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How Pop Culture Leads and Misleads

Tag: Jason Segel

It’s Time to Play the Music…

After years of mounting expectation, overanalyzing every rumour and leaked tidbit of info on the web, die-hard fans finally got their chance to relive their childhoods. Some waited for hours outside the theatre in costumes or clutching beloved retro toys. The excitement was mixed with fear Would this new movie rekindle the magic of the original 1970’s-1980’s triad of films? Or would it be so disappointing that their love would turn to bitter hatred, forcing them back to the message boards to tear the new annoying characters to shreds.

We all know how it turned out for Star Wars fans in 1999 when the release of ‘The Phantom Menace’ “ruined their childhoods”, making George Lucas, once their idol, more despised than a Sith lord.

Jason Segel, the lovably goofy actor and screenwriter who took on the task of reviving the Muppet franchise, had reason to be nervous. Muppet fans, like their Star Wars equivalents, are paradoxically desperate for new films, yet stubbornly protective of the characters and their fictional world. Which Segel understands, as he’s one of the biggest Muppet fans of all.

The new Muppets movie (simply titled ‘The Muppets’) would not have happened without Segel’s nerdy persistence. After the success of his film ‘Forgetting Sarah Marshall’, Segel met with Disney, which owns the rights to the Muppets, and expressed interest in bringing Kermit, Miss Piggy and the whole gang back to the big screen.

As Segel tells it, Disney wasn’t overly enthused but left the door open, so, to goad them along, Segel hyped the film in interviews as though it was already in production.  Classic three- minute clips from ‘The Muppet Show’, random before ‘random’ was a thing, were tailor-made for Youtube. Disney decided to give it a shot.

The Muppets have been leaderless since Jim Henson, their creator and the source of their soul, died of an extremely rare bacterial infection in 1990. The Muppets were in three later feature films and several TV specials and appearances, but they lacked the zany spark that had made them household names in the late 1970’s. The characters worked best as underdogs; their Vaudevillian theatre on TV was always falling to pieces, and in the early movies they were often a ragtag group of performers who wanted to make it to Hollywood or Broadway to “make millions of people happy,” as Kermit put it.

But in the 1990’s and 2000’s, the characters were already a band of celebrities, inserted into Dickensian or pirate costumes for ‘A Muppet Christmas Carol’ and ‘Muppet Treasure Island,’ just like Mickey, Minnie and company. Fans knew the Muppets were drifting, directionless.

By handing over the Muppets to Segel, Disney gave the keys to the kingdom to a fan. What results is a film not just for and about Muppet fans, but one which symbolically recognizes and atones for the Muppets losing their way.

Muppet fandom is introduced early in ‘The Muppets’. We meet Gary (Segel) and his brother Walter, an adorable yellow Muppet with a face more expressive than most of the famous Muppets we’ll see later. (Perhaps this is why Kermit the Frog was destined to be the most famous Muppet. His flexible felt face shows far more emotional range than the more-structured heads of Miss Piggy and Gonzo.)

No explanation is given or needed for how a human could have a Muppet brother, but that doesn’t stop Walter from being bullied by kids and feeling left out. As they grow up, the brothers bond over late-night viewings of ‘The Muppet Show’. Seeing his own kind on TV makes Walter feel a little less out of place.

Gary and Walter live in a place called Smallville USA which, judging from the candy-coloured costumes and Norman Rockwell street scenes, appears to exist in the mythologized 1950’s. The classic Muppet movies borrowed nostalgic troupes from Old Hollywood (Miss Piggy tap dancing in an Art Deco restaurant worthy of Fred and Ginger in ‘The Great Muppet Caper’ comes to mind) but Smallville’s naiveté seems too deliberate and ironic to be appealing.

No matter. Walter, Gary and his fiancé Mary (Amy Adams) quickly catch the Greyhound to Los Angeles. Walter wants to see the “Muppet studios”, the supposed location of the original Muppet theatre. They find it derelict and vacant, the psychedelic-painted bus from ‘The Muppet Movie’ rusting on the lot. The empty lot becomes a metaphor for the characters and fans alike. The viewer is left to wonder if we abandoned the Muppets, or they abandoned us.

Walter sneaks into Kermit’s old office, which is treated with the awesome reverence of King Tut’s tomb. On the wall hang photographs of the frog with various celebrities, a prominent spot given to one of Kermit with a smiling Jim Henson. The implication is clear: without this soft-voiced, bearded man, the Muppets have been as forgotten as this cobwebbed old room.

