Forget former child stars and D-list celebrities, The Muppets needed a comeback more than any of them. Heck, we needed them. We live in glum times, people. Optimism seems about as trendy as boy bands these days. Maybe that’s why Jim Henson’s beloved creatures disappeared in the first place: The world disregarded the sense of unabashed silliness that they embodied for 30-some years in exchange for ideals such as progressiveness and “edutainment.”
The wayward trajectory of the Muppets in the 21st Century definitely fueled the fire for Disney’s “reboot.” Art imitates life here as “The Muppets” focuses on bringing the gang back together and ultimately defying those who believe there’s no longer a place for the kind of entertainment and energy they bring.
It only takes moments, however, to realize their place in all-ages entertainment stands eternal. Nostalgia covers this film like a warm — felt — blanket. The Muppets have returned and hopefully for good.
Co-writer and star Jason Segel must’ve realized in no time that the idea of the Muppets drifting apart spoke quite directly to the themes that the various shows and movies of the last 40 years have championed. To represent the lifelong fan spurned by Jim Henson Company’s inability to make the Muppets relevant in today’s age, Segel and Nicholas Stoller create Walter, the first truly humanoid Muppet, though his fuzzy nature is seen as something that simply makes him “different than all the other kids.” When he first sees the Muppets as a child, he becomes their biggest fan.
Walter travels with his older (human) brother, Gary (Segel) and Gary’s girlfriend of 10 years, Mary (Amy Adams), to Los Angeles to visit the old Muppet theater. After sneaking into Kermit’s old office, Walter learns of an evil plan by oil tycoon Tex Richman (Chris Cooper), who plans to knock the theater down to drill for oil. He convinces Gary and Mary to help him warn the Muppets so that they can band together and put on a show to raise the money needed to save the theater.
“The Muppets” features countless easter eggs for those who enjoyed the Muppets as children and now have children, while remaining simple and innocent enough in delivery to be loved by said children. It’s also extremely faithful to the silly and musical nature of the brand, but with the self-awareness necessary to be a hit with folks of all ages of “the Modern era.” One of the funniest bits is when the Muppets learn Miss Piggy currently resides in Paris and determine the fastest way to travel there is “by map.” This, of course, refers to the movie convention of showing lines moving across a map to demonstrate a major change in a story’s location. Where once was a flaw in logic/realism becomes a hilarious joke. Wocka-wocka.
A similar attitude is taken toward the musical numbers. “Life’s A Happy Song,” the first major number, exudes “Muppets” catchiness despite all its corniness, while the simplistic emotionally soul-bearing ballads the brand has been most known for (such as “Rainbow Connection,” which gets its own spotlight) show up too. There’s the hilarious yet deeply felt “Man or Muppet,” in which we see both a Muppet version of Segel and a human version of Walter (a cameo of course … you’ll be amused). Like any musical, the songs work best when they naturally fit in with the story. Also, Oscar nominee Chris Cooper raps. I’ll leave it at that.
The many cameos are befitting a “Muppet” movie, but the humans never dominate; that would not be true to the mission of the entire film. As perfect as Segel and Adams are for their roles, this movie stars Walter, Kermit, Miss Piggy, Animal (hysterical) among the many others. One almost wishes there could have been more screen time given to some of the memorable Muppets not named Kermit, Miss Piggy, Gonzo or Fozzie. Personally, some more Bunson and Beaker would’ve been nice. Hopefully this is sequel fodder.
At the same time, part of what makes this movie excellent is the way it uses nostalgia and rallies around the idea that the Muppets should never be forgotten. The story works perfectly in context, but as such it’s not one that can be replicated in future films. It will take some more outside-the-box thinking to keep the Muppets on this roll, but no doubt “The Muppets” will spur on some kind of long-term plan for these beloved characters whether in more films or back to television again.
Directed by James Bobin
Written by Jason Segel, Nicholas Stoller, Jim Henson (characters)
Starring: The Muppets, Jason Segel, Amy Adams, Chris Cooper