made off with the Best Picture Oscar, the British director returns with a film so immense and extravagant, you won’t be able to believe your eyes. Hooper’s Les Misérables is certainly a worthy follow up to The King’s Speech, but in size and scope, Les Misérables blows it right out of the water. As epic as they come, Les Misérables is a big Hollywood blockbuster (and a shameless one at that), one sure to run away with awards like Best Costume Design, Best Makeup and Best Production Design at the Academy Awards, but just like its predecessor, the film bowls over the viewer with one gigantic tidal wave of emotion after another. Just when you thought you’ve recovered from one heart wrenching moment, Hooper unleashes another one almost instantly. The film, and the stars who inhabit it, belt their hearts out as tears stream down their muddy faces, singing live over having the lyrics dubbed in post production. Each and every one of them will give you chills, especially Anne Hathaway’s teary-eyed “I Dreamed a Dream.” For as high as this film flies, it could still have stood to have at least forty minutes cut from it, mostly because by the final act, we do begin to feel it’s epic runtime of two hours and forty minutes. It appears that Hooper was wildly faithful to the musical and the novel by Victor Hugo, which is both a blessing and a curse.
Beginning in 1815, prisoner Jean Valjean (Played by Hugh Jackman) is released on parole by chilly prison guard Javert (Played by Russell Crowe) after serving a brutal seventeen-year sentence. Valjean is cast out into the world without any food or a home but is soon taken in by the kindly Bishop of Digne (Played by Colm Wilkinson), who offers him a hot meal and a bed. In the night, Valjean steals some of the Bishop’s silver and then flees, only to be quickly caught by local authorities. The Bishop insists that he gave Valjean the silver as a gift and demands that they let him go free. Moved by the Bishop’s kindness, Valjean breaks his parole and sets out to make a better life for himself. Eight years pass and Valjean, who goes by a new name, is now the mayor of Montreuil-sur-Mer and a factory owner. Employed at his factory is Fantine (Played by Anne Hathaway), who is discovered by her co-workers to be an illegitimate mother sending money to her sick daughter, Cosette (Played by Isabelle Allen), and is fired by the foreman. Desperate, Fantine turns to prostitution to make money but one evening, Javert confronts her after she attacks a belligerent customer. Javert tries to haul her off to jail but Valjean quickly stops him after he recognizes her from the factory. Near death, Fantine begs Valjean to find her daughter and to take care of her. Valjean agrees and sets out to find Cosette, but Javert begins to suspect that Valjean is the prisoner who broke parole eight years earlier and he begins hunting him down.
Each and every frame of Les Misérables looks like it cost almost $100 million dollars to project onto the screen. The makeup effects are absolutely astounding, especially the aging of Jackman’s Valjean as the story progresses. Every smudge of dirt and speck of filth so perfectly splattered across each actor’s face. Another standout moment is when Valjean trudges through the sewer with rebellious student Marius (Played by Eddie Redmayne) and human waste covers them from head to toe. It is appropriately nasty to the point where you can practically smell the stench. The costumes are all wildly detailed and eye catching, especially a jacket worn by Valjean with a massive collar. Then there are the special effects, especially the overhead shots of small villages and growing cities that are so fussy, they make you want to tear your hair out. Hooper hurls his camera directly at them to focus in on one specific character standing on the edge of a cliff or riding a horse through the streets. Later in the movie, there are one or two scenes that feel more like indoor sets rather than outdoor locations, which sort of take us out of the moment. I couldn’t help but wish that Hooper would have at least attempted to shoot them outside but I can’t imagine that he would have been able to pull off some of the environment detail that he was going for if he chose to shoot outside.