While in the office, Walter overhears the plan of evil oil baron Tex Richman (Chris Cooper) who is notified by Statler and Waldorf that in a week’s time he can buy the theatre and tear it down to pump for oil. (Maybe Cooper’s character should have been a Wall Street banker, but that might have been a bit too political for Disney.)

The plot lays itself out as simply as any Mickey and Judy ‘backyard musical’. The whole gang reunites for one more show to save the theatre. Located in a Norma Desmond-type mansion, the frog leader is reluctant to get involved.

“I guess everybody kind of forgot about us,” Kermit says, and if that doesn’t bring a tear to your eye, his following song to paintings of Fozzie, The Swedish Chef and the Electric Mayhem Band definitely will.

It’s clear Segel is pandering to Muppet fans, but so what? Unlike fans of sulky teenage vampires and dreadlocked pirates, we never get pandered to.

Kermit comes on board, of course, and gets the old gang together, which leads to the movie’s funniest strings of jokes. The humour is obviously indebted to ‘The Simpsons’ and even ‘Family Guy’, with the sort of meta-movie jokes that peppered the original films. “May I suggest,” asks Kermit’s robot assistant, named Eighties Robot, “that to cut down on time, we resort to using a montage?”

Once reunited, our gang of furries faces another challenge. “I’m going to level with you,” Rashida Jones, as a TV producer tells them. “You guys aren’t famous anymore.” A “hard cynical time” needs “hard cynical entertainment,” she says, and shows a clip of the #1 show at the moment, ‘Hit My Teacher’. The Muppets are underdogs again, Kermit forced to give inspirational speeches about believing in oneself and “making people happy”.

Here an interesting split happens. While Walter, Gary and Mary are from idyllic Smallville and still sincerely love the Muppets, LA is apparently in the modern world, where people compulsively text message, Selena Gomez is a star and “hard, cynical entertainment” beats sentimentality to a pulp. Perhaps the Jason Segel sections of the movie would be more relatable if, rather than living in a camp ‘Leave it to Beaver’ fantasy, he and Walter resided in the real world and needed the fuzzy comfort of the Muppets to cheer them up.

As they repair and clean up the Muppet Theatre (“You guys are the Muppets,” Gary says, “You do stuff like this to music!”) we get reacquainted with a bunch of characters not seen since the end of the Muppet Show. Muppet nerds like myself will be pleased to spot crooners Wayne and Wanda, the Beautiful Day Monster and the gigantic blue Thog. You can picture Segel stamping his foot and telling  the Henson company, “No, no, no! I don’t want any new ones! I want all the old, weird monsters that used to be on the show!”

Turns out that the “standard Rich and Famous contract” Kermit signed in The Muppet Movie (for Orson Welles no less) releases ownership not just of the Muppet Theatre, but of the Muppet name itself, which Tex Richman intends to sell to the Muppet tribute band ‘The Moopets’. How hilarious that, in a film produced by Disney, the greedy villain wants to acquire the Muppet name and use it for his own purposes.

Miss Piggy, who at first holds out from the reunion (she’s a big time fashion editor in Paris), eventually returns, complete with Zac Posen outfits and a different hairstyle for every scene. She and Kermit, all their differences resolved, reunite on stage for the finale.

The songs, written by Flight of the Conchords’ Bret Mackenzie, are serviceable, but how can they compete with ‘Moving Right Along’, ‘Together Again’ and ‘The Rainbow Connection’.

The highlight of the new show is Camilla the Chicken singing, or rather clucking, Cee-Lo’s ‘Fuck You’ in showgirls’ feathered headdresses. Catchy, unaccountably funny and with the right level of “WTF?!” randomness, it’s just the kind of number that made the original Muppet Show popular.

For a movie tasked with paying tribute to the original TV series and movies, acknowledging the gap in years and popularity, and reviving the brand with spunky humour and a fresh take, it’s impressive the film doesn’t collapse under its own weight. Rather, it’s as light as a marionette. The audience I was part of was thrilled.

Having captured the viewers and paid tribute to the Muppet fans and creators alike, Segel could move in new directions with a sequel. ‘The Muppets’ could be the start of a new era for Kermit and company. But the film also works as a coda, a fitting farewell to cherished characters who, like Henson, have a “gentle soul and a wicked sense of humour.”

