The Muppets: The first movie I saw in the theaters was The Muppets Take Manhattan. I would’ve been just shy of four. The second movie I saw in the theaters was also The Muppets Take Manhattan. I vaguely remember crying when it was over. Not because I was touched by the maybe-wedding of Kermit and Miss Piggy (although, you know, it’s pretty touching), but I think because I wanted to watch it again, or more? Maybe I wanted it to be three hours long? That feeling didn’t make me cry at the end of Anchorman or X-Men: First Class, although I’m not sure that is any kind of mark of increased maturity. In any event, the Muppets have been my jam for as long as I can remember. I couldn’t be happier that Jason Segel and company are bringing them back for a brand-new movie.
Thanks to the Jim Henson’s Fantastic World exhibit at the Museum of the Moving Image as well as the Jim Henson Foundation’s Puppets on Film retrospective, it’s been pretty easy to catch up with various big-screen Muppetworks this fall; even before that, I managed to see The Muppet Movie, The Great Muppet Caper, and Muppets Take Manhattan theatrically during 2010. I’m not a Jason Segel style post-1984 Muppets agnostic, though; A Muppet Christmas Carol beats many other tellings of that tale, and while Muppet Treasure Island isn’t quite as good, it’s plenty delightful. Even the last Muppet theatrical feature, Muppets from Space, has its charms, including a focus on Gonzo and the conceit that the Muppets all live in a boarding house together, which I will always love even if it’s accompanied by a cheesy classic-funk soundtrack. Still, the story, production values, and human guest stars in The Muppets seem more of a piece with The Muppet Movie than the post-Henson projects. It also features go-to Disney gal Amy Adams, who seems like the modern equivalent of the type of performer who could keep pace with the adorability of felt costars on The Muppet Show.
With Adams, Segel, Muppets, and Flight of the Conchords alums working behind the scenes, this movie looks far more promising than, say, Ashanti playing Dorothy in Muppet Wizard of Oz (probably best that one didn’t make it to theaters; I’m pretty sure I fell asleep watching it on DVD, something I don’t recall ever happening with the Muppets even when I was watching them during prime naptime era). I’m not even sure how I’ll go about critically evaluating a new Muppet movie, or if that’s even possible. If a new Back to the Future movie came out next week, I could at least compare it in terms of pacing, comic timing, invention, performance; I don’t doubt that the original Muppet movies have these things, but I’m not sure I could dissect them properly, even after seeing all of them many times at many different ages. They’re simple creations in a lot of way—when I heard talk of old-guard Muppet performers nitpicking this movie’s script, even I, a devoted Muppet-lover since more or less birth, wondered, ok, but is Fozzie Bear really so intricately developed as to contradict his character so easily?—but the immediacy of cute, endearing puppets making silly jokes trumps attention to their craft, at least when it’s really working. In other words, I know that I must love this new Muppet movie; despite years of film-crit experience, I may be helpless to explain why that does or does not happen.
Hugo: I feel bad for Scorsese, because he’s made his first 3D family movie with neat-looking sets and cool actors and expensive effects, and here he is, about to get his ass whupped by a $40 million Muppet movie. The mode of live-action family films tends to favor bad animation, either figuratively (through mugging and hyperactive colors) or literally (spiking mugging and hyperactive colors with poorly animated live-action-looking talking animals), which puts Steadicam/Jude Law/Dial M for Murder enthusiast Marty a bit out of step. The Invention of Hugo Cabret, the well-titled basis for this dopily titled movie, makes perfect sense for Scorsese, though as hefty as the book is with its many gorgeous and cinematic illustrations, it’s not exactly an epic tale. This is second only to Muppets on my family-movie want-to-see list, but I wonder if it will fall victim to the insane glut of high-profile family films playing over the next month. Puss in Boots is still drawing crowds, and Happy Feet Two has only been playing for five days; The Muppets is ready to fill the de facto Pixar slot of kid movie that attracts a ton of twenty and thirtysomethings; and on top of those, there’s one extra live-actioner with Hugo and one more bit of animation with Arthur Christmas (see below). Plus, these five movies have less than a month to make their money before Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakening comes in and destroys everything. In other words, trick your nephew and/or niece into seeing Hugo with you this weekend, because it probably needs their allowance money (yes, in this scenario, your nephew and/or niece is treating you to a movie for some reason).
A Dangerous Method: Michael Fassbender has a discomforting relationship with sex, part one of two! Even by the less squishy standards of A History of Violence and Eastern Promises, David Cronenberg’s last two collaborations with Viggo Mortensen, A Dangerous Method is surprisingly buttoned up—the Cronenberg version of a chamber piece. Its stage roots show: the movie has a little sex, but it’s mostly conversations, tense therapy sessions both official and not, framed with enough precision by Cronenberg to give them an antsy charge. Cronenberg muse Mortensen is backgrounded a bit here, looming over the proceedings as Freud; the star in terms of screentime is Michael Fassbender as the searching Jung (Jung is more sympathetic, but Freud is more hilarious; this movie is also kind of funny in a non-jokey, deadpan, oddball sort of way). Keira Knightley is excellent as the patient-then-mentor who comes between the two doctors. I’ve read her performance described as mannered, but she usually is; here, it’s put to good, sharp use, rather than having her eye-crinkle her way through Pride and Prejudice. A Dangerous Method threatens to disappoint fans of both Cronenberg (see: lack of squishiness) and highbrow tony awards movies (see: lack of big-ticket breakdown incident), but the uneasy tension between the two makes it a surprising kick to watch.
The Artist and My Week with Marilyn: There’s just something about the Weinsteins: when they make Oscar plays, even if I actively want to check out the movies involved (like The Artist, a silent, black-and-white, Academy ratio comedy-drama!), I develop a feeling of ambivalence that makes me, at very least, drag my feet on catching them theatrically until sometime in December.
Arthur Christmas: Speaking of dragging my feet until later in December, Aardman has a computer-animated Christmas movie; Thanksgiving is an acceptable release date for this sort of thing (I understand that anything later will compromise a Christmas movie’s ability to make money, and these things aren’t made for the love of Christ), but it feels a little too early to check out Aardman out of their element. I actually quite liked their previous attempt at a non-clay-based feature, the underrated Flushed Away, but that movie had a cute look to it even when depicting rats and slugs. This one looks only a bit better-designed than Gnomeo and Juliet. The early reviews are quite keen; they’re also quite Brit-based as of this writing. I’ll consider it closer to the holiday.