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The Muppets

In the mid-50’s, the late Jim Henson introduced the world to the Muppets and for over 50 years, they’ve entertained generations of children and the young at heart. Although it debuted before my time, reruns of The Muppet Show dominated my childhood. I loved the catchy tunes, celebrity appearances and silly puppetry that show spotlighted. Memories from watching it have stuck with me over the past 25 years and I’m grateful for them. In a way, they’ve kept me forever young and even today, those episodes are just as entertaining as ever. For those not yet old enough to have memories of the Muppets, the newest movie, succinctly titled The Muppets, is a great and lively introduction, but for people like me, this is a wondrous treat. It brings back everything that was great about the Muppets and is guaranteed to leave all but the most hardened moviegoers with a smile.

The Muppets follows two brothers, Gary (Jason Segel) and Walter (a puppet played by Peter Linz). Gary is in a relationship with Mary (Amy Adams) and they are on their way to Los Angeles for their 10 year anniversary. With Mary’s approval, Gary brings Walter along so they can tour the old Muppets studio. When they get there, they find out that the studio is about to be sold to Tex Richman (Chris Cooper), an oil tycoon who is going to tear it down and drill the ground it rests on. To save it, $10 million must be raised, so Walter, along with Gary and Mary, head off to reteam the old Muppet gang, beginning with the one and only Kermit the Frog (Steve Whitmire).

Thanks to movies like Muppet Treasure Island and The Muppets’ Wizard of Oz (the less said about both, the better), the public’s interest in the Muppets began to wane, and with good reason. They hadn’t done much in recent years and what they did do wasn’t particularly memorable. So what I’m about to say may surprise you: you miss them. You might not know it yet, but you do and this movie will prove it. But it doesn’t prove it simply by being a good movie. It does it with an emotional narrative wrapped around the revival of The Muppet Show that asks whether the Muppets are still relevant and if the public still cares about them. (They are and we do.) Watching The Muppets brings back a wave of nostalgia while simultaneously keeping you in the moment and it will set your imagination wild, a feat matched in recent years only by last year’s Toy Story 3.

As with most Muppet adventures, part of the fun of The Muppets is spotting all the cameos. Some are obvious, like Emily Blunt reprising her role from The Devil Wears Prada, and others will only be noticeable to a select few, like a certain rock star who plays the part of Animal in a Muppets cover band (humorously named The Moopets). But the real pleasure comes from the witty writing, which is filled with self-referential humor that acknowledges it’s a musical movie, and the song and dance numbers themselves. The songs are fun, catchy, occasionally sad and the choreography is excellent. By the time the film gets around to singing one of the Muppets’ most cherished and recognizable songs, tears of joy will be streaming down your face.

All in all, this is a delight and any faults are minor at most. Due to the fact that many of the original puppeteers did not participate in this movie, some of the voices sound a bit off and the love story between Mary and Gary is dispensable. The real heart comes in the form of Gary’s relationship with his brother Walter and Walter’s love for the Muppets, which ultimately leads to him finding himself. The tacked on relationship seems forceful and there only for the purpose of having a pretty leading lady, though to be fair, Amy Adams is radiant in the role; the most lovable she has been since winning everybody over in 2007’s Enchanted.

In a way, The Muppets almost feels like a send off for our old friends. It does what any final installment would and brings the story full circle, taking the characters back to their roots and having them relive their magic one last time. Though I’m sure not intended, if this is the last time we see those rascally puppets on the big screen, they can be proud they went out with style. But if we’re lucky, this will be only the first in a string of many more fantastical adventures.

The Muppets receives 4.5/5


The Big Year

In the last few months, moviegoers have been bombarded with sports stories. Since August, we’ve watched Seven Days in Utopia, a spiritual golf movie, Moneyball, an underdog story about a ragtag group of baseball players, Warrior, a mixed martial arts film about family, Real Steel, the robot form of Warrior, and Senna, the terrific documentary about the life and death of the greatest Formula One racecar driver to ever get behind a wheel. Now film fans have the chance to watch three men compete in the exciting world of…bird watching?

The Big Year follows Brad (Jack Black), Kenny (Owen Wilson) and Stu (Steve Martin) as they compete in something called “The Big Year” (natch), a competition to see who can spot the greatest number of species of birds in one calendar year. It’s as exciting as it sounds. There’s more to it than that, though, like Kenny’s unhappy wife who just wants him to stay home and Brad’s disapproving father who urges him to give up his silly hobby and work, but they are merely forced drama seeking profundity. They, of course, don’t reach it and instead only serve to make an already dumb movie dumber.

