Big Screen Berkeley: The Muppets and Hugo

Chris Cooper prepares to laugh maniacally in "The Muppets"

Once again, the season of holiday movie-going — that special time of year when local art-houses overflow with Oscar bait and the multiplexi are stuffed with family-friendly fare sweeter and stickier than a supermarket Yule log — is upon us.

It’s The Most Wonderful Time of the Year, those few weeks in December when even yours truly stops fruitlessly trying to better his mind and relaxes with a popcorn flick or three. Therefore, be it resolved: this week I’ll spare you any dissertations on the latest Estonian comedy or that depressing documentary about cute baby seals being turned into lamp shades in favor of something a little more mainstream.

The Muppets (currently screening at Rialto Cinemas Elmwood) hits the family film sweet spot, taking the now grown children of the late 20th century on a delightful trip down memory lane while also tickling the funny bones of the younger set. Whether you’re 8 or 80, a chorus of chickens singing a G-rated version of Cee-lo Green’s Fuck You is going to make you laugh, but the film’s narrative structure is primarily designed to reel in those of us who spent the late 1970s following the prime-time adventures of Kermit the Frog. (Speaking of whom, it’s hard to imagine a time when the only remotely famous Kermit was Teddy Roosevelt’s grandson. It’s also hard to imagine a time when loving parents would name their son ‘Kermit’.)

Kermit was the only Muppet to take the leap from PBS pedagogue to network superstar, so it’s only proper that the lean green amphibian is the focal point of The Muppets. In brief: having retired into seclusion upon The Muppet Show’s 1981 cancellation, Kermit is called upon to save the old Muppet Studio from a nefarious oil baron (Chris Cooper) who intends to tear it down and drill for the Texas Tea rumored to be bubbling beneath its historic grounds.


The only way to save the studio, of course, is to buy it back — and the only way to do that is to raise funds via a good old-fashioned telethon. (Foreshadowing is provided via a cameo appearance by Mickey ‘hey kids, let’s put on a show!’ Rooney, now in his tenth decade of film work.) Cue a reunion of the old gang, including Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear, Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem and the rest, including my personal favorite, the Swedish Chef. Börk Börk Börk!

The film also features humans Jason Segel and Amy Adams, well cast as a pair of young lovers who periodically sing and dance their way through some surprisingly good musical numbers. Of particular note is Segel’s performance of the heart-rending Man or Muppet, in which he questions whether it’s better to be flesh and blood or foam and felt:

“Am I a man or am I a Muppet?
If I’m a Muppet then I’m a very manly Muppet
Am I a Muppet or am I a man?
If I’m a man that makes me a Muppet of a man.”

Eat your heart out, Cole Porter.

The Muppets is a delightful and comfy ninety minutes of grade A corn. Hugo (currently screening at Landmark’s Shattuck Theatres), on the other hand, is of a decidedly more serious bent, and not quite as kid-friendly as its marketing suggests. That doesn’t mean there’s anything in it unsuitable for small fry, but at over two hours in length and with little in the way of fart jokes, it’ll be a bit of a challenge for the under-12s (and many over-12s, too).


Directed by Martin Scorsese, Hugo relates the story of a young Italian-American lad growing up in the Bronx circa 1960. Oh, no that’s wrong — he’s actually an orphan (Asa Butterfield) who maintains the clocks in a Paris train station. While evading the clutches of a station guard (Sacha Baron Cohen, channeling the spirit of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’s Child Catcher), he meets a crotchety old toy merchant (Ben Kingsley) with a surprising secret. Well, it’s only surprising if you haven’t read any spoiler-laden reviews, which I didn’t. Let’s just say that Hugo turns into Professor Scorsese’s first-day-of-college undergrad film lecture. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

The Muppets reflects the influence of post-modernism on pop culture; Hugo provides a more traditional example of linear storytelling. Hugo’s sexual politics are decidedly patriarchal, its female characters doing little more than reacting to the actions of its male characters, while the liberated Miss Piggy plays a critical role in the effort to save the Muppet Studio. In next week’s column, I’ll expand on these themes, with particular attention paid to the influence of situationism on the ‘spectacle’ of the Muppet telethon.

Till then, however, I’m going to watch those chickens again. They are so darn funny!

Berkeleyside’s film writer John Seal writes a weekly movie recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as well as a column in The Phantom of the Movies’ Videoscope, an old-fashioned paper magazine, published quarterly.  

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