The Muppets – shamelessly outdated but still hilarious

The Muppets (Bobin, 2011), Walt Disney Pictures, 103 minutes

In today’s vernacular the word “Muppet” has found a new life as an insult. It’s quite a powerful one at that; despite the lovable nature of Jim Henson’s plush characters, to call somebody a “Muppet” usually implies that they are foolish, clumsy, or a waste of space.

In their most recent return to the silver screen, Jim Henson’s mob do little to rescue their reputation and name. Instead, they join in on the name-calling. The result is a comic feast, as Kermit and friends shamelessly take the mickey out of their largely outdated franchise.

Since finishing up The Muppet Show in 1981, the Muppets have made intermittent appearances via movies, pop culture and video clips. Most recently, some of the show’s most well-known characters have resurrected the Muppets brand with some hilarious – yet brief – Youtube clips. While these viral videos have been well received, one assumes that their primary viewership has consisted of ageing nostalgia-lovers rather than young children. This makes a lot of sense, considering the Muppets haven’t released a theatrical film for the last twelve years.

Having grown up in the post-Muppet Show age, much of my Muppet trivia arose from Sesame Street cameos, films such as Muppet Treasure Island and a VHS entitled “It’s Not East Being Green (Muppet Sing Alongs). While an older audience would probably scoff at my limited Muppet exposure, I nevertheless regard the Muppets as being just as much a part of my childhood as Nickelodeon cartoons or Cheez TV. As such, the latest Muppets film gave me much reason to renew my enthusiasm.

Gary and Mary’s story will entertain families…

In much the same vein as The Adventures of Tintin (2011) – another of my childhood favourites to have recently been reincarnated by the silver screen – The Muppets (2011) successfully appeals to young and old.

The plotline of Gary (Jason Segal) and Mary (Amy Adams) (see above video) focuses on all the corny family values parents want their children to embrace, while the slapstick humour of Beaker, Gonzo and Animal – to name a few – successfully negates those sappy love messages with irreverent gags.

At the same time, older audiences are treated to nostalgic bliss as the outdated Muppets stars decide to re-form their act for one comeback show. This plot device gives the writers a convenient excuse to reunite all the favourite characters and to open up the wounds of Ms Piggy and Kermit’s tumultuous on-again off-again relationship. Kids might fail to appreciate the constant stream of self-referential humour and fourth wall gags that show up at every turn, but that’s where the magic of music and celebrity come in to play.

… but nostalgia steals the show.

With apologies to Zach Galifianakis as Hobo Joe, Dave Grohl as Animool, and Kristen Schaal, the film’s best guest star never appears on camera. It’s debatable whether you could call Bret McKenzie’s (Flight of the Conchords, hereafter FOTC) musical contribution a cameo, but his influence on the film is commendable.

McKenzie lives up to the Muppets name, continuing the franchise’s reputation for creative music production. Much like the other elements of the film, his delightful blend of tongue-in-cheek showtunes caters for both the cynical and impressionable. One of the earlier songs “Life’s a Happy Song” is as corny as it is cringeworthy, but one senses that it’s all done in the name of irony. Likewise, “Man or Muppet” is both ridiculous and deep, if not a little too similar to McKenzie’s FOTC song “I’m Not Crying”. The similarity between Muppet and FOTC humour, however, is both a credit to McKenzie and the genius that decided to cast him.

The traditional Muppet cast brings to life many old favourites, including “Rainbow Connection” and “Mahna Mahna”. The show-stealer, however, comes from none other than Gonzo’s chickens with their rendition of Cee-Lo Green’s “F*** You” / “Forget You”. I couldn’t quite put my finger on what was so hilarious about this scene, but it was one of the many scenes that somehow almost brought me to tears.

The kid is after my time, the “mahna mahna” things were before my time.

Don’t expect The Muppets to feature in many critics’ top ten lists, nor clean up at this year’s Oscars (although “Man or Muppet” is a good chance to take home Best Original Score). In saying that, The Muppets is an immensely fun film that doesn’t disappoint. It never takes itself too seriously and resists the temptation to break free of its traditional gag formula for the sake of younger audiences. The film might not be fresh enough to bring The Muppets back into the heart of contemporary pop culture. Nevertheless, it should take a few of us “oldies” back into an age when The Muppets were the hottest thing on TV… which for me was a period before I was even born.

If my words fail to convince you to see the film, then I know what will. Below is a selection of classic Muppet music clips from Youtube. I’m not quite old enough to leave you with a comprehensive list of the best ever Muppet cover versions/original songs, but here’s eight you’re bound to enjoy.

Bohemian Rhapsody (original by Queen)

Kokomo (original by The Beach Boys)

Octopus’ Garden (original by The Beatles)

Eight Little Notes

Fifty Ways To Leave Your Lover (original by Paul Simon)

With A Little Help From My Friends (original by The Beatles)

Surfin’ USA (original by The Beach Boys)

Weezer – Keep Fishin’ (sung by Weezer)

Click here for ten more Muppet classics, as selected by Virgin music (@bobfear).