The other big draw to the big screen adaptation of Les Misérables is the live singing done in front of the camera rather than the music studio. While many critics and audience members have complained that it was a failed experiment (I don’t really understand why they think it was a failed experiment), I personally liked it and found that it adds a layer of realism to the bombastic gloss of this expensive epic. It allowed Hooper to apply long takes of his actors doing the thing that pays them millions of dollars— act. Sure there are a few brief cuts here and there, but Hooper lets the camera sit (and sometimes pace) with all the actors. We get up close and personal views of brokenhearted emotion heating up and then boiling over as the viewer hangs on the frame in a state of awe. While some of the voices are certainly not going to nab a record deal (looking at you, Mr. Crowe), you still have to admire their confidence to let their voices soar. The lack of a true professional makes things all the more realistic and down-to-earth. Some musicals (not all) loose me when the actors sing like trained professionals.
While Les Misérables is beautiful to look at, the film wouldn’t be what it is if it wasn’t for the downright incredible performances at the heart. While I’ve never downright hated Jackman as an actor, I could never really see the big deal about him but with Les Misérables, I am a true believer now. This guy is fantastic as Valjean, the tortured ex-prisoner who had his life turned upside down over stealing a mouthful of bread. While it is Jackman’s show, the one who makes off with the movie is Hathaway as Fantine, a woman forced into a life of hell. I promise that you will practically fall out of your seat when she performs “I Dreamed a Dream” as she battles back tears of embarrassment and defeat. It is a rare scene where the audience member actually wants to leap to their feet and break into applause. Crowe is great as the relentless Javert, who is always hot on Valjean’s heels. I can’t say too much for his vocal performance but the fact that he is really trying is good enough for me. Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter drop by to add a bit of (grotesque) comedy to the mix as Thénardier and Madame Thénardier, a couple of pick pockets who are taking care of darling little Cosette. Amanda Seyfried is a bit stiff as the adult Cosette, as is Redmayne as her suitor Marius. They get a last act love story and while it is effective, neither of them make us root for them like we should. Samantha Barks is also present as the Thénardier’s daughter Éponine, who secretly loves Marius. Barks wins our empathy with a lovely but painful solo performance in the rain.
While Les Misérables won’t win over every single viewer over, if you’re a fan of the book or the musical by Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg, you are going to gush over Hooper’s achievement. I’d also say that if you enjoy musicals like I do, you are probably going to be hooked for a good majority of the movie. If you’re a casual moviegoer, be prepared for the longest two hours and forty minutes of your life. I still felt that the film ran a bit too long and some of the musical numbers could have been trimmed for a tighter and more inviting runtime, but there really isn’t one weak number of the bunch. Another minor complaint I had with the film was the fate of one of the characters, which just seemed downright bizarre and random. Overall, Les Misérables is overblown, funny, thrilling, mildly romantic, raw, repulsive, and most importantly, moving. It may have its flaws but is has everything a film fan could want in a movie and it really is a beautiful work of art to lay your eyes on. A phenomenal achievement for the very talented Mr. Hooper and the musical genre.
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007)
by Steve Habrat
Much like 1999’s Sleepy Hollow, auteur Tim Burton was placed on this earth to also direct 2007’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, which is based on Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler’s Tony Award-winning 1979 musical. Burton’s 2007 version of the film, which naturally stars Johnny Depp in the lead role of a vengeful barber who enjoys slicing the throats of his customers, was not only one of the best films of the year in which it was released but also one of Tim Burton’s greatest films. Yes, I believe that it sits near the top with Edward Scissorhands and Ed Wood. Part of what makes Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street such a great film is that Burton successfully appeals to the wine-and-cheese crowd as well as snagging the Hot Topic crowd, which has got to be a first in the history of motion pictures. In addition to the usually flawless style, costumes, and set design, Burton hits a home run with Depp, who scales back the odd and makes Sweeney one of his more subtle characters. My suspicion is that the scaled back approach is in response to the singing that is required of Mr. Depp, who took vocal lessons and erupts in a voice that is not perfect but fittingly rough around the edges for such a dark film.
