2012 Oscar Checklist – Part 3: Macaw or Muppet

Today’s checklist is all about the best song category. The Academy has been tinkering with the music branch’s nominating procedure for the last few years which has resulted in only two nominees this year. I’m not saying something else should have been here because original songs in films have been weak for ages. It’s a little strange though. It’s also not terribly surprising that both songs are from kid’s films.

The Muppets – Nominated for Best Original Song

This new version of the old staple begins by introducing us to the Muppets’ biggest fan, Walter, who is also a Muppet. Walter has a brother, Gary (Jason Segel, who also co-wrote), who is not a Muppet. It makes perfect sense when you see it. Walter, Gary, and Gary’s gal, Mary (Amy Adams), visit the old Muppet Theater and discover Tex Richman’s (Chris Cooper) evil plot to tear it down to drill for oil. Walter decides to reunite the estranged Muppets for a big show and raise enough money to save the theater. YAYYYYYYYYYYYY!

When everyone’s favorite characters finally enter the movie things begin to pick up. It’s not that the opening is bad, but the movie can only be better with Miss Piggy, Kermit and the gang on-screen. Some of the best bits involve seeing what everyone was up to for the last 12 years. After the reunion, the plot kind of spins its wheels. Honestly, the Muppets work better as a half hour show where they don’t have to worry about a cohesive narrative. But then the big show does start and the Muppets do what they do best. There’s old vaudeville gags, song and dance numbers (chickens!), and zany skits, but in a very post-modern style.

The movie is a love letter to the Muppets and–for the most part–balances being an actual movie versus an exercise in nostalgia pretty well. They’ve always been self-referential, but dare I say: this movie goes a pinch overboard with the winking humor. Lots of cameos, some much funnier than others (Dave Grohl as the Animal Moppet). And although not every joke hits the mark, every song and/or music moment in this movie is fantastic. Bret McKenzie of Flight of the Conchords wrote the music and it is funny and sweet and all kinds of awesome. The entire music category could be filled with songs from this movie and “Man or Muppet” is certainly worthy of the gold. The film does have some rough edges, but damn if it didn’t put a huge smile on my face.

Grade: B

Rio – Nominated for Best Original Song

Rio is the latest from the studio that created Ice Age. I liked the first Ice Age, but since then the studio hasn’t done anything that I’ve really enjoyed. Rio is no exception. The film isn’t actively bad, but being such a typical “been there done that” story, the movie has way too many negatives and not enough originality to compensate. One can only take so much George Lopez.

Jesse Eisenberg voices Blu, a rare macaw living in Minnesota with his bookish owner Linda (Leslie Mann). It turns out Blu is the last of his species and must travel to Brazil to mate with the last known female, Jewel (Anne Hathaway). From there we get your average fish-out-of-water story, replete with gangs of monkeys, smugglers, hip-hoping birds, bulldogs, yet another character voiced by my nemesis George Lopez, plus all of the sights and sounds of Carnival.

The movie is colorful, I will give it that much. And the two leads do a fine job. I’ve yet to tire of Eisenberg’s Woody Allen impersonation. Still, no amount of bright colors and thumping music can distract me from the fact that this movie is treading in well-worn territory. Splashing it up doesn’t rejuvenate old tropes, it just makes them annoying.

The film is ridiculously overstuffed with side characters. There’s a bird villain and a human villain and neither are that great. In every scene Blu seems to meet a new sidekick, as if they couldn’t decide on one, so they gave him five. And there’s a subplot involving an orphaned boy, which is neither developed nor necessary. The voice talents of hack recording artist will.i.am, bad Jaime Foxx (Do you doubt there are two versions?), one-note Tracy Morgan, and the worst human on Earth (initials GL) do little to help the film’s cause. I do long for the days when real talent was used in animated films and not just celebrities.

The nominated song is catchy but nothing special. The rest of the music is headache-inducing except for a quick little ditty from the other half of Flight of the Conchords, Jemaine Clement. Despite all the nonsense and ADD aesthetics, the film manages to entertain in spite of itself. With the kind of computing power put into these CGI animated films it’s kind of hard to be abysmal. So, yeah… not abysmal. Put that right on the box.

Grade: C-

Stay tuned for Part 4, where I may or may not talk about more children’s films. And don’t forget to read Parts 1 and 2.

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