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Duplicable Me

I finally went to see Despicable Me last night, arriving just late enough to miss most of the trailer for Disney’s Rapunzel movie (now titled Tangled) which I have become interested in mostly due to the involvement of Miss Kristin Chenoweth and, as a member of the Little Mermaid-generation, a nostalgically emotional investment in the return of Disney’s princess movies.

Despicable Me is a witty, visually splendid escape from the worries of your day. We were chuckling out loud from the very beginning at a surprisingly-politically incorrect intro in which a group of American tourists (fat, t-shirted and camera ready, their bus blaring ‘Sweet Home, Alabama’ into the Egyptian desert) discover one of the great pyramids has been stolen, replaced with a deflating tarp. An over-caffeinated news report about the extent other countries are taking to protect their landmarks follows: the Wall of China is shown surrounded by tanks, which all aim and fire at a passing dove.

The plot concerns the rivalry between high-tech super-villains (who hold countries to ransom but, importantly never appear to kill anyone). Gru, voiced by Steve Carell, is a vaguely-Russian mastermind who works with apparent immunity from his neighbourhood, figuring out grand things to steal with the inventions built by his army of little, yellow, pip-squeak minions. He adopts three little girls from an orphanage who sell cookies in order to break into the lair of his rival Vector (an over-the-top nerd stereotype voiced by Jason Segel). Of course, the girls, through their cuteness and sass, begin to soften Gru’s rough edges and we all know where the story’s going.

The movie is a continuation of the subgenre of computer-animated super hero/villain films, with its high-tech inventions and family values evoking The Incredibles most directly. But Despicable Me borrows a number of motifs from a range of cartoons, television and film of the last fifty years. 

First, there’s the look of Gru himself: with his oval head, deep-set eyes and total absence of neck, he’s a dead-ringer for The Addams Family Uncle Fester, both Christopher Llyod’s movie version and the original New Yorker drawings of Charles Addams. Gomez and Morticia would also feel at home at his house, a hilariously renovated gothic version of the suburban townhouses that surround it.  When the three little girls are picked up by Gru and cautiously step into their child-unfriendly new home, I was reminded of the identical scene in the almost-forgotten Jim Carrey vehicle Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events. I couldn’t even find a picture of the little girls online to illustrate this point, which shows you how much they were pushed out of the previews in favour of the more action-packed shenanigans of the two super-villains.

Both in animation and tone, the film resembles Warner Brother’s cartoons, especially those frustrating crusades of Wile E. Coyote. One half expects to see the name ‘Acme’ on Gru’s rickety tools of destruction. Gru’s machines, all metal and bolts and occasionally-exploding, are clearly IBM to his rival Vector’s Mac, whose look is all sleek white plastic. This was the same visual dichotomy of the star-crossed robots Walle and Eve in their post-apocalyptic romance.

Finally, the concept of having an army of cute little workers hidden under one’s house is indebted to Willy Wonka and his Oompa Loompas (while I complained that the appearance of the minions, who are essentially yellow ovals, should have been developed more realistically, I am certainly glad that they don’t look like little people in orange make-up!), but they kept reminding me of the industrious Doozers from Fraggle Rock, continuingly rebuilding their crystal towers which the Fraggles ate casually and compulsively.

All of which is fine. Most movies draw on a myriad of inspirations and, by putting them together, create something new. Nothing despicable about that.

 

Can Jason Segel Save The Muppets?

The GQ magazine that I’ve previously posted about (whose cover with Taylor Lautner cover I rather embarrassingly lusted over) has an interview with Jason Segel of I Love You, Man or Forgetting Sarah Marshall or How I Met Your Mother or Freaks and Geeks-fame. Although perhaps 90% of viewers remember Sarah Marshall for the infamous penis scene, there’s a small cadre who were more impressed by the Dracula puppet show finale. We are Muppet fans, an often difficult dedication over the two decades since Jim Henson’s passing. We have sat through some terrible films and TV shows, and Jason Segel, as a Muppet fan himself, knows our pain. Indeed, he’s our last best hope for reclaiming Kermit and company’s former glory.

