Where did the Muppet Love Go?

2011: The Muppets hits theaters. Critics are overjoyed, with some people calling it one of the best films of the year. Jason Segel, who wrote and starred in the film, accomplished his dream project. A $45 million dollar film that grossed over $165 million and became a critical darling. The Muppets was so successful that a sequel was immediately rushed into production. Fast-forward three years and…

Muppets Most Wanted grosses a paltry (by Hollywood standard) $78 million. An achievement made even more disappointing given the film’s additional $5 million budget. So… what happened? Where did all the Muppet love go?

More like Muppets Least Wanted, HAHAHA... I'm so clever.
More like Muppets Least Wanted, HAHAHA… I’m so clever.

At first glance, the answer appears obvious: critical reception. I mean, who didn’t hear about how good The Muppets was when it came out? I can remember the film being considerably hyped, I also cannot recall another film in the franchise ever earning that much critical praise. When Most Wanted hit screens, the review buzz was slightly different. “Worse than the first,” “a step down;” these were some of the common complaints. I can only speak personally, but I know my excitement dwindled when I heard that reaction.

Weak human subplots was a common (and fair) criticism of the new movie.
Weak human subplots was a common (and fair) criticism of the new movie.

Yet how differently were these films really received? Rotten Tomatoes points to the largest discrepancy. The Muppets earned a whopping 96% while Muppets Most Wanted managed only a 79%. That is a large drop… but 79% still is far from terrible. Yet on other critical scales, the gap was far smaller. IMDB rankings give The Muppets a 7.2 and Muppets Most Wanted a 6.5. Likewise, Metacritic scored The Muppets at 75 and Muppets Most Wanted at 61. Yes, there is a drop in all three cases but not as drastic as Rotten Tomatoes suggests.

Therein may lie the answer.

Was the return of these three really as beloved as Rotten Tomatoes would have their readers believe?
Was the return of these three really as beloved as Rotten Tomatoes would have their readers believe?

Rotten Tomatoes is by far one of the most popular movie review sites on the web. Yet the system they use is very simple: a movie is either fresh or rotten, reviews are sorted as either good or bad. This allows for a skewing of numbers. If a large number of critics think a movie is just “good” (not great, not anything special), the movie will appear more highly rated than it really is. Likewise if the majority of critics declare a film “mediocre,” the score will reflect more negatively. Rotten Tomatoes actually also uses a system very similar to Metacritic, but hides the number under the “Average Rating” heading, located in small print under the overall score.

Perfect recent example: How to Train Your Dragon 2, a 92% on Rotten Tomatoes... with an average score of 7.7.
Perfect recent example: How to Train Your Dragon 2, a 92% on Rotten Tomatoes… with an average rating of 7.7.

So good movies can appear great… or not so great. Certainly it explains the difference in the two numbers and could contribute to another huge factor concerning why Muppets Most Wanted so underperformed: a lot of people (myself included) felt that the 2011 film was overrated. Not terrible by any stretch but this was, according to Rotten Tomatoes, supposed to be the highest rated film of the year. That is a huge expectation to live up to.

Chris Cooper giving The Muppets a rarely seen skeptical eye.
Chris Cooper giving The Muppets a rarely seen skeptical eye.

The Muppets was a good film, but far from perfect. Legitimate criticisms existed and many people felt that it was too praised. When Muppets Most Wanted came out, it is a good bet that at least a few critics were venting frustration at just how talked about The Muppets became. With something as subjective as film review, it is very difficult to say but I can say that, when I finally watched Muppets Most Wanted: I enjoyed the film more than I was expecting. While overall I would call it worse than its predecessor (overlong and slow in places), the film had superiority over the 2011 film in several areas.

Ricky Gervais just can't bring 'em in like Jason Segel.
Ricky Gervais just can’t bring ’em in like Jason Segel.