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street introduces us to Benjamin Barker (Played by Johnny Depp), a barber who has returned to London after being banished for fifteen years for false charges by the wretched Judge Turpin (Played by Alan Rickman). It turns out that Turpin lusted after Barker’s wife, Lucy (Played by Laura Michelle Kelly), and wanted him out of the way so he could have her to himself. Assuming the alias “Sweeney Todd”, Barker makes his way to Fleet Street where he meets the equally demented Mrs. Lovett (Played by Helena Bonham Carter), who runs Mrs. Lovett’s Meat Pies. Mrs. Lovett informs him that his wife committed suicide and that his teenage daughter Johanna (Played by Jayne Wisener) is being held against her will by Turpin. Whipping out his prized straight razor collection, Barker reopens his barbershop above Mrs. Lovett’s Meat Pies and together they begin trying to lure in Turpin and his overweight associate Beadle Bamford (Played by Timothy Spall) to exact their revenge. They also decide that they are going to grind up the bodies of their victims and put them into Mrs. Lovett’s meat pies to cover their tracks.
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is Burton’s bloodiest film since the Headless Horseman galloped through his interpretation of Washington Irving’s Sleepy Hollow. Sweeney Todd is a nonstop freak show of a film, one that sprays Burton’s favored candle wax-esque blood out onto the audience from the opened necks of Sweeney’s victims. It’s a nasty piece of work and I mean that as a compliment. Given that Sweeney Todd is also a musical, the interest that many may have in the film will pale because most have a difficult time suspending the disbelief to really enjoy it. Burton understands this so rather than easily casting a slew of musicians to belt out Sondheim and Wheeler’s tunes, he turns to a handful of unexpected actors to do the jig. Burton places Depp and Cater right up front, both who lack voices that would make angles weep, belting out with voices that don’t seem too theatrical for this macabre outing. At times, they are a bit shrill but their left of center sound compliments the gloom quite nicely. Burton does even things out in the subplot involving the young sailor Anthony Hope (Played by Jamie Campbell Bower, who does have a musical background) and Barker’s daughter Johanna (portrayed by Irish singer Wisener), both who do have stage quality pipes on them.
If Depp and Carter are unlikely choices in the leads, the background actors are just as wild. Rickman, who also played Snape in the Harry Potter films, is another voice you would never expect to hear. We already knew he could do mean but it is good to see him dive in deeper with the protection of an R-rating. The same could be said about fellow Potter costar Spall, whose nasally voice is just the right amount of ugly to fit his physical appearance. The other surprise comes in the form of Sacha Baron Cohen (yes, THAT Sacha Baron Cohen) as the Italian barber Adolfo Pirelli who hides a dirty little secret. Cohen gets to flex his musical talents, which while not stage worthy, are still fitting for this film. He adds some quirky humor to all the bloodshed but when his turn comes to get evil, Cohen rises to the occasion and leaves us wanting more of his villainous turn. There is also the young Ed Sanders in the role of Toby, the boy assistant to Pirelli who mixes his tender affection for Mrs. Lovett in with a stunning vocal performance.
Sweeney Todd is ultimately Depp’s world and everyone else is just wandering the filthy streets. With his cheerless voice and heavy eyes, Depp is rather detached—a far throws from his energetic turns in films like Ed Wood and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. In a way, his blank slate is a welcomed approach because I was quick to assume this would be another one of his freak flag performances. He is electric next to the pasty Carter as Mrs. Lovett, who gets to do energetic wicked. A scene in which Mrs. Lovett shares a fantasy in which she marries Todd is a standout. Depp’s mug drooping into a frown will have you in stitches. When Depp and Carter harmonize, they are a grizzled knock-out, locked in a dance of death where Mrs. Lovett wields a rolling pin and Sweeney clutches a butchers cleaver is marvelous both in its symbolic imagery (it’s a bit obvious but cool) and its choreography. Another sequence of astonishing choreography is when Depp wanders the streets and snarls at his future victims, his voice going from smooth soaring to being spit onto the cheeks of men who don’t acknowledge him.
