After a decade in limbo, the Muppets have once again found their attitude. While the lovable puppets have always been geared towards family viewing, the past few years have seen Kermit and the gang steer too far towards being kid friendly and forgetting about the parents. The legacy of the franchise suffered because of it as the Muppets became out of touch with the times and too much like Barney the purple dinosaur.
Made for TV, It’s a Very Merry Muppet Christmas Movie is a medley of familiar Christmas classics such as It’s a Wonderful Life, A Christmas Story and The Grinch, amongst others, with a distinct Muppet spin. Kermit and the gang are going to lose the Muppet Theater to a miserly banker (Joan Cusack). Kermit gets depressed and wishes he’d never been born. You know where the plot is going. And while I’m tired of It’s a Wonderful Life “homages,” it worked here to frame the story. The Muppets are first and foremost about humor. That’s why The Muppet Show used a variety format and connected several short skits with a simple, often flimsy, running theme. But when you expand from a 30-minute show to a feature-length movie, there has to be a story line to hold everything together. Very Merry Muppet Christmas provides just enough story to get by and the rest is all gags and spoofs.
Like any good Muppet project, Very Merry Muppet Christmas has a manic imagination where anything can happen. Humans and foam figures live in harmony together, eight-foot tall “things” can walk down the street without being stared at and don’t be surprised if things just fall out of the sky. No explanations are needed as to what something is. They’re Muppets, after all.
Another Muppet staple is a steady diet of star cameos. Among them are two of my least favorite actors working in Hollywood today: David Arquette and Whoopi Goldberg. Normally I find them both grating and obnoxious. Here Goldberg is at the very least tolerable. She doesn’t try too hard to crack a bad joke. She’s more subdued in her role as, of all people, God. Not only is Arquette tolerable, he is commendable as a rookie angel. With his thick glasses and dorky demeanor, Arquette fits right in with his Muppet co-stars (in the context of the film, this is a good thing). Like Gonzo or Beaker, Arquette is sweet and lovable, even though he’s often being pushed around. Other celebrities showing up in the film include Matt Lillard (Scooby-Doo), William H. Macy (Fargo), morning talk show host Kelly Ripa and the cast of TV’s Scrubs.
What I appreciated most was the numerous subtle jabs at pop culture. Kids might not have understood the gag on media synergy or jabs at often-fanatical Internet fansites. But their parents probably did. Very Merry Muppet Christmas even pokes fun at the Muppets themselves. The villain in The Muppet Movie was Doc Hopper, a rich entrepreneur who wanted Kermit as his spokesperson for a chain of fast-food restaurants specializing in frog legs. All but forgotten, Doc Hopper’s returns. References such as these bring the Muppets into the 21st century and offer a welcome departure from the kid-oriented Muppet films of recent years: The Muppet Christmas Carol, Muppet Treasure Island and Muppets From Space.
Let’s face it, currently celebrating their 25th anniversary, the Muppets are symbols of nostalgia. Should their style remain like it was 25 years ago, they will never transcend being a novelty today. After a quick fix either from a Muppet Show rerun or a movie such as this, people will become bored again and move on. That’s why it’s so important for the Muppets, or any entertainment franchise for that matter, to show some change. Very Merry Muppet Christmas succeeds without compromising the heart of the Muppets, the reason why they became so popular in the first place. Some might cringe at the sight of Muppets in a rave, or Pepe, one of the few good Muppet additions of the past decade, burying his face in Joan Cusack’s bosom. I say bring it on. The original Muppet fans are adults now. We can handle edgier material. There’s nothing in Very Merry Muppet Christmas you won’t see on early primetime television.
Early pacing did pose as a problem for the film. At one point Arquette and Goldberg sit around and shoot the breeze for far too long. Later on there’s an inexplicable scene involving Fozzie being chased by some Crocodile Hunter wannabe. Unless it’s Steve Irvin, the original, the crazy Aussie animal hunter shtick isn’t funny. Here it’s downright awful.
But these moments are few as, for the most part, director Kirk Thatcher stays with the story, no matter how thin it is. And even some throw away scenes serve a purpose because they help build character.
Hopefully It’s a Very Merry Muppet Christmas Movie will serve as a sign of things to come for the Muppets. Kermit’s got more attitude here than he has in all the other shows and films he’s been in before. He’s embraced an edgier world, one where both kids and adults can once again laugh with the Muppets and all their rediscovered resonance.
It’s a Very Merry Muppet Christmas Movie Gallery