Most notably: the Muppets. There was a lot more Muppet action going on in this film. Gone were Jason Segel and Amy Adams, the stars were only the Muppets themselves (along with Ricky Gervais and Tina Fey in supporting roles). Not as much star power sure, but shouldn’t a Muppet movie be about the Muppets first? That would be like making a Transformers movie that was more about the people than the robots…

The plot is simple (maybe too simple for the runtime) but the jokes are funny. Anyone who likes the Muppets will not be disappointed, and those looking for good family entertainment could do far worse. Yet, for probably no singular reason, the Muppets’ future is again uncertain. What happened to that nostalgic love so present in the 2011 film? Did it evaporate so quickly? Maybe it really, truly, is not that easy… being green.

One can do far worse when looking for Muppets entertainment.
One can do far worse when looking for Muppets entertainment.

Defining Slasher or Five Films You Did Not Know Were Slashers

Before getting into this article, one definition must be clarified. Specifically: what is a “slasher” movie? What are the criteria, what makes them different from regular horror films? There are variations on the definition. This is the Wikipedia definition:

“A slasher film is a subgenre of thriller and horror film, typically involving a psychopathic killer stalking and murdering a sequence of victims in a graphically violent manner, often with a bladed tool such as a knife, machete, axe, scythe, or chainsaw.”

It is not a terrible definition, but personally I do not feel it covers the entire genre. Here is another from Urban Dictionary:

“A horror movie usually with one central homicidal maniac who usually uses cutlery to systematically slaughter his victims.”

Closer but I am still not on board with it. I guess my complaints at “slasher” definition come from the fact that the poor movies seem to have defined the genre. Critic Roger Ebert used to refer to slasher films as simply “dead teenager movies.” However, I feel to let the low-quality define is to do a disservice to the genre. It would be akin to defining dramatic films as “movies featuring multiple emotional breakthroughs, often done in an over-the-top, cathartic manner.” Are there more bad slasher films than good: absolutely. The ratio is probably similar to the amount of Spartans vs. Persians at the battle of Thermopylae. Still, let’s expand this definition a little.

In my mind, I have never considered the choice of weapon relevant to the “slasher” definition. “Slashing” simply refers to the high body count these movies typically have. This does not mean that many people have to die, just that a high portion of the cast is no longer present by film’s end – due solely to the actions of that film’s “slasher.” Hmm, actually – all this use of the word slasher is getting confusing. Maybe there is a better way to explain my point. Below are five films I feel are slashers – which are left off using the standard definition.

5. Predator

There ain’t no teenagers in this movie. Released in 1987, Predator stars Arnold Schwarzenegger and follows the struggle of a team of special forces against an alien with super-powered technology. This alien stalks the team one-by-one as they try to make their way through a savage and isolated jungle. There is no sex, no real drug use beyond tobacco, and no nudity to speak of. Yet, boiled down: Predator is a killer hunting people in the forest. It is not a stretch to label this film a slasher, even if it is in the realm of science fiction.

Oh look at that, he's even wearing a mask!
Oh look at that, he’s even wearing a mask!

4. The Terminator

More Schwarzenegger, only this time he is the unstoppable superhuman killer. Arnold plays the terminator – a robot sent back in time to kill a young woman. The Terminator is perhaps the best example of a slasher movie embracing the “indestructible” nature of the killer. In the more traditional slasher films, the police are always seen as a source of safety. Once they arrive, it is all over. Later slasher movies would shatter this illusion of strength but none so effectively as The Terminator.

This is the most famous example of a killer walking into a police station and just demolishing it.
This is the most famous example of a killer walking into a police station and just demolishing it.

He does not ever use a knife, yet that metallic arm that reaches for Linda Hamilton‘s character at the end can be seen as an equivalent weapon, at least in terms of its threatening presence.

3. Alien

Well, if Predator was a slasher…

I have actually already talked about this movie at length in an article I wrote some time ago. To recap: Alien uses the isolation of space to put a superhuman antagonist against a group of unsuspecting people. Notice that this ‘superhuman’ nature of the killer is a definite recurring theme in all of these movies, as is the setting’s feeling of isolation.

The scorpion-like tail can be seen as the alien's slasher weapon.
The scorpion-like tail can be seen as the alien’s slasher weapon.

