For parents who regularly endure Justin Bieber videos and “Hannah Montana” repeats, the idea of “kid-friendly” entertainment can be hard to face.
But what happens when you inject a touch of class and sophistication into a film that would seen to be designed for younger viewers? You get movies like “The Muppets” and “Hugo.”
Happy holidays, everybody.
While children will enjoy “The Muppets” for the slapstick and perennially cuddly characters, like Kermit the Frog and Fozzie Bear, the heartiest laughter at the preview screening last week came from people over 30, the ones who may be old enough to remember be excited about watching Paul Williams or Cheryl Ladd guest-starring on “The Muppet Show” many moons ago. Certainly, 31-year-old “Muppets” star Jason Segel must have fond memories of those days, and he's channeled them into the frisky, free-wheeling screenplay he co-wrote with Nicholas Stoller.
Although “The Muppets” takes a few liberties with the familiar characters — and, admittedly, Kermit and Miss Piggy's new voices take a bit of getting used to — it retains the irreverent humor that was always the trademark of the late Jim Henson's creations. Segel and Amy Adams play Gary and Mary, starry-eyed small-town types who help Gary's lifelong pal, Walter, reunite the long-disbanded Muppets gang for a benefit show to save their former theater from the clutches of greedy oilman Tex Richman (a madly mugging Chris Cooper, obviously having the time of his life).
“Those Muppets think they're so funny — well, it looks like the joke's about to be on them!” Richman growls. “Maniacal laugh! Maniacal laugh! Maniacal laugh!” Unable to do his own chuckling, this born delegator makes his associates do it for him.
As in earlier Muppet films, there are several cameos by recognizable stars — including Emily Blunt, putting a sly spin on her role from “The Devil Wears Prada” — and numerous musical interludes that allow Adams and Segel to show off their fancy footwork (she's great and he's, well, energetic). Kermit, Miss Piggy and the rest prove that a few years away from the spotlight haven't done them a bit of harm, and new additions to the crew — such as '80s Robot, who gurgles such sayings as "gag me with a spoon" and tries to serve New Coke — fit in charmingly.
Martin Scorsese isn't the first name that comes to mind when one thinks of fantasy, but the director's enchanting “Hugo” marks a marvelous change of pace from “The Departed” and “Goodfellas.” Based on Brian Selznick's novel “The Invention of Hugo Cabret,” this is a dazzling celebration of cinema history, incorporating clips from silent films (including a bit of Harold Lloyd's “Safety Last” and a sumptuous serving of the vintage fantasies of George Melies, played wonderfully by Ben Kingsley) and paying tribute to the magic of movies.
Young orphan Hugo (Asa Butterfield) lives in a Parisian train station, where he spends his days winding the station's many clocks and trying to repair an automaton left to him by his father (Jude Law), who instilled in him a love of technology. The movie is fascinated by all things mechanical: This is one of the few recent films in which 3D effects serve the story instead of merely being decorative. But Scorsese doesn't overlook Hugo's friendship with the book-loving, adventure-craving Isabel (the beguiling, radiant Chloe Grace Moretz) or his battles with a martinet of a police officer (a zesty Sacha Baron Cohen).
While there's excitement, mystery and abundant humor in “Hugo,” there is also a palpable sense of wonder. “The Muppets” is a tasty dessert, but “Hugo” is a banquet for the senses and a reminder that imagination and innovation were always a part of filmmaking, long before the days of digital technology. When Scorsese rolled out scenes from Melies' ground-breaking 1902 adventure “A Trip to the Moon,” an audience member at the press screening gasped, “Oh, that's awesome.”
For the record, that viewer was definitely not a child.
"The Muppets" and "Hugo" open in theaters Wednesday.