Month: March 2012

I’m a Muppet of a Fan

PrincessThere’s an old apocalyptic tale my father shared with me when I was a child. It goes something like this: If there were ever a global thermonuclear war, cockroaches would be the lone survivors. Along with Keith Richards, Twinkies, and presumably those yellow Easter-season chicks called Marshmallow Peeps.

I know I’m going out on a green, felt-covered limb here…but I’d like to add The Muppets to this post-apocalyptic survivor list. Keep in mind I say this with zero scientific knowledge to back me up. I’m only guided by a soft spot for nostalgia, my firm belief that Kermit is a wiser puppet philosopher than Yoda, and the fact that my daughter is obsessed with The Muppets some 20 years after their presumed extinction from relevancy.

Yes, I’m a “Muppet of a Man.” I’m also damn proud to say that my 6-year old daughter is a Muppet of a fan. She started counting the days ‘til March 20th soon after she stopped counting the days ‘til December 25th. March 20th you ask? The day The Muppets arrived in video stores [do they still have video stores?] and landed in my BluRay player. I’ve been smiling ever since, and I’m happy to say that the more things change, the more The Muppets stay the same.

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When I first heard that Jason Segel had written a new Muppets script, I had my doubts. Let’s face it…The Muppets were about as relevant as a “Who Shot JR?” t-shirt. Fanatic or not, I feared Segel would play the ironic, out-of-their-era hook for easy laughs [think “The Brady Bunch Movie”]. The brilliance of Segel’s (and Nicholas Stoller’s) heartfelt and hilarious script is that they don’t shy away from the irrelevance. They embrace it. Case in plot point, when we learn that Tex Richman (Chris Cooper) wants to drill for oil under The Muppet Theater, nobody—least of all The Muppets—care to save the theater. That’s where our Muppet-loving heroes come in.

A Muppet named Walter, his human brother Gary (Segal), and Gary’s girlfriend Mary (Amy Adams) are tasked with making the world care about The Muppets again. Part of the fun—and underlying sadness—is how far the filmmakers go to tell us what we already know: The Muppets have faded into the kind of obscurity reserved for the cast of Alf. Kermit’s a hermit living a depressed life in Beverly Hills. Fozzie’s bearly hanging onto his sense of humor with “The Moopets” tribute band. And poor Animal is a strung-out drum addict stuck with a sponsor named Jack Black [can we fade him into Alf-like obscurity? Better yet, suck him into a Jack Black Hole?].

So Walter, Gary, and Mary hit the road and try to convince Kermit and company to reunite, “light the lights”, and save The Muppet Theatre. The film is packed with the chirpy songs and smart, rapid-fire humor that first won me over in 1979 [and had me carrying a Muppets lunchbox to school long after lunchboxes were relevant]. Segel and Adams play their human characters with relentless, Muppet-like enthusiasm. Without a single knowing wink to the camera, their squares have a whole lot of flair to spare. They’re never too cheeky or ironic, and when they sing “Life’s a happy song”…it’s as if they’re paying tribute to Jim Henson himself. In other words, “Life’s a happy song…as long as we’ll always have The Muppets to sing along.”

Is it the “most sensational, inspirational, celebrational” movie of the year? Maybe not. But it’s “Muppetational” enough to make my daughter finally forget about the mindless mayhem of a square-pantsed sea sponge. She’s now a Muppet fan…and she’s proud to say her daddy will always be a “Muppet of a man.”

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It’s time to play the music. It’s time to light the lights.” It’s time to rent, download, stream, or purchase The Muppets movie tonight.

Seriously, I don’t think they have video stores anymore.

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Still Wild About Wilder’s Willy Wonka

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RIP Mr. Wilder!

Blog post from March 2, 2012

When my friend Molly posted this photo of my first movie hero last week, I felt like I had just chugged a Fizzy Lifting Drink. I was sky-high and belching my way to Cloud 9.

Then I read her caption: “My most serious crush, even more than David Cassidy or Bobby Sherman.” Huh? Willy Wonka as sex symbol? When I try to describe Wilder’s on-screen appearance as Wonka, I sound an awful lot like Grandpa Howard from Sixteen Candles. You know, when he’s inquiring about the whereabouts of Long Duck Dong.