2. JAWS

Made in 1975, Jaws predates Halloween by three years. The plot of Jaws is simple: a shark terrorizes an island and the local authorities have to respond. Yet it does appear to be a regular shark, made superhuman only by the fact that it is a great white in water. The true superhuman element comes from Spielberg’s directing. The shark is presented as both an animal and a thinking opponent. There is an intelligence to it that emerges in the second half of the film. The shark may not have a ton of actual screen time, but John Williams’ score makes it a presence throughout the movie. This is no simply shark, it is a slasher.

He's either very smart or very dumb.
He’s either very smart or very dumb.

1. Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory

So odds are, this is the one you’ve been waiting to read about. How could Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory be a slasher? It’s a family film, with wonderful heart-warming sequences like:

Yeah, this movie is terrifying. Willy Wonka is a superhuman individual who picks children off in his chocolate factory. The kids vanish, never to be seen again. Sure, Wonka says they are all right (and they probably are) but it does not matter. For all intents and purposes, he is murdering those kids in really over-the-top style. Willy Wonka is never clearly described as a good guy and actually, plot-wise, he functions as an antagonist of the film. Charlie must survive his challenges and pass his test.

"I knew that from then on the audience wouldn't know if I was lying or telling the truth," - Gene Wilder on Willy Wonka's old and feeble introduction
I knew that from then on the audience wouldn’t know if I was lying or telling the truth,”
– Gene Wilder on Willy Wonka’s old and feeble introduction.

Made in 1971, this is the first slasher (that I know of).

So what is a slasher? Does it even have to be a horror film or is it just a set of guidelines?

Here, let me make right now the official Red Rings of Redemption definition of a slasher movie:

“A slasher film is any movie, usually set in an isolated area, that focuses on a superhuman antagonist who preys on a comparatively high number of victims.”

There we go. I might refine that as time goes on but for now – let it stand.

We're Supposed to Like Him but Why? Grandpa Joe (Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory)

So today being a Monday, I decided to start the week with a not-so-serious article and talk about one of my favorite movies growing up. There are few films that convey “pure imagination” like Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (I know… I had to use it). The songs, the sets, the characters, the candy: I love this movie. In my opinion there are few cinematic portrayals that rival Gene Wilder’s enchanting yet haunting Willy Wonka. It’s a performance that is right up there with Anthony Hopkins’ Hannibal Lecter, Johnny Depp’s Jack Sparrow and Heath Ledger’s Joker. But I’m not writing here today to talk about Wilder or the Oompa Loompas or anything so magical. Let’s instead talk about Grandpa Joe.

For any who haven’t seen this movie in a while, Grandpa Joe is one of four elderly invalids living with protagonist Charlie and his mother. It is established right away that this is not a financially secure household. The place is very tiny with all four grandparents having to share one bed. Their poverty is further established by the fact that Charlie, despite his young age, works a job while the other kids play and sing songs with candy vendors. In addition, when Charlie gets his pay raise and spends it on a loaf of bread, his mother refers to the food as “a banquet”. Yeah, he get the idea that the belts are tightened with his family.

This is good character development for Charlie as it establishes him as both responsible and selfless, despite his young age. He didn’t spend any of his hard earned money on candy, no matter how catchy the opening song. No instead he goes home and buys food for his family. In addition, he nobly volunteers to support his Grandpa Joe’s tobacco cost. Nice kid… let’s talk about Grandpa Joe.

Grandpa Joe lives a boring existence. Every day he lies in a bed, chatting with its three other occupants and watching television. He will also talk to Charlie and his mother if they are available (you know, not working to feed him and let him smoke). Let’s talk about some of the conversation he has with Charlie’s mother, in particular his commentary here: “One of these days I’m going to get out of this bed and help him.” Grandpa Joe is of course referring to Charlie, sympathizing with the protagonist. That’s all well and good but as Charlie’s mother responds: “Dad, in all the years you’ve talked about getting out of that bed, I have yet to see you set foot on the ground.” Guess what the response here is: “Well maybe if the floor wasn’t so cold.”

