The Muppets Review

The Muppets was apparently a result of the arduous effort by its (human) star and co-writer Jason Segel to, in his words, "bring back" Jim Henson's beloved puppet characters. It took years, numerous drafts from Segel and Nicholas Stoller, and a laudable commitment from Disney, which has controlled the Muppet kingdom since 2004, but I do think the effort pretty much worked. Not only was the film a commercial and critical success - over $158 million worldwide at the box office on a $45 million budget and currently 96% fresh at the Rotten Tomatoes site and with a respectable 75 at Metacritic - but it also became the first movie featuring the Muppets to nab an Oscar when "Man or Muppet" won for Best Original Song. Most importantly, it's a delightful film that seems to exist merrily enough on its own terms.

In a clever nod to Segel's own expressed intentions, the character he plays in the film participates in a plan to bring the Muppets back to their former relevance. The need for such an idea comes because an evil oil baron, given the twirly moustache name of Tex Richman and played by Chris Cooper, is about to buy Muppets Studio and tear it down to drill for the black stuff. That's only one part of the many deliberately contrived elements in The Muppets which combine to both drive the plot and goodnaturedly wink and nod in the process. There's also the reforming of The Muppets, after years apart from one another, to put on a telethon in the style of their old variety show. It all makes for such cliche-driven developments, but there's really no need to reinvent the wheel here. The presence of a romantic subplot involving Segel's Gary and Amy Adams' Mary, rhyming sweethearts for ten years now, probably fits the least comfortably. Without it, though, there's no "Man or Muppet" sequence, which is arguably the highlight of several musical numbers featured in the picture.

Then there's Walter. Segel and Stoller's most inspired idea was giving the very human Gary a brother in Walter who looks very much like a Muppet yet isn't treated as such by anyone. The backstory shown has Gary and Walter one night discovering the Muppets and the latter becoming their biggest fan, presumably because he could relate to them so easily. A drowsy moral can be made of what occurs - that someone who's different finally finds others who are like him - but that's a bit perfunctory for my tastes. I'd rather shrug that off in favor of seeing Walter as the main catalyst for reuniting the Muppets. He's the one who insists that people have just basically forgotten how much they love the Muppets, and they need a reminder. And that's also the exact point made by the film.

The Muppets is very funny to those with a certain kind of sense of humor and it's a little surprising just how strong the musical numbers are. Those might be the two primary pleasures in the movie, but I think it's the overall sweetness shown for the Muppets which could cause it to endure the strongest. This is basically a tribute film to the Muppets rather than just a narrative involving them. Walter seems to be a surrogate for Segel (as writer, not actor) in some respects. When Walter's asked to join the Muppets, it sort of parallels Segel being allowed such involvement in bringing these characters back to the big screen. That resonates. The clear love for the Muppets is there in every frame of the picture. It's like a gift to other fans of Henson's creations.

Though ostensibly a family film, or at least marketed in that way, The Muppets doesn't quite feel like a film for children - at least not to this adult and probably not to kids either. When we don't know quite what to do with our easy audience pigeonholing we sometimes become frustrated, but there's no reason for concern here. My take is that the movie plays most like an adult-friendly version of the usual kiddie fare. It's simple, innocent and colorful, yet very smart in a silly way. The corny humor is sold well by the performances. There's also more obvious, direct comedy to enjoy. The film is full of little jokes and gags, things like Rowlf's polite objection to not being included in the montage or Beauregard's quick scene at the theatre or Kermit's dusty rolodex. More prominent examples of the film's humor, including '80s robot and the Moopets, also register as winners.

On a first viewing, it might come as a surprise just how dedicated The Muppets is to being a musical. The concern kind of fades, however, as the catchiness and overall quality of the songs are revealed. The film's director James Bobin was one of the creators of the Flight of the Conchords television show and here he's brought along Bret McKenzie for songwriting duties. The shared feeling between the musical sequences in that series and some of the ones here is remarkable. There's whimsy but also earnestness, and that's what really sells the numbers. The emotions felt for the characters tends to be strongest in the songs. Again, "Man or Muppet" is the high point but Amy Adams doing the disco-infused "Me Party" also has kind of a poignant quality to it. You'd be forgiven for not enjoying these, but I do think that appreciation for the film hinges quite a bit on the reaction to the musical parts.