In the interview, he recounts a sad scene at the Henson Company, who designed the puppets for the Sarah Marshall vampire show. Segel asked if he could see a Kermit or a Miss Piggy. After a pause, the Henson people admitted “We don’t have Kermits or Piggys. We sold everything to Disney.” Later, when he had a meeting at with Walt’s company during which a bunch of executives pitched him projects, he interrupted and said “Thank you, this is all very flattering, but listen. You guys own the Muppets and you’re just kind of sitting on ‘em. I really love the Muppets, and I think I know how to bring the franchise back.” After some laughter, and his pledge that he wasn’t going to make it ironic or Judd Apatow-esque, Disney relented. Jason Segel is getting to make his Muppet Movie.

Whether he’s able to succeed at taking on where The Muppets Take Manhattan left off will rest on how he balances the trinity of humour, music and heart. Humour for Segel will presumably not be a problem. I have faith that his funniness is not solely of the R-rated, penis-exposing variety. Music has proven an obstacle for post-1990 Muppet vehicles, partly because the scores of the original three movies were so legendary. But they’ve signed on James Bobin, co-creator of Flight of the Conchords, to direct, which is an inspired choice.

Then there’s the question of heart. It’s difficult to strike the right tone and not go schmaltzy. Surprisingly, the original Muppet Show TV show, which made Miss Piggy, Fozzie and Gonzo household names, had very little emotion in it; the show was largely made up of terrible Vaudeville one-liners, covers of classic and contemporary songs during which things would explode, and 1970’s guest stars attempting to achieve rapport with a green felt frog. All the heart came from the films; in The Muppet Movie, Gonzo’s melancholy song in the desert followed by Kermit’s outburst at the gang claiming he didn’t promise them anything; in The Great Muppet Caper, Kermit’s disillusion with Miss Piggy after she lied about being the designer Lady Holiday (Diana Rigg in a drag queen role); and, of course, The Muppets take Manhattan, whose ‘Saying Goodbye’ song and final wedding scene bring a tear to every Muppet-fan’s eye.

Segel had to reference the ‘Saying Goodbye’ song often during pitch meetings. “I kept getting notes from, like, the Muppet brass saying, ‘Muppets are never sad. Muppets never break up.’ And I had to be like, ‘No—they do. And that’s the best part.’”

Suddenly, the last few years of mediocrity are explained: Disney had no idea what they had bought! They thought they had acquired a pantheon of cheery, furry characters to stand alongside mindless Mickey and gang.

 (Mickey Mouse, it must be said, finally and loudly, is the single most uninteresting character in Western culture. His sole characteristic is having satellite-dish shaped ears, which turn his head into three perfect circles, becoming the ideal copyrighted logo, which is all Disney needs of him. Okay, I’m done.)

They completely misunderstood the characters. While the Muppets are zany, neuroses were always just below the fake fur. They’re all a bunch of losers. Fozzie is just a lost little boy, who has mistaken Kermit for his father and uses (bad) jokes to get attention. Ditto with Gonzo, only he likes daredevil stunts (I won’t get into his poultry-philia here).

And how to summarize Miss Piggy? Frank Oz didn’t like doing female characters and I think his being uncomfortable accounts for Piggy’s continual tension between the feminine and the masculine. She tries, desperately, to be glamorous and elegant, but she inevitably fails and when she does, she screams, and threatens, and karate-chops. Camp has been described as the failure of femininity, and Miss Piggy could be the textbook example.

Like all them, she wants Kermit’s love and approval and when it becomes too much for his nonexistent green shoulders he berates them. The fact that Kermit can be earnest and well-meaning but still get frustrated makes him very real.

But these are just my feelings about the Muppets. I’m sure Jason Segel has his own and they come from the same committed place. The Muppet Wikia site, which has literally everything you could ever want to know about the Muppets (and I know that people use that word incorrectly, but it’s an incredibly exhaustive resource) outlined two potential plots for the new movie. The first is classic Muppet and is about getting the whole gang out of retirement to save the Muppet theatre from an evil rich oil man. The second, a meta film called The Cheapest Muppet Movie Ever, is based on an idea Henson himself  worked on before his death. In it, the Muppets have to make a film with a budget that keeps getting slashed, while the production values of the film you’re watching get visibly cheaper and cheaper.

The plots ultimately don’t matter much. The Muppet movies of the 1970’s and 1980’s revived the standard stories of classic musicals (“Let’s go to Hollywood/Broadway and become famous and make people happy!”), hopeful plots for a cynical time. What will matter is whether Segel can find a way to expose another organ, his heart, through Jim Henson’s complex creatures.