A Frankenstein’s monster of a film, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is a lumbering musical horror film that has held up and still locks me in when I revisit it. Balletic in pacing and with an abundance of gothic style, the film will leave you feeling nice and grimy after you’ve viewed it. It is faintly sexy and gloriously macabre with a gut punch of a tragic ending. In my opinion, Sweeney Todd is one of the more accessible musicals I have ever seen—never erupting into implausible song and dance numbers that are overly cheesy and remove us from the moment. It has buckets of gore for the horror crowd and actually has a number of hair-raising moments that will jolt you. It’s far from sophisticated but by now most should know what to expect by Burton but Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is one of Burton’s most consistent films. A real grotesque freak fest.
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)
by Steve Habrat
Before Jack Skellington and Sally were mall goth heroes, they were a magical pair of claymation figures who just wanted to experience the joy and wonder of Christmas. Before all the heavy metal covers and the 3D conversions, their world was even more tempting, never needing an update and forever remaining timeless. The best of the claymation bunch, The Nightmare Before Christmas was a childhood favorite of mine, favored more around the time when Jolly Old Saint Nicholas plops down the chimney than my other favorite holiday. I always thought this film does capture the hypnotizing quality of Christmas, the one that makes us feel like children again. It really gels when Jack finds himself is Christmas Town, gaping at snowmen, elves, Christmas lights, and children snuggled in their beds. It painstakingly tries to re-establish that Christmas is about awe, not about the material fixation that now comes with the most wonderful time of the year. The film, which is the brainchild of producer Tim Burton (No, he did NOT direct this!) and director Henry Selick, is teeming with some of the most creative and bizarre animated characters ever captured on camera, and they do not feel like they are stretched or insipid.
The Nightmare Before Christmas ushers us to Halloween Town, a place where all the typical Halloween ghouls reside and emerge every year to give us the willies. Halloween Town finds a leader in the bony Jack Skellington, the Pumpkin King who is growing weary of the same old traditions every year. With his ghost dog Zero, Jack wanders off into the woods and stumbles upon a portal to another holiday dimension: Christmas Town. Bursting with excitement and inspiration, Jack hurries back to Halloween Town and fills in the locals about what he has seen. Jack and the monsters vow that they will give “Sandy Claws” a break for the year and they will put on Christmas. As Jack’s plans slowly fall apart and his idea grows more and more dangerous, it’s up to the lonely Sally, a ragdoll zapped to life by a mad scientist, to try to convince Jack to leave Christmas to the residents of Christmas Town. Across Halloween Town, the sinister Oogie Boogie has plans of his own for Santa Claus.
The Nightmare Before Christmas is a true work of art, one that works simply because it carries off the viewers imagination. It did mine when I was young and I still smile today when I see the film. The 3D conversion the film underwent was rewarding because we get to see the fine details to Halloween Town. The film was the brainchild of Burton and watching the film is like stepping into the mind of Burton himself. The inspired characters also make the visit to Halloween Town beyond memorable. There are mummies, a trio of glammed up vampires, a two-face politician, witches, the boogieman, and a band of devious and merry trick-or-treaters. There are nods to the classic Universal Movie Monsters while also opening the door to a brand new world. Seriously, the film commences with a door being opened and ghosts coaxing us into the darkness. It’s really quite exciting.
As far as musicals go, The Nightmare Before Christmas is a stand out as far as I’m concerned. This film gives us some of the most ingenious, cleverly written musical numbers you will see in an animated film. Just get a load of that opening introduction as the monsters all introduce themselves. It’s a horror fans dream come true and anyone who appreciates the value of lyrics will be head over heels with delight. You will be tapping your toes along with it. The song, “This Is Halloween”, is now a goth anthem, even getting a makeover from heavy metal artist Marilyn Manson a few years back. Other standouts include the dreary “Sally’s Song”, Jack’s inquisitive “What’s This”, and the trick-or-treater’s bickering “Kidnap the Sandy Claws”.
