Hearing The Muppet Show Theme played big and loud in The Muppets might be the highlight of the film; it perfectly encapsulates the way the movie mixes overwhelming nostalgia with a feeling of fresh fun. I’m not even a big Muppets guy, but that moment gave me goosebumps.
The rest of the film is really, really nice. There are some terrific jokes and hilarious cameos (this film has the best use of Jack Black in years), and the Muppets have regained some of the edge they lost over the last decade when they were starring in ersatz versions of other people’s stories. The Muppets is certainly the best thing these characters have done since the mid-80s - but it still doesn’t hold a candle to The Muppet Movie.
One of my biggest fears walking into The Muppets was that the film would focus on Jason Segel and Amy Adams way too much; all of the advertising had played up their involvement. And while I think that these two get too many of the songs (the only solo Muppet number in the whole movie is Kermit’s sad Pictures In My Head), their storyline doesn’t overwhelm. Which is good, because it’s a total bore.
Segel plays Gary, whose brother Walter is a puppet (but not necessarily a Muppet. The film examines the strange and perplexing lines between humanity and Muppetry, and I think in the end it posits a world where a Muppet can be born of two fleshlings, sort of like how two homo sapiens can produce a homo superior). Gary is engaged to Mary (Amy Adams), and for their tenth anniversary he’s taking her to Los Angeles. To Mary’s chagrin Walter comes along as well; Walter is the world’s biggest Muppets fan, and he’s excited to see the Muppet Theater and Studios. All that Mary wants is a romantic getaway with her man.
When they get to LA Walter discovers that the Muppets have pretty much broken up and that the Studios are a ruin. Evil oil tycoon Tex Richman (a delightful Chris Cooper, who gets to do a RAP SONG) is exploiting a loophole in Kermit’s Standard Rich and Famous Contract from The Muppet Movie. See, there’s an oil well under the studio, and Richman aims to destroy the historic area to get at the black gold. Walter must convince the Muppets to reunite and put on a telethon to raise the ten million dollars needed to buy the studio before Richman can destroy it.
Yes, it’s a Muppet remake of the Prairie Home Companion movie.
The first half of the movie is a ‘getting the band back together’ road trip, filled with self-referential and meta jokes. There’s a strange sadness to a lot of this stuff; The Muppets have been split up for years, and Kermit lives as a lonely recluse in Bel Air, estranged even from Miss Piggy. It’s an echo of the journey from The Muppet Movie, but without the same sense of joy and possibility. Which isn’t to say it’s some kind of existential drag, but it’s a good example of one of the problems of nostalgia - nostalgia is essentially a sadness about the past being gone.
After that it’s show time, and in true Muppet Show fashion, most of the action takes place backstage as the variety acts strut their stuff onstage. The film trots out most of the memorable classic Muppets, giving many of them perfect turns in the spotlight. I was bummed, honestly, that while Link Hogthrob and company show up in their Pigs In Space outfits we don’t see an actual sketch. I would love to have seen a Muppets satire of Avatar.
I have to admit to a personal prejudice here: I couldn’t quite get past the voices of The Muppets. While some of the characters are voiced by the veterans, Kermit, Miss Piggy and Fozzie Bear don’t have their classic voices and the new voices never quite grew on me. I know that in the case of Kermit and other Jim Henson characters this change was unavoidable, but I was always slightly distracted by the not-quite-the-same cadences of the characters. For many (especially kids being introduced to the characters) this won’t be an issue, but it was a niggling detail that bugged me the whole time.
That is my biggest complaint about the movie; screenwriters Jason Segel and Nicholas Stoller have a tough job, which is to be reverent to a property whose main appeal was always a sort of gentle irreverence. They walk that line well; the film is filled with nostalgia but it’s never cloying, and it’s updated just enough to not feel like a leftover story from 1979.
The movie does have some structural issues, and by the end it becomes hugely apparent that they had to do some post-shooting rejiggering (the film proves if you end on a big happy song you don’t actually have to tie up your main story), but as mentioned above the Segel factor never overwhelms. It’s a useless storyline in the grand scheme of the movie, but it never keeps us too long from the main Muppet storyline.
While The Muppets themselves come back together and try to put on a show, the real heart of the movie happens with Walter. Born a person of felt, Walter has always loved The Muppets, and the film has him as the ultimate fan getting to join the band. More than that, though, it’s a story about finding where you belong in the world, finding other weirdos like you. Jim Henson’s Muppets were always really, really strange, and that was part of the appeal - they couldn’t help but let their freak flags fly. Walter spends his life trying to fit in with meat people and finally finds himself in a world where he’s not strangely small or unusually flexible; this, more than anything else, captures the sweet sense of finding a new family that makes The Muppet Movie a classic.
There are a handful of songs (again, almost of which go to Segel and Amy Adams), and they’re also very nice. Written by Bret McKenzie, all of the songs have a huge Flight of the Conchords feel to them, which means they tend to verge on parody. I wouldn’t have minded seeing some straighter songs - everybody still loves The Rainbow Connection because it’s totally serious and emotional - but McKenzie knows how to balance humor and story and character and emotion in his songs.
What The Muppets left me with was a desire to see The Muppet Show return. Backstage antics are what the characters do best, and so it’s not surprising that the second half of the film is the best half. The Muppets are meant to deliver quick, silly jokes and lampoon modern pop culture (I love that the film has chickens singing Cee Lo Green’s Fuck You; it’s so true to the spirit of the original show). I don’t know why The Muppets faded away over the last couple of decades, but The Muppets proves that they still have plenty of heart and smart-assness to give to a new generation and beyond.