The Muppets (2011)
You’d hardly expect the duo behind the raunchy, R-rated comedy Forgetting Sarah Marshall to be the saviors of the Muppets, the famous puppet crew that has been languishing since their last big screen outing, 1999’s underwhelming Muppets in Space. Actor Jason Segel took a meeting with Disney after the Jim Henson Company did some puppet work for Sarah Marshall. He just point-blank asked them what their plans were after acquiring the Muppets. They had nothing. Segel and Nicholas Stoller (Get Him to the Greek) put together a script and, lo and behold, the two self-described Muppet enthusiasts were given the opportunity to bring new life to the classic creatures. The Muppets is just about everything a Muppet lover could ask for and will be sure to entertain a new, younger generation of fans with the Muppets core brand of silliness and sweetness.
Set in the town of Anywhere, Gary (Segel) and his girlfriend Mary (Amy Adams) are planning a trip to Los Angeles. She’s hoping that he’ll finally propose to her in the scenic city of angels. There’s one catch: Gary’s brother Walter is coming along too. Oh, and Walter is a Muppet. Walter is obsessed with the Muppets ever since he watched their TV show in the 1980s. The show was an escape for a kid who felt… different. Walter is anxious to visit the Muppet studios, but the studio is in disarray and the Muppets have all gone their separate ways. Tex Richman (Chris Cooper), what else but an evil oil barren, plans to buy the Muppet studio and tear it down. Walter, Gary, and Mary must seek out the Muppets to rescue the old studio, and the only way to raise enough money in time is to put on one more rendition of The Muppet Show.
The Muppets is a refreshingly retro and charming vehicle that reminds you of all those warm and fuzzy feelings you had for this crew. It’s unironic, innocent, sweet and wholesome in a way that doesn’t make you gag but self-aware and silly enough to continuously be clever. When a big song-and-dance number breaks out in the town of Anywhere, once the stars have left the townspeople collapse in exhaustion. The gang decides it’ll be quicker to “travel by map,” so we cut to a map and see a red line charting onward. Muppets will regularly break down the fourth wall, with Fozzie commenting on a sudden explosion, “Wow, I didn’t think we had that in the budget.” Tex Richman actually verbally articulates “maniacal laugh.” The group gathering is sped up when the character 80s Robot suggests streamlining the rest in a montage. It’s not the kind of jokes that will make your sides ache with laughter but it pins a smile to your face from beginning to end, although Chris Cooper’s out-of-nowhere rap number left me in stitches. The very question of whether the Muppets can fit into our snarky, over-caffeinated, self-indulgent culture is addressed. Segel and Stoller have found a way to reenergize the Muppets for a new generation while staying true to what makes them special. My friend Eric Muller said watching The Muppets was like “getting an oil change for your soul.” He couldn’t be more right.
Watching the movie, I’m awash in feelings of nostalgia for Jim Henson’s finest creations. Segel is an unabashed Muppets fan and the movie is a celebration of the TV show that inspired him; the TV show is lionized for its inspiration to children. Because of that heavy helping of nostalgia, Muppet fans will feel like their spirits have been lifted. Those who had a mild curiosity about the Muppets will probably just scratch their head and call the film pleasant. The movie’s goal is rather huge: to make the Muppets relevant again. However, the vehicle for this goal, the old puttin’ on a show routine (Mickey Rooney has a cameo!), can feel slight. Also, the Disney product placement can be a bit annoying at times. Really, thanks for reminding us once again about how poor Cars 2 was thanks to a billboard advertisement. The movie isn’t in the same league as Henson’s troika of Muppet movies from the 1970/80s, but Segel and Stoller’s efforts should be a delight for Muppet fans waiting for the triumphant return of their favorite characters. You may find yourself unconsciously singing along to “Rainbow Connection” at the close of the film.
One aspect that is never spoken openly about is the fact that Gary and Walter are brothers, a human and a Muppet. I was expecting some throwaway reference to Walter being adopted, or maybe there could even be a funny sit-down where Walter is given the devastating familial news. We see a montage of the two brothers growing up, and while Gary shoots up like a weed Walter remains at the same height through the years. Does this mean that Muppets attain maturity at a faster rate? That Muppets are fully formed at birth? The mysteries of the universe are left undisturbed.
The music is cheerful and eminently hummable. Recent Muppet outings in the 1990s tried to keep the musical comedy formula going, but the result was some rather tin-eared musical numbers. I challenge anyone to be able to recite more than a few bars from Muppet Treasure Island (my favorite of the three), Muppet Christmas Carol, or Muppets from Space. To everyone’s good fortune, this newest Muppet incarnation has Bret McKenzie, one half of the daffy Flight of the Conchords, supervising the songs. You can instantly tell the musicianship has been raised considerably. The opening number “Sing a Happy Song” is a catchy and bouncy track, putting the audience in the right kind of upbeat mood. “Man or Muppet” is a ballad where Gary and Walter must confront their identity crises. It’s played completely straight, which makes the song even funnier as it builds into a crescendo of self-actualization: “If I’m a man that makes me a Muppet of a man.” There’s also a G-rated performance of Cee-Lo Green’s famous f-bomb kiss-off song, this time performed entirely by chickens. And the aforementioned rap by Chris Cooper is just astoundingly random, and not that bad either. The funny and cheerful music greatly adds to the overall enjoyment of the film.
Segel (I Love You, Man) is pretty much a big goofy human version of a Muppet. He’s a winning presence, much like Adams, who slides right back into her adorable Enchanted-flavored M.O. The two actors are a near perfect union of humans who capture the ineffable “Muppetness.” The multitude of celebrity cameos makes for some fun sightseeing (Jack Black has the most extended stay, not by choice). “Hobo Joe” might be my favorite of the cameos. But while the new characters are the initial focus, the emphasis on the film is rightly placed upon the classic Muppets. Kermit and Miss Piggy and the gang are back and the film’s entire plot is essentially their reunion. That means we get wonderful sequences rediscovering the Muppet team, like getting the gang together for a heist. These characters need one another; the bonds are undeniable. It’s actually touching when the Muppets speak candidly about how much they need one another. Fozzie has fallen on hard times especially. Kermit’s mournful song about losing touch with his old pals includes the line, “Was there more I could have said?/ Now they’re just pictures in my head.” While the film’s goal is to really just gather the Muppets back together, you’ll be glad that this goal is accomplished. You will be amazed how much you feel for felt.
The Muppets is a triumphant return to form and rekindles the fondness fans have felt for Jim Henson’s lovable creations. Thanks to Segel and Stoller, and the whimsical direction of Flight of the Conchords director James Bobin, the Muppets is a delightful, charming, and heartfelt family film that will give you a serious case of the warm fuzzies. The songs are catchy, the jokes are amusing, the pacing is swift, and the movie is fun from the start. As a Muppet fan, it left me with a smile pinned to my face the whole time. Like the big screen Simpsons movie, the universe of the Muppets is too big for 90 minutes, so naturally some favorites will be shortchanged when it comes to screen time. Since Disney paid half a billion dollars for the Muppets, I’d expect they plan on making use of the property. After this splendid relaunch, one can only hope that we won’t have to wait too long for the next Muppet movie.
Nate’s Grade: A-