“What was he wearing? Well, uh, let’s see, he was wearing a [brown top hat, purple jacket, tan bow tie, and pink shirt]. Hmmm? No, he’s not retarded.”

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A couple of days after Molly’s post, my brother left me the following message: “Shane, I just watched Willy Wonka again. It’s still the greatest. You’ve gotta write a blog about it.” Hmmm? No, he’s not retarded either. Brett’s a fanboy who—like me—calls Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory the greatest children’s movie of all-time. [Sorry Dorothy, flying monkeys creep the crap out of me].

As a little boy curled up in my beanbag chair, I remember being so captivated by the colors of Wonka World…so intoxicated by the imagined smell of the chocolate river…and so scared shitless by that riverboat tunnel ride. “There’s no earthly way of knowing/Which direction we are going/There’s no knowing where we’re rowing/Or which way the river’s flowing.” This same verse can be used to describe the genius of Gene Wilder’s Wonka. It is, quite simply, my favorite cinematic invention of all-time.

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In his biography, Kiss Me Like a Stranger: My Search for Love and Art, Gene Wilder writes that he was hesitant to play Willy Wonka at first. In fact, he would only accept the role on these terms:

“When I make my first entrance, I’d like to come out of the door carrying a cane and then walk toward the crowd with a limp. After the crowd sees Willy Wonka is a cripple, they all whisper to themselves and then become deathly quiet. As I walk toward them, my cane sinks into one of the cobblestones I’m walking on and stands straight up, by itself…but I keep on walking, until I realize that I no longer have my cane. I start to fall forward, and just before I hit the ground, I do a beautiful forward somersault and bounce back up, to great applause.”

When asked why, Wilder replied:
“Because from that time on, no one will know if I’m lying or telling the truth.”

And from that time on, Gene Wilder gives a chocolate factory tour-de-force performance as Willy Wonka. He’s compulsively manic, eccentric, distrustful, and quite possibly diabolical. “And almost everything you’ll see is eatable, edible. I mean, you can eat almost everything.”

I firmly believe that Gene Wilder built his performance on a simple fact. Kids are smarter than we—and Disney—give them credit for. They don’t miss a trick. The brilliance of Wilder’s slight-of-hand performance is that he’s still tricking kids some 40 years later. The trick? Kids don’t even realize they’re being fed a three-course morality meal. Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory is chock-full of hard lessons in gluttony, vanity, greed, bad parenting, and “gum-chewing’s fine every once in a while.”

But Wonka’s lessons never taste preachy because Wilder never lets kids get comfortable. He dismisses “bad eggs” the same way he dispenses whimsy…with little effort or concern. “It happens every time. They all become blueberries.”

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As a kid, I was scared to death! They’re “gonna squeeze her like a little pimple”? Won’t she explode? Will Charlie be next? Sorry kids, no Disney shortcuts here. Your happy ending is going to be earned.

“The suspense is terrible, I hope it’ll last.

The suspense lasts until the final scene. Just when you think there’s nothing left of the weary Wonka, his frustration over not finding a worthy heir boils over into a fit of rage: “You get nothing!!! You lose!!! Good day sir!!!” Then with the simple drop of an everlasting gobstopper, all that vein-popping, spit-spewing, hair-straggling rage settles into a genuine smile. That same smile, I presume, that Molly’s been crushing on all these years.

Yes, Charlie ultimately gains Wonka’s trust. And Wilder finally lets us trust Wonka….while planting a gobstopper-size lump in our throats. No more tricks. Just the treat of watching Wilder’s Wonka tell “an honest, loving child” that he’ll live happily ever after.

There is no life I know to compare with pure imagination.

Willy Wonka and the Chocoloate Factory is that rare family film that hits all the magical movie marks: Delightful and funny, exciting and scary, silly and smart. And Wonka’s all these things because of Gene Wilder’s genuine work of pure imagination.

As for Molly, I have but one question: Like the gobstopper, is your Wilder crush everlasting?

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