But its biggest pratfall isn’t from its failed drama. Nobody goes to see a movie with Jack Black, Owen Wilson and Steve Martin to cry. The Big Year instead suffers from comedic emptiness. One can only assume the script read better than it plays because this is as excruciatingly unfunny a comedy as has come out all year, perhaps even in the last several. The crowd at my screening was eerily silent, which isn’t always an indication of the film’s quality, but it sure was this time. When you can’t even make the audience who were excited enough to show up to a pre-screening laugh, you’ve got problems.

The three talented stars give it their all, but it’s certainly not enough. All three are funniest at their wildest, but are subdued by a tame PG rating. Black, in particular, is never allowed to let loose. His crazy antics that have worked so well in things like School of Rock and Tenacious D in the Pick of Destiny (and even Gulliver’s Travels to a degree—he made that movie tolerable) are nowhere to be seen. The film has a grand total of one earned laugh.

To be fair, this is about as interesting a movie about bird watching as I can possibly imagine, but the subject holds interest to only a select few people. If every bird watching enthusiast in the world showed up to watch it, my guess is the box office intake would still be chump change compared to the usual. The Big Year has the occasional moment of beauty, like a wonderful shot of two eagles free-falling with their talons locked in embrace during a mating ritual, but they only make the rest of the movie look that much worse. Even at just over an hour and a half, this movie is sluggish, overlong and tedious. It’s inoffensive, but even family friendly material can be unwatchable.

The Big Year receives 0.5/5


Kung Fu Panda 2

It has been an underwhelming year so far at the movies. By this time last year, I had given out a good number of perfect or near perfect scores, but 2011 has disappointed me. Films like Rango and Source Code have stood proud as the best this year has offered, yet neither of them were truly great. I’ve been waiting many months for a movie to come along and really impress me, something that can make me laugh, cry and excite me all at the same time. That movie has finally come in the form of Kung Fu Panda 2. It’s a tour de force, a real achievement in not just animation, but filmmaking in general and it proves once and for all that animation can be just as funny, unique and emotionally gripping as live action cinema. Let’s just put it this way. If this were released last year, Toy Story 3 would have had a run for its money.

When we last saw Po (Jack Black), he was learning to be a kung fu master. He was inexplicably deemed the Dragon Warrior and was tasked with the responsibility of defeating an impending evil heading his way. Because of his large stature and clumsy mannerisms, he was ridiculed by the Furious Five, who refused to believe he held the power to protect their people. They were wrong, of course, and now Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Mantis (Seth Rogen), Monkey (Jackie Chan), Crane (David Cross) and Viper (Lucy Liu) have accepted them into their clan. But a kung fu warrior’s work is never done and a new evil has emerged in the form of Lord Shen (Gary Oldman), a peacock determined to take over China.

It must be said that Kung Fu Panda 2 is a sequel of the “if it ain’t broke…” variety. The original film was a solid piece of work in itself and it would be foolish to mess with the formula too much. However, just because something isn’t broke doesn’t mean it can’t be tweaked and made better and that’s precisely what was done here. Kung Fu Panda 2 is funnier and more exciting than the original and its heart seems to have grown tenfold.

Throughout this film’s brief hour and a half runtime, Po goes on a journey of self discovery that is more profound than anything presented in the first movie. As he ventures into battle, he begins to have visions of his family, giving him a desire to learn who he is and where he came from. His discoveries aren’t always pleasant, however, which gives the film an unexpected darker tone than its predecessor. It deals with the idea of making the right choice, even if it’s not the easy one. To elaborate would constitute spoilers, but you will undoubtedly feel sadness for Po as he learns the inescapable truth of his past.

That’s not to say Kung Fu Panda 2 is all dark. It still retains the playful exuberance that made the first movie so darn enjoyable. Also returning is the vibrant and distinctive animation (even when obfuscated by the 3D glasses) that seamlessly transitions from lush computer animation to hand drawn sequences that appropriately elicit the feeling of Chinese shadow puppetry. Perhaps best of all is that the characters are just as charming as you remember. Po is still the awkward, hunger fueled jokester you remember him as. He’s just a little more agile and skilled than before. He also shows more confidence, having been accepted as a legitimate kung fu master, and isn’t afraid to spout off one-liners that are hilariously used to parody various action movie clichés.