There are some minor flaws to be found in this film. The love story between Sally and Jack is a bit wobbly. It never really gets off the ground and we mostly see the love from Sally’s side. Jack seems relatively unconcerned with her and barely notices her presence at times. The film is a bit short, abruptly wrapping up just when things are really starting to grip us. Oogie Boogie only really shows up at the end, a character that is the very definition if cool. What aids us in overlooking the minor bumps is that the characters are just so nifty. Jack has become an iconic animated hero and you’ll be overloaded on cute when you meet his playful pup Zero. The Mayor of Halloween Town will keep the kiddies chuckling, especially when his mood alters and his face changes. Santa Claws is also quite creative, a huge red blob of a man, a version of him that only Burton could think up. Sally is a hopeless romantic and we feel her sorrow. The most astonishing aspect is the complexities in Jack. He’s a control freak and at times a bit domineering, yet we root for him to see the error of his ways. Perhaps that is meant to force us to reflect on our own approach to Christmas. Have we missed the point of this Holiday? Are we any different than Jack? According to Burton and Selick, not really.
The Nightmare Before Christmas may prove to be a bit too eerie for some young viewers, but with films like Corpse Bride and Coraline (Also directed by Selick) on the market, that’s up for you to decide. It’s a shame that goth kids have marked it as their own, as there really is something for everyone to enjoy within the film. I think that Jack stands for much more than as the leader of the gothic nation. He represents our ignorance, our fascination with all things magical, and is the face of a truly poignant redemption story. He even symbolically rises from ashes near the end of this film. I think he represents more than the kids who shop at Hot Topic think. This film also cast its spell over me as a kid and I’m glad I had the chance to see it before the recent surge of popularity. Eye opening and intricate, with treasures abound, The Nightmare Before Christmas sweeps us off our feet, much like the season it is a testament to. An undeniable family classic.
The Nightmare Before Christmas is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.
The Muppets (2011)
by Steve Habrat
I’m going to remember 2011 as the year that retro dominated at the movies. We have seen multiple releases throughout the year that have embraced a throwback aesthetic, ones that were evocative and nostalgic. They were all quite good too. We’ve had the candy-colored madcap The Green Hornet, 80’s horror nod Insidious, the Goonies/E.T. mash up Super 8, the dreamy pulp and Raider’s of the Lost Ark tribute Captain America, the ultra violent 80’s crime/actioner Drive, the arty silent film wonder The Artist, and we will soon see another Raider’s valentine when The Adventures of Tintin hits theaters. Many have been direct nods to the heyday of special effects and when escapism really dominated. In the late 70’s, Jim Henson’s Muppets took over television and went on to rally a group of loyal fans that have supported them through the years. After a long hiatus and being largely forgotten by pop culture, gargantuan funny guy Jason Segel, who is also said to be a huge fan of the felt critters, penned a fresh new screenplay along with Nicholas Stoller, wrangled director James Bobin and together they have delivered a winning piece of family entertainment that attempts to rally a new generation of fans while also making the adults who so enthusiastically watched their sketch-comedy mischief way back when inebriated with nostalgia of their youth. The Muppets is retro without being retro. It’s hilariously self-aware and willing to crack jokes on their absence. This world isn’t meant for the optimistic band of creatures ranging from the ringleader Kermit the Frog all the way to Sam the Eagle. And trust me, every Muppet you can think of pops up at least once. The movie almost isn’t big enough to contain them all. The best part of all of this is that The Muppets keeps things unadorned, making it even easier to love them.
The Muppets kicks off with the knee-slapping introduction of their newest member, Walter, a happy-go-lucky little puppet that is best buddies with his human brother Gary. The young Gary and Walter live in the perfect community of Smalltown, USA, and they both sit in their matching stripped pajamas and grin over The Muppet Show. Walter becomes a massive fan of Kermit and company, and as life gets tougher for the little Walter, he finds comfort in The Muppet Show. The film speeds forward to present day where the adult Gary (Played by Jason Segel) and Walter still live in Smalltown and are now shacking up together. They are still best buds and still do everything together, even hilarious musical numbers. We also learn that Gary is dating Mary (Played by Amy Adams) and they have been together for ten years. Gary plans a trip to Los Angles in celebration of their anniversary and he invites Walter to tag along to see the Muppet Theater. Mary is less than enthused but she understands how important Walter is to Gary and Gary to Walter. Once they arrive to Los Angles, Walter discovers that the world has left the Muppets behind and moved on. Their theater and studio lie in ruin and there is a plot by an evil oilman named Tex Richman (Played by Chris Cooper) to destroy what is left of their studios in an attempt to drill for oil. Horrified, Walter pleas with Gary and Mary to help him reunite the Muppet gang and help save the Muppet Theater.