Yep, it’s that damn floor. Ruins so many plans doesn’t it? Here is tiny Charlie, a kid matured passed his age into supporting his family and why? Because that accursed floor holds Grandpa Joe prisoner, preventing him from, you know, being a responsible adult and supporting his family… or at least supporting his own tobacco habits. I never liked the character of Grandpa Joe and I didn’t get why the movie wanted to present him as a good guy. Certainly Charlie loves him but Charlie is a young and naive kid. We’re taught to think all the other kids that go with Charlie to the chocolate factory are horrible, wicked people that get what they deserve but what about Grandpa Joe? Seriously? Those kids may have been jerks but they were like eight. What’s his excuse?

Other reasons why Grandpa Joe cannot leave the bed: the liberal media, violent video games, Barack Obama's socialist policies.
Other reasons why Grandpa Joe cannot leave the bed: the liberal media, violent video games, Barack Obama’s socialist policies.

So Grandpa Joe, despite loving Charlie and sympathizing deeply with his plight, cannot be moved to help. He’s old damn it! Now maybe I’m being harsh. The film appears to establish Grandpa Joe as unable to leave the bed. Sure he has a fighting spirit, but that cannot overcome old age and a potentially debilitating condition. Maybe Grandpa Joe really would like nothing more than to spring out of that bed and help Charlie to support his family, he simply no longer possesses the strength. Yeah, I might be being too harsh.

NOPE.
NOPE.

As soon as Charlie wins the last coveted golden ticket, Grandpa Joe is suddenly more limber than Usain Bolt. Where was this energy when his family needed it? Where was that drive when his grandson was delivering papers or his daughter was up late at night washing laundry?

tumblr_mg2tpaTL941r4g1p5o1_500

Grandpa Joe doesn’t get better either. Any who have read the book know that the film differs in more than just its name. There is a whole added sequence involving fizzy lifting drinks which is not present in Roald Dahl’s novel. The scene occurs shortly after Violet Beauregarde as transformed into a giant blueberry and wheeled off to whatever fate awaits her. Point is: this scene occurs after children have failed and been kicked out (or worse killed). So Charlie and Grandpa Joe have reason to be on their toes. Now Charlie is a young kid, young kids are eager, impetuous – stupid. Point is, I don’t fault Charlie for wanting to try the fizzy lifting drinks. It shows that he’s human. Without this error, he would look like a young Christ figure (just watch Tim Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory to see what I’m talking about).

Now Grandpa Joe is the adult in this situation and the bulk of the responsibility falls to him. AND IT’S HIS IDEA! “Let’s take a drink, Charlie. No one’s watching.” Really? Really Grandpa Joe? This is the man who, not ten minutes prior, called Violet Beauregarde “a nitwit” for not listening to Mr. Wonka. So what does that make him? Did Mr. Wonka say the drinks were okay? No, no he did not. In fact he said the opposite.

I just nearly got my grandson and I killed for fizzy lifting drinks.
I just nearly got my grandson and I killed for fizzy lifting drinks.

And yet, despite this, when Willy Wonka informs Charlie and Grandpa Joe of their failure to keep to the contract (one that Charlie signed without reading at request of Grandpa Joe), it isn’t Charlie who flips his shit. I know that Charlie is supposed to be the protagonist and he’s an awesome one but this movie can be read with a very cynical undertone. Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory: a story about how an old man uses his grandson to promote his living status. Think about it.

At the beginning of the film, Grandpa Joe is lying in bed and a small rundown home. At the end of the movie, he is essentially co-owner of Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory. Did he do anything to deserve this rise in fortunes: nope. Well he cultivated a good relationship with his grandson… although why Charlie listens to him is beyond me. Why he’s not portrayed far more negatively in the movie is beyond me as well; really looking at everything, he is an antagonistic figure.

I feel Grandpa Joe is one of the people that republicans must imagine when they fear unemployment benefits and welfare. Obviously his guy is taking advantage of not just his grandson but the system too. I can only imagine what happened after Charlie took over the chocolate factory and gave Grandpa Joe a job. What if he put him in charge of something important like keeping track of company income? I can only imagine the ordeal ending with: “Sorry Charlie, I know the factory closed but – the floor, it was just too cold to keep a cost efficient budget.”

Well played Grandpa Joe, well played.

Getting real tired of your shit, Grandpa Joe.
Getting real tired of your shit, Grandpa Joe.

Thoughts? Comments? Am I full of shit or onto something? Let me know now in the feedback section of this article.