The Discs

The Muppets comes to DVD and Blu-ray in the U.S. with a variety of different options for purchase. The release under review here is a region-free "Value Pack" containing Blu-ray, DVD, Digital Copy disc and a code to download the entire soundtrack for free. Also available is a less expensive version with just the Blu-ray and DVD included. Those not interested in BD can opt instead for either the DVD-only release or one containing the standard definition disc and the soundtrack code.

Disney's 1080p transfer of The Muppets is perfectly vibrant and full of detail. It's in the 1.78:1 aspect ratio. We see an impressive degree of sharpness and such generous levels of detail. Shifts in available light are handled almost without flaw. Colors appear bright and true. The textures, particularly when looking at the fur-lined Muppets, dazzle. The fluidity of movement is similarly impeccable. There's no indication of significant manipulation in the digital realm, and this looks just about as sterling as one could imagine.

The default audio option is an English language 7.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track. Songs and dialogue are rendered brilliantly, with a nice fullness present. A powerful aural burst is available when necessary. Channels are well-balanced and offer ideal distribution. Volume remains consistent and strong throughout the film. The other available audio tracks include an English 2.0 Descriptive Video Services option and dubs in both French (7.1 DTS-HD Master Audio) and Spanish (5.1 Dolby Digital). The DVD substitutes DD 5.1 tracks for the DTS-HD ones. Optional subtitles are white in color. They display in English for the hearing impaired, French or Spanish. The commentary track has also been subtitled.

Pausing the film brings up an Intermission with the Muppets where they trade gags and make comments. This is reminiscent of the bits which can be heard during moments of inactivity on the DVDs for The Muppet Show (which still has a couple of seasons left unreleased by Disney).

A very active audio commentary puts actor/writer Jason Segel, writer Nicholas Stoller and director James Bobin together for the film's duration.

The bonus material included provides a welcome change of pace from the usual heavily promotional feel that tends to accompany Disney extras. "Scratching the Surface: A Hasty Examination of the Making of The Muppets" (15:56) is as clever as its name suggests. The off-center humor found in the film is retained by this unorthodox behind-the-scenes piece. A similarly wordy title - "The Longest Blooper Reel Ever Made (in Muppet History) *We Think" (8:33) - continues the fun, and it likewise seems to end far too soon.

Something called "A Little Screen Test on the Way to the Read-Through" (3:19) seems to have been created for production purposes as it shows the Muppets moving around from areas with different levels of light and explores perspective and height differences regarding Segel. There's also "Explaining Evil: The Full Tex Richman Song" (2:38) which includes a short flashback shedding some light on just why Chris Cooper's character despises the Muppets.

Eight Deleted Scenes (10:01) can be watched individually or using the Play All function. These are perhaps most notable for showing several celebrity cameos, including ones by Billy Crystal and Ricky Gervais, which didn't make the final cut of the film. There are also extended versions of Walter's nightmare and the Muppet Telethon opening, and an extra verse to "Life's a Happy Song," among the excised scenes.

Theatrical Spoof Trailers (9:00) which appeared on the internet in the lead-up to the film's release can be found among the extras. Two of these - targeting Rise of the Planet of the Apes and Fast Five - are labeled as having been unreleased. There's even a spoof of one of the spoofs among the seven inclusions. They can become a little tedious, though this seems acknowledged and made the best of within the parodies. Missing entirely, however, is the actual theatrical trailer for The Muppets.

Disney's normal collection of Sneak Peeks (10:34) can be accessed from the menu. This latest batch promises a Blu-ray release of The Aristocats and a cousin to Cars called Planes, which itself kind of seems like a spoof yet is apparently very real.

The DVD which is also part of this set has only the blooper reel as a supplement.

A Digital Copy disc is included, though it's underneath the DVD rather than on a tray of its own inside the case.

As mentioned above, purchasers of this package can also download the full soundtrack at no additional cost by entering a unique code at the Disney Movie Rewards site before April 1, 2013.


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