If there’s one thing the folks at the Savannah Film Festival do well, it’s keeping the annual Director’s Choice hush-hush until the moment the title screen rolls. The only teaser we got was that it’d be family-friendly, so it probably made perfect sense for the packed audience in Trustees Theater when the title flashed on the screen: “The Muppets.”
My stomach sank.
You could say I’m the Grinch of family films, a trait I’m sure I share with a certain percentage of college-aged 20-somethings. But for you skeptics out there, let me assure you of one thing: Disney and director James Bobin have nailed the balance of a children’s film appealing to adult sensibilities. I laughed more during “The Muppets” than I did during the first “Shrek,” and I have no doubt that after the film’s Thanksgiving release, it will pick up a large following.
The greatest danger for this sort of film is failing to hit a broad demographic. The cleverness of “The Muppets” script — a story about Kermit and his comrades defeating skeptics who claim that they’re no longer relevant — is that it works on two levels.
While the Muppets must convince television producer Veronica (Rashida Jones) to give them air time after being rejected at every major network, the film’s real life writers must come up with a way to appeal to a 21st century audience.
And boy, do they.
By following a tone made famous by shows like “Glee” and “Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog,” “The Muppets” transitions from upbeat musical numbers to a deadpan self-awareness (“Sorry I’m late, I was finishing a musical number”) that reins even the most skeptical audiences back in.
But that’s not to say all of the musical numbers are just for kids. When villainous Tex Richman (Chris Cooper), an oil tycoon attempting to take over the Muppet Studios, breaks into rap, I, along with the rest of the audience, just died with laughter. Cooper, known for his serious roles in “Sea Biscuit” and “Adaptation” is campier than Aaron Carter circa his “That’s How I Beat Shaq” days. It’s nothing short of brilliant.
The same effect is achieved when the chickens take on Cee Lo Green’s, “F*** You,” with some of the best nondescript adult-aimed humor in quite a while. Trust me here. Just imagine the chorus: “Bawk Bawk [and] Bawk Bawk Bawk.”
The largest achievement, however, is that “The Muppets” doesn’t rely on its franchise — its story and acting really do stand on their own. It might be helpful to know some of the backstory on Miss Piggy and Kermit’s relationship, but even without a background in Muppets history, audiences can pick up on the couple’s troubled past from the tension of Kermit’s anticipation in the scenes leading up to his reunion with Piggy.
Paralleling Piggy and Kermit’s arc, Gary and Mary, the live-action characters played by Jason Segel and Amy Adams, have their own quirky side story. The challenge of finding that right balance between sticking true to the tone, without overshadowing the cast of puppets, lies on their shoulders. Adams, particularly, feels perfectly cast in a role where she plays the proverbial third wheel, but never comes across as bitter or angry.
A film like “The Muppets” is always a balancing act: appealing to children, and the parents they drag along, while trying to satisfy old fans of the franchise and those entering the theater with fresh eyes. But even my fellow Grinches out there should give this one a chance. Your heart just might grow three sizes that day.Contact Susan Kemp.