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Why You Should Spend Thanksgiving With <I>Hugo</i> Instead of <i>The Muppets</i>

Like every other kid that grew up watching The Muppets in their '70s and '80s prime, I've been eagerly awaiting the release of Kermit and the gang's big-screen reboot, The Muppets. It's no secret that Jim Henson's gaggle of colorful puppets lost their way somewhat in the wake of their creator's death, as classic features like The Muppet Movie giving way to embarrassments like Muppets From Space. Certainly, the creative team behind The Muppets -- which includes screenwriter and star Jason Segel, his co-writer Nicholas Stoller and director James Bobin (making his feature film debut after co-creating HBO's terrific Flight of the Conchords series) -- have been saying all the right things about their intentions with this movie, namely bringing back the same playful spirit and toe-tapping score that defined the first three Muppet features, The Muppet Movie, The Great Muppet Caper and, my personal favorite, The Muppets Take Manhattan. As an added bonus, it was exciting to think that my own kid's first big-screen encounter with the Muppets (he's already been introduced to the earlier films on DVD) would be a good movie in its own right and not a disappointing reminder of the characters' past glories.

So it's a pleasure to report that The Muppets is a perfectly fine picture. That may sound like damning the movie with faint praise, but considering the state of the franchise in recent years, "perfectly fine" is almost the equivalent of a solid A. The gags are good, the songs (Bret McKenzie, one-half of the Conchords, was the music supervisor on the movie and wrote three tunes, including the terrific opening number, "Life's a Happy Song") are eminently hummable and there's a real sweetness to the movie that will charm turkey-and-stuffing stuffed tykes and their parents. It's not the second coming of The Muppet Movie that some of us veteran Muppet-lovers may have been hoping for, but it's also the first new Muppet film in a while that we don't have to feel slightly guilty about forcing our offspring to sit through.

Ordinarily, I wouldn't have any reservations about encouraging families to make The Muppets their movie of choice over the Thanksgiving holiday. But that's before I saw this weekend's other big family movie, Hugo. Directed by Martin Scorsese, from the best-selling children's book by Brian Selznick, this 3D-enhanced period adventure featuring orphan boys, silent automatons and the magic of early silent movies is an absolute wonder to behold for viewers of (almost) all ages. At once both the director's most atypical and most personal film, Hugo is the kind of lavish, unique vision that you wouldn't think a major Hollywood studio would have the courage to make in an era when almost every creative decision is focused-grouped to death. My fear, of course, is that because Hugo doesn't have a convenient marketing hook like "Hey you -- come see some Muppets!" adults and kids alike won't realize what they're missing. So in the interests of getting this marvelous film the audience it deserves, here are a few reasons why Hugo -- and not The Muppets -- should be the first movie families seek out this Thanksgiving. Sorry Kermie; I still love ya, but I've got to stand by my boy Hugo this time. (One caveat: This argument primarily applies to families where the kids are 6 and up. Viewers who are younger than that would probably have more fun with The Muppets or Aardman's animated adventure Arthur Christmas, both of which are lighter -- and, more importantly, shorter -- than Hugo. On the other hand, if you've got a 4 or 5-year-old that's already sat through super-sized fantasies like the first Harry Potter or Chronicles of Narnia pictures without a hitch, by all means give young Hugo a chance.)

1. The Muppets Lives in the Past; Hugo Brings the Past to Life
Nostalgia is an integral part of the new Muppet movie, not just for those of us in the audience, but also for the characters onscreen. In fact, the plot that Segel and Stoller have concocted is driven primarily by nostalgia, involving, as it does, Kermit's quest to reunite the former cast of The Muppet Show to stage one more big performance in an effort to save their theater from soulless oil magnate Tex Richman (Chris Cooper), who intends to purchase that bit of hallowed ground and tear it down. The history the Muppets have together becomes a big source of the film's humor and by the time the big performance arrives, the audience is primed to experience a bit of that old Muppet magic. And I'll freely admit it; I felt a tug on my heartstrings and a tear in my eye when I heard the familiar strains of The Muppet Show theme and again later on when Kermit led his pals in a new rendition of his signature tune, "The Rainbow Connection." But even as my inner child applauded, I couldn't help but wonder if these moments would be similarly impactful on the actual children in the audience, for whom "The Rainbow Connection" and The Muppet Show in general may not carry the same emotional weight. For the adults, it's a vital piece of our personal histories; for them, it's just a really pretty song. And then there's the general problem that, even though these recreations are mostly pitch-perfect, they're still recreations. The Kermit that's onscreen here is distinctly not the Kermit I grew up watching, even though Steve Whitmire does his best to channel Henson's iconic vocal performance. As much as I appreciate the filmmakers' obvious love and respect for Muppet history, there are times when The Muppets wallows too heavily in the characters' pasts instead of making us care about their present.