The Furious Five that accompany Po are better handled as well. Rather than endlessly make fun of him as they did in the first film, they now see him as a part of their family. It creates a sense of camaraderie among the crew and gives them more sympathetic personalities. The most surprising character, however, comes in the form of Lord Shen, who at first glance is too graceful to be threatening—after all, a peacock isn’t the most ferocious animal on the planet—but looks can be deceiving. He may not have the physical presence of the last film’s antagonist, but he is nevertheless ruthless and destructive. He delights in chaos and will stop at nothing to get what he wants. It’s a cold, calculated approach to villainy, just one of many aspects the filmmakers have carefully thought through.

Kung Fu Panda 2 is a wonderful movie. It works on so many different levels, from the pleasing aesthetics to the unbelievable action, that it’s practically guaranteed to please everybody who watches it. While the children they bring will surely enjoy it, adults in the audience may find something deeper hidden in what looks like an otherwise simple tale. To summarize this review, Kung Fu Panda 2 is flat out amazing.

Kung Fu Panda 2 receives 5/5


Gulliver's Travels

When you consider how abysmal this year’s children’s films were, movies that would otherwise be easy to scoff at begin to look pretty damn good in comparison. Maybe it’s because Furry Vengeance, Yogi Bear, Marmaduke and The Rock fluttering around in a pink tutu in Tooth Fairy all still haunt my dreams, but I found the latest kiddy flick, Gulliver’s Travels to be easily tolerable. It’s not good, but it’s not unwatchable either and in this state of children’s films, I’ll take whatever I can get.

A modern update of the classic tale by Jonathan Swift, Gulliver’s Travels stars Jack Black as Gulliver. He works in the mail room at the New York Tribune where his days are spent covering the rounds and dropping off packages. Working as a reporter at the paper is the girl of his dreams, Darcy, played by Amanda Peet. In an effort to impress her, he mentions that he likes to write in his free time and. It’s a hobby of his that he never really pursued in the job world. When she hears this, she gives him a chance to prove himself and enthusiastically asks for a writing sample. The problem is he lied and has no idea where to begin, so he instead turns in a plagiarized article. Unaware of this and impressed by his work, she gives him an assignment, a little one that will get him started. It’s a fluff piece about the Bermuda Triangle, so he hops in a boat and sets off in that direction. But suddenly, he runs into a strange whirlpool that stretches into the sky. Next thing he knows, he’s in a kingdom called Lilliput, a giant in a world of tiny people.

There’s nobody onscreen today that fits this role more than Jack Black. In all his kooky glory, he approaches the role with his trademark rock ‘n’ roll style and gives it all he’s got. He brings a certain vivacity to every movie he’s in. Sometimes, it doesn’t work (King Kong), but he’s never vexing. He has a personality that I find approachable and fun and it comes through full force in Gulliver’s Travels. His excitement bleeds through the screen and he manages to squeeze laughs out of some of the lamest jokes thanks to his excellent delivery.

The problem of the film is not in Black; it’s in pretty much everything else. It’s set in a new, undiscovered world that is devoid of whimsy or charm. Its tiny inhabitants, the most prominent of whom are played by Jason Segel and Emily Blunt, are uninteresting and their problems are slight. It’s less than an hour and a half, but it still feels too long. It utilizes “barely there” 3D technology that does nothing to make the visuals pop. And those are only the most noticeable problems. Once Gulliver decides to put out a fire by urinating on it (despite there being a giant ocean nearby), you realize that the film has no greater aspirations than to make kids laugh with the barest and most immature tactics available.

As I sit here and struggle to come up with kind words to say about Gulliver’s Travels, I find it increasingly difficult. The nicest thing I can say about it is I didn’t hate it, which is due to no particular reason. It’s not like the screenplay is any good or the acting award worthy or the cinematography exquisite. Rather, it’s an alarmingly bland film by traditional film critiquing standards, but to compare this to The Godfather would be silly. One cannot expect excellence in a kid-targeted film starring Jack Black at his goofiest. If you can keep that notion floating in the back of your mind as you watch it, you might come to enjoy the zaniness in what may be the best “just for kids” movie to be released this year.

Gulliver’s Travels receives 2.5/5