Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Hugo vs. The Muppets

Which family-friendly flick is your best bet at the box office?

The holiday doldrums, regrettably, are upon us.

With final exams coming up soon and most decent TV shows going on hiatus for winter break, it looks like we’re going to be finding ourselves with a dearth of burdensome free time on our hands. And since pro and college football only comes on TV four times a week, that means we have a full 72 hours where there’s nothing around to preoccupy ourselves with but re-runs of Designing Women on the TV Guide Channel - and we’ve seen that episode where Delta Burke lectures her high school class reunion about starvation in sub-Sahara Africa so many times now we can pretty much quote it scene for scene.

While summer is often considered the best time of year for new movie releases, the fall slate of offerings this year isn’t too shabby, either. Although we may be staring down the lousiest crop of “Oscar-bait” in recent memory with this season’s offerings, at least we have a crop of entertaining diversions on deck to keep us from dwelling on less desirable items.

Last week, American cinemas got a double dose of big-budget, family friendly would-be blockbusters with the dual releases of “Hugo” and “The Muppets.” One is being billed as a fantasy adventure from one of the greatest auteurs in movie history, and the other is being marketed as the triumphant return to form for one of the most endearing pop cultural institutions of the last 40 years.

But what if you only have enough disposable income to score you and your amigo a trip to just one of them? Well, during my Thanksgiving hiatus, I decided to check out both feature films - and if frugality is one of your utmost concerns, then there’s definitely one option that’s preferable to the other.

So which one is more worthy of your moolah - the “Raging Bull” helmer’s first foray into family adventures, or the relaunch of Kermit the Frog’s career?

The battle. . .it ‘tis on.

Directed by: Martin Scorsese

First off, let me say that the marketing for this movie is WAY off. Judging by the commercials, you’d think that the movie was some sort of whimsical, fantastical adventure film, sort of like the early Harry Potter movies or something. In reality, however, the movie is a pretty straightforward narrative about an orphaned kid trying unlock the mystery of this automaton his dad bequeathed to him - which results in a really less-than-fantastical second act that’s sure to piss off plenty of youngsters expecting Narnia style thrills and chills.


As we all know, Marty Scorsese has a pretty big hard-on for film preservation, and I’ll be all sorts of damned if this movie isn’t anything MORE than a feature-length PSA for his film-saving campaigns. You see, the big twist in the movie is OMG, YOU WILL NOT BELIEVE THE AMOUNT OF SPOILERS AHEAD, I’M BEING SERIOUS PEOPLE that the automaton was actually created by George Melies, as in, the George Melies that directed “A Trip to the Moon,” i.e., the guy that’s credited with turning filmmaking into a legitimate platform for narrative storytelling and not just carnival attraction fodder. The rest of the movie revolves around the two kid leads and, of all things, a film historian, trying to get Melies to come out of retirement so he can be celebrated for his achievements. So yeah, this probably isn’t the wondrous, fantastical family film you and your brood probably expects it to be.

The thing is, the parts about Melies as a director really aren’t that bad. In fact, those scenes are so entertaining that you kind of wonder what Scorsese could have done with a full-fledged biopic about his life - which is probably what Scorsese originally wanted to do, until the studio told him that kind of shit isn’t going to fly contra “Twilight” and “Harold and Kumar.” A lot of the scenes in the movie seem really forced, and it’s more than apparent that Scorsese isn’t in his environment when directing PG material - I think this is the first Scorsese picture I’ve seen that doesn’t include copious dropping of the “F”-bomb or the Rolling Stones on the soundtrack, and you can definitely tell that Marty feels plumb lost with the movie most of the time.

There’s a good cast, to be sure, featuring everybody from Christopher Lee to Borat, but definitely don’t expect any Oscar nods coming out of this one - except maybe for editing, but even then, that’s sort of a stretch.

There are some pretty decent action scenes here and there, but you never really feel a sense of palpable danger anywhere - especially when the best bit in the movie is squandered on a dream sequence, not once, but twice.

All in all, however, I’d give “Hugo” a mild recommendation, if only for the sequences that at least try to tell the real-life story of Melies, which is done very, very well here - the only problem being that it’s done so well that it really makes you wish Scorsese would’ve excised the main plot of the movie to focus on that instead.


Yeah...I'd rather have a pair of "fart shoes," too.

Directed by: James Bobin

Before you can even talk about “The Muppets” as a feature film, you have to talk about the "Toy Story" short that precedes it. All in all, that five minute long short is about a hundred times better than the massively disappointing “Cars 2,” and really makes you wonder if Pixar could possibly trot out a fourth installment in the series in the foreseeable future. Of course, I wouldn’t advise it, as it’s been scientifically proven that there’s no way they’d make a better movie than part 3, but still. . .

As for the feature presentation itself, it’s pretty damn fantastic, as expected. The movie does a tremendous job of weaving some pretty adult matters into the largely self-aware narrative - that means we get subtle takes on long-term relationships, corporatization and especially the economic misfortunes of the concomitant do go alongside all of the jokes and stunts we’d expect.

What I didn’t expect, however, was just how well-done the entire thing is. The plight of the Muppets - from Kermit’s thankless role as coordinator of a next-to-impossible-to-arrange-reunion show to Miss Piggy’s axe-grinding forays to Animal’s ongoing “drum problem” - is plotted out so effectively that, at times, it ALMOST feels like your watching a real attempt at telling a cinematic story. Of course, those sorts of scenes really can’t be sustained, so thankfully, we have plenty of musical numbers, sight gags and fairly unexpected cameo appearances to keep things trucking along.

You’ll think I probably snorted a line of crack cocaine before the movie, but I am one hundred percent DEAD serious when I say that I think Fozzie Bear’s performance in this movie is one of the best supporting acting jobs I’ve seen in ANY mainstream U.S. release this year. As the not-so-straight man to Kermit’s almost stoic lead, not only does he have the funniest lines in the movie (“If you’ve seen one shopping center, you’ve seen them malls”), but he also provides the film with some of its most profound moments, like when he’s looking at the hole in the roof and fretting about the big performance and his attempt to rationalize his “success” as a performer in a Reno gambling hall. I’m not saying that he deserves an Oscar nod here, but I’d think you’d be really floored by how much effort he puts into his role here.

The movie is just out and out fun for an hour and a half. From a chorus of chickens singing “Cluck You” to Amy Adams’ show-stopping performance of “Me Party,” this is perhaps the cheeriest experience I’ve had at the local cinema in quite some time. Granted, it’s not perfect by any stretch - a lot of the meta-humor is kind of redundant, and some of the cameo appearances are really, really lacking - but as far as satisfying movie going experiences go, this one will be extremely hard to top this holiday season.

...but seriously, we'd ALL rather have "fart shoes," right?

THE VERDICT: Although “Hugo” has some pretty outstanding moments, by and large, it takes awhile to get to where it needs to be, and there’s quite a few moments of inactivity that’ll make the listless among us tune out completely. “The Muppets,” on the other hand, is a pretty riveting movie from start to finish that, while having some missteps here and there, is so adhesively enjoyable that even the most cynical and hardened filmgoer ought to be smiling from ear to ear by the time it’s over. If your movie going budget is limited to just one feature this fall, I’d say the choice here is pretty damn clear: start the music and light the lights for the greenest picture of the holiday season.


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