Contrast that with Hugo, which is also largely about celebrating the past, but does so in a way that makes viewers active participants in history instead of feeling as though we're bystanders leafing through dusty yearbooks. Scorsese and screenwriter John Logan accomplish this by telling the story entirely through the eyes of the title character, an orphaned urchin (played by Asa Butterfield) living in the walls of a '30s-era Parisian train station. The arc of the narrative has him discovering that the mean old man (Ben Kingsley) that runs the station's toy shop is none other than the pioneering silent filmmaker George Méliès, director of such famous early films as "A Trip to the Moon." But don't worry if you don't know Méliès from D.W. Griffith; Hugo provides a crash course on his career, and early cinema in general, in a profoundly entertaining way. Scorsese's passion for film history and preservation is widely known (if you're a movie buff, his surveys of American and Italian film history are must-sees) and that enthusiasm is felt in his character's wide-eyed reactions to Méliès' work. Watching Hugo, you feel like you're discovering the magic of movies for the first time... just like Hugo.

2. Hugo Has a Pooch, But No Poochies
One of the all-time great Simpsons episodes is "The Itchy & Scratchy & Poochie" show, which introduced the character (and concept) of Poochie the Dog, a walking, barking metaphor for a new character that's added to an established universe for the sole purpose of attracting new viewers. The Muppets offers not just one, but three Poochies, in the forms of Gary (Segel), his girlfriend Mary (Amy Adams) and his Muppet brother Walter (performed by Peter Linz). See, Walter is the world's biggest Muppet fan and he's also the one that first has the idea of reuniting the old Muppet Show cast after he catches wind of Tex Richman's nefarious scheme. In the process, he's accepted into their ranks and becomes one of Kermit's most valued aides. Meanwhile, Gary has to learn to let his brother and best friend go, while also recognizing that his long suffering girlfriend of ten years needs some attention too. All three performers are spirited, likeable... and more than a little dull. It's hard to escape the feeling that all of the screentime they're awarded would have been better spent giving the established Muppet characters more to do. It's hard to invest in Gary and Mary's strained relationship when longtime lovers Kermit and Miss Piggy are dealing with their own issues. And as nice a guy as Walter is, he's no Fozzie, Gonzo or Rowlf.

None of the characters in Hugo feels extraneous, from Sacha Baron Cohen's uptight station inspector, who stalks through the station with his trusty dog, to Chloe Moretz's intrepid amateur investigator (and goddaughter of Méliès) to a pair of friends played by Frances de la Tour and Richard Griffiths, who meet at the station café each day for coffee. They all have distinct roles to play in Hugo's world, helping -- or hindering -- him along in his ultimate quest to find a new family. Even though Hugo runs close to two hours, not a moment feels wasted.

3. Visually, The Muppets Is Proficient, While Hugo is Great Art
Granted, the odds are slanted in Scorsese favor here, since he's a five-decade veteran of the industry with over twenty films to his credit, while James Bobin is just getting his start. At the same time though, Hugo's subject matter and main character does represent a significant artistic departure for Scorsese, one that he could have conceivably whiffed. Indeed, the first twenty minutes are a little clunky -- with the exception of a spectacular opening tracking shot through the station -- as the director strains to establish all of the various plot elements. But then the gears click into place (literally, as the transformative scene involves the mechanical wheels of the robotic automaton creaking to life) and Hugo takes off, featuring a number of virtuoso sequences that make excellent use of 3D. Scorsese imbues the movie with a storybook quality that young viewers will really respond to, whether it's a shot of a runaway train careening through the station or Hugo dangling from a clock tower high above the streets of Paris. There's nothing that impressive in The Muppets, but Bobin makes the transition from TV to film smoothly enough. He does his best work in the big musical numbers, showing off some of the same goofy charm that defined Conchords. For the most part, though, he removes himself from the equation, recognizing that his primary job is to focus our attention on the Muppets and not the man behind the camera.

4. The Muppets Will Play Just Fine At Home, But Hugo Demands to Be Seen On the Big Screen
I know, I know -- 3D movies are expensive and very rarely worth the extra cost that comes with those stupid plastic glasses. But, as we should all know by now, Scorsese never does anything halfway; given the technical and monetary resources to fully immerse audiences in this storybook version of the past, he lets his visual imagination run wild. The result is one of the few big-budget blockbusters that expertly blends spectacle and story. While Hugo's narrative charms won't be diminished in its second life on DVD, the primal power of its filmmaking might. The Muppets, on the other hand, will play just fine from any vantage point, be it a seat in your local multiplex or at home on your couch. If you're going to treat your kids to a day at the movies, shouldn't it be one that makes full use of that giant screen?

Read our interviews with The Muppets' co-writer Nicholas Stoller, music supervisor Bret McKenzie and the cast and crew of Hugo.

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