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?!
A Very Harold and Kumar 3D Christmas (2011)
by Steve Habrat
They may not be for everyone, but I have to say that I just love the weed-fueled duo that is Harold and Kumar. I have found their previous adventures to be uproariously funny, strangely heartwarming in their quest for those tiny steamed burgers from White Castle and their relentless quest to clear their names after being accused of being terrorists. Yet their adventures never seemed meaningless, always riffing on stereotypes of all races and confronting every taboo under the sun. Who can forget the preppy girls bathroom game “Battleshits” from Harold and Kumar go to White Castle? Or how about their trek through the ghetto, getting a flat tire, and then fleeing in terror from a group of African Americans who just aim to help in Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay? For my money, I prefer the darker second installment to the first, but I still like them both. Now Harold and Kumar are taking on something much bigger than the munchies for greasy burgers and the FBI. They tackle 3D! Oh, and Christmas too. It turns out that their Christmas hijinks are not nearly as funny as you would expect. Sure, they lob every body fluid and giant clay penises out at the audience like it will be going out of style. Sure, it’s raunchier than the last two films combined. So where does A Very Harold and Kumar 3D Christmas go wrong? Well, it just seems like it’s trying too hard to shock us without ever really accomplishing it. I’m sorry but Santa Claus receiving a shotgun blast to the head, tumbling out of the air and then snapping back to reality while exclaiming “WHAT THE FUCK?!” isn’t that funny. It’s also the furthest thing from sophisticated.
A Very Harold and Kumar 3D Christmas has a straight forward set up. It’s been a few years since Harold and Kumar have spoken or seen each other. Harold (Played once again by John Cho) has a cushy office job, has married Maria, the Latino love of his life (Played by Paula Garcés), and lives in modest but upper scale home in a New York City suburb. Kumar (Played once again by Kal Penn) crashes in a dump of an apartment, surrounded in the haze of marijuana smoke. He has just recently broken up with his girlfriend Vanessa (Played by Danneel Ackles), a girl he still is head over heels for. Harold is hosting Maria’s parents for Christmas, a scruffy crew lead by the Christmas fanatic Mr. Perez (Played by the always welcome Danny Trejo). Mr. Perez brings with him a prized Christmas tree that he has been growing for years. After a mysterious package brings Harold and Kumar back together again, they accidentally burn down Mr. Perez’s prized tree, sending them on mad dash through New York City to find a new tree. Their journey leads them to a party thrown by a Russian gangsters virgin daughter, getting a baby stoned on weed, cocaine, and ecstasy, shooting Santa Clause with a shotgun, plotting to rob a church of their Christmas tree, drinking laced eggnog, eating at White Castle again, and crossing paths with the deranged party boy Neil Patrick Harris.
Truth be told, none of the situations that Harold and Kumar find themselves in are all that humorous in this installment. In jokes are made to the other installments and tweaks are made to the story to fit with present day issues. An Occupy Wall Street nod is thrown in, a gag that involves an egging, urinating on the windshield of a car, and human shit used as a projectile. Jabs are made about Asian’s taking pictures by Mr. Perez and so on and so forth. The problem is that the writing doesn’t hit you the way it has in the previous installments, coming across as weak and musty. Nodding to the previous two films is okay, but sometimes it feels like it is stretching it a bit. Worst yet, it’s predictable, a flaw that the first two films seemed to avoid with ease. Here, what is unpredictable lacks a satisfying pay off. This is especially true with the Russian gangster gag, a character that only exists to be an obstacle for the boys to overcome. He is never a genuine nuisance like Rob Corddry’s short fused FBI agent in Escape from Guantanamo Bay.
What also trips up this installment up is the lack of any satire. The previous installments hounded us with satire, bringing to light our hasty judgments of different races and economical standings of some individuals (Who can forget Freakshow?). It quietly slapped us on the wrists while luring out giant belly laughs in the process. It made us stand back and admit to ourselves that we are really shallow and closed off as human beings. Guantanamo Bay was much heavier with these ideas and it dared to get political, I will give it that, but this one lacks it all together. It opts for tributes to popular Christmas films and playing up the 3D add on. There are some nice touches with the rediscovery of friendship and sticking together, typical buddy movie messages that I could find in any given Happy Madison production. The film also tries to encapsulate the spirit of the season, going out of your way to bring happiness, joy, and love, especially to the nagging extended family.
The real treat in A Very Harold and Kumar 3D Christmas is the fact that the entire cast returns to reprise their beloved roles. You can really tell that Cho and Penn enjoy playing the ethnic heroes. Hell, Penn left his White House job to once again play the gutteral Indian stoner. The film seems like the cast had a ball together and the addition of tattooed tough guy Danny Trejo was a pleasant touch. He does ramble off a few zingers throughout the 90-minute run time. Praise should also go to Neil Patrick Harris who narrowly saves the film from stinkville, once again embracing the inappropriate drug and alcohol junkie. The scene where he goes to Heaven is a jewel, especially his interaction with Jesus, who he calls “some hippie”.
I wish moments of A Very Harold and Kumar 3D Christmas would have snowballed into something bigger and much more outrageous. It would have been appropriate for this movie with its winter setting. Instead it is comfortable with just grabbing a few chuckles and dashing off. It’s severely anticlimactic, lacking any big showdown or conflict, which was majorly disappointing. The filmmakers seemed to run out of situations that they could place our protagonists in. It doesn’t miss the opportunity in setting up another installment though and I’ll admit that it does have my interest. I’d gladly see another one of these films and I do hope they punch things up for another round. Wait a couple years and see what the social climate looks like. That seems to be the technique they are running with anyway. Sadly, the high has worn off of this franchise and this installment is crashing hard. Someone get the bong and let it toke up!