Now here is a reboot to cheer for. The Muppets heralds the return of Jim Henson’s beloved furry creations resurrected from pop-culture irrelevance and lovingly restored to their former greatness in a vibrant comedy-musical.
Jason Segel in addition to co-writing and starring in the film served as executive producer and the project's resident evangelist. His choice of collaborators is inspired. Directing is James Bobin best known as the co-creator along with Bret McKenzie and Jemaine Clement of HBO’s Flight of the Conchords a show whose good-natured and yet slyly irreverent tone often recalled that of old Muppet Show episodes. (I’ve never quite recovered from its premature departure.) McKenzie served as music supervisor contributing several original songs to the soundtrack. Segel’s co-star Amy Adams is the rare breed of actress who can transition from playing a pugilistic potty-mouthed waitress (in The Fighter) to the role of an angelic schoolteacher with ease. And few actors portray cartoonish villainy with more verve than Oscar winner Chris Cooper.
The film opens with a montage introducing the character of Walter a Muppet raised in Smalltown USA who figures himself the first and only of his kind until he happens upon an old Muppet Show rerun after which he is inexorably transfixed. Together with his “brother ” Gary (Segel) and Gary’s fiancé Mary (Adams) he travels out to Los Angeles to meet his idols only to find their studio vacated and on the verge of being demolished by Tex Richman (Cooper) a sinister tycoon who covets the oil reserves beneath it.
The only way to save the studio naturally is a kick-ass variety show reuniting the Muppets long estranged after the demise of their television series. Kermit the Frog is now holed up in a sprawling Bel Air mansion which he once dreamed of sharing with his former flame Miss Piggy who has gone on to become Vogue’s “plus-size” editor in Paris. Consummate entertainer Fozzy Bear is slumming it in Reno with a tribute band dubbed the Moopets; Gonzo is consumed by his work as CEO of the plumbing company Gonzo’s Royal Flush; and Animal is seeking treatment at the Fresh Pathways anger management clinic.
Segel and company’s affection for the original Muppets property is clear so much so that some viewers may dismiss the film as a tedious exercise in nostalgia. Pay them no heed. Kermit and the crew are as fresh and funny as they were three decades ago and their anarchic brand of humor with young and old alike. The film suffers from an over-emphasis on its human characters (Gonzo’s miniscule screen time is particularly baffling) and McKenzie’s songwriting while more than adequate yields no memorable standouts in the vein of “Rainbow Connection” or “Mah Na Mah Na ” but these are minor quibbles. Only cynical curmudgeons like Statler and Waldorf would waste time finding fault with an experience this joyous.
Playing second fiddle to a more famous sibling can be rough. Just ask Fred Claus (Vaughn) a regular guy who has had to grow up under the shadow of his little brother Nicholas Claus (Paul Giamatti) aka Santa. That’s a big shadow to say the least both figuratively and literally. As an adult Fred has pretty much steered clear of his family but when he finds himself in dire need of some fast cash he calls his brother. Pleased as punch to hear from him Nicholas nonetheless makes him a deal: If he comes up to the North Pole for a visit and to help out the few days before Christmas then Fred can have the money. Fred reluctantly agrees and soon he’s being whisked off in Santa’s sleigh by head elf Willie (John Michael Higgins). But once Fred gets to the North Pole nothing seems to go right and soon he is the cause of much chaos--which unbeknownst to Fred causes Nicholas even more stress since his North Pole operation is one step away from being shut down by a cold-hearted efficiency expert (Kevin Spacey). Can Fred quit being bitter in time to save his brother’s livelihood? Of course he can. Hmmm Vince Vaughn minus the R-rated Wedding Crashers/Old School irreverence? It’s a stretch. Seeing the comic actor playing it PG is a little weird but you might enjoy how Vaughn infuses his unique energy into Fred Claus. From getting all the elves to boogie down in Santa’s workshop to going on one rant after another (on his brother: “He’s a clown a megalomaniac a fame junkie!”) to pilfering money on the street and then being chased by Salvation Army Santas it’s all good. Giamatti too seems a little out of his comfort zone as the saintly St. Nick. The actor who usually plays such endearing sad sacks has already played against type to great effect this year as the maniacal bad guy in Shoot ‘Em Up but he isn't nearly as successful in doing the flipside of that in Fred Claus. And what the hell is Kevin Spacey doing in this? As the villain of the film he fills the shoes nicely but he is almost too good at it (natch) for such a feel-good family film. Even Higgins--a character actor who is usually so hilarious in films such as The Break Up and all of Christopher Guest’s movies—has to shed the cheekiness and sugar himself up for Fred Claus. There’s also Rachel Weisz as Fred’s beleaguered girlfriend (you heard right) and Kathy Bates as the Claus boys’ mother who always sees Fred as inferior to her other son to fill out a cast of big names doing family fare. Director David Dobkin is a Vince Vaughn favorite having directed him in Wedding Crashers and Clay Pigeons but like his muse Dobkin seems a little out of place guiding this material. Granted Dobkin creates a pretty magical North Pole complete with an entire city of little dwellings a Frosty Tavern and a huge domed Santa’s Workshop. The montage of Fred delivering presents on Christmas Eve—falling down chimneys stuffing cookies in his face zooming around in the sleigh—is also well done. But overall Fred Claus is a Vaughn vehicle—even as sugary sweet and family-friendly as it is--and all Dobkin really does is turn the camera on and let the man do his stuff. Dan Fogelman's script is also so very bland full of any number of holes and only picks up once Vaughn starts to improvise. Bottom line: If you’re looking to take the kids to a sweet Christmas movie and are a Vince Vaughn fan then Fred Claus is for you.