It’s easy for us to wave off The Muppets and call it square. It features quirky puppets rather than fancy CGI creatures and, yes, it does seem a bit dated. It’s also heavy with musical numbers, which is also the furthest thing from hip. Yet that is what makes this film so irresistible. It’s simple and old fashioned, with a whole slew of cameos from big Hollywood names. Get ready to double over when Modern Family’s Rico Rodriguez shows up and inquisitively asks Kermit if he’s one of the Ninja Turtles. Wait until you see Kermit’s reaction. Oh, and Neil Patrick Harris turns up too to deliver a real zinger. Truth be told, I’ve always been intrigued by the Muppets and how they convey so much emotion. When Kermit is sad, we can see it in his plastic peepers. It does fill you with a sense of wonder. It helps that the puppet work is punctilious and detailed. And yet this film is content with being square and a bit dated. In fact it is delighted by the very implication of it. It gives it fuel to crack joke after joke and believe me, the jokes come fast and furious. It’s a nice balance to Pixar’s films and the bizarre offerings like Alvin and the Chipmunks, where real actors interact with annoying CGI animals (Hollywood is forcing the annoying Chipmunks on audiences AGAIN! They showed the trailer before this film. I guess with every good thing, there has to be a bad.). With The Muppets, at least there is something palpable for the actors to work with.
The actors here all do a fine job playing old fashioned. Segel brings a gee-whiz energy with him and he really seems to be genuinely in awe at what is going on around him. It helps that he has a heart for this sort of thing. Adams steals the shows as Mary, as she just radiates girl-next-door charm. She looks like she stepped out of the 1950’s. Parks and Recreation’s Rashida Jones turns up as a straight-shooting television executive named Veronica who, in the words of Fozzie Bear, could shoot “a little more curvy”. Cooper’s oilman Tex Richman also provides some big laughs, especially his love of maniacal laughter. He also steals the show with a musical number so bold, I didn’t laugh until after it ended and I could register what had just happened.
The Muppets does have a handful of flaws that knocks it down a letter grade. The director handles some of that cameos carelessly, some are so brief; blink and you may miss them. There are some that shine (Emily Blunt turns up in a nod to The Devil Wears Prada) and some that should have been developed better (Sarah Silverman’s wasted potential as a diner hostess). Some of the Muppets themselves could have used a bit more screen time, but the film desperately tries to fit every single one of them into the film that it is almost overload. I was left wishing for more of daredevil Gonzo and Sam the Eagle. Walter ends up getting lost in the shuffle for about a half hour and it’s a shame because you really do fall in love with him. Every once and a while, it feels slightly unfocused, like a bunch of kids in a candy store.
Despite some minor hiccups, this is one of the best family films of the year. One that is not like Chinese water torture for adults and delivers slapstick laughs for children. I applaud Segel for making retro old-fashioned feel new again and I would gladly go back to the theater to experience all of this again. The film succeeds as a musical, with several numbers that really pop, the best one being shared by Mary and Miss Piggy. The Muppets finds itself on the retro list of 2011, one of the films where everything just clicks and it takes you back. Two of the people I saw it with were fans of the show when it was on and it left them beaming. My generation missed Kermit and Miss Piggy, but it still had me in a good mood after we left the theater. This film isn’t rocket science, but then again, it doesn’t need to be. It left me feeling all warm and felty inside. Who can argue with that?!