Posted on Monday, November 21st, 2011 by Angie Han
For those who came of age any time between the ’50s and the ’90s, the Crayola-colored felt faces of the Muppets hold a certain unshakeable allure. Kermit’s familiar green visage is a face I grew up with, and I still have a knee-jerk tendency to break out in a smile whenever I see him or his pals. While the Muppets have never entirely left the public consciousness, they’re hardly the ubiquitous powerhouse they once were. This year’s The Muppets marks the first real introduction for a whole generation of kids who were born too late to remember 1999′s Muppets in Space, let alone 1979′s The Muppet Movie.
So if The Muppets coasts just a tiny bit on the goodwill that people like me still reserve for them, I’m pleased to say it’s still a solid enough film to appeal to the uninitiated while also pleasing old(er) fogies who recall them fondly from past decades. Which, not coincidentally, is also the characters’ goal within the storyline itself.
Directed by James Bobin (Flight of the Conchords), The Muppets revolves around a new muppet named Walter, who self-identifies as the world’s biggest Muppets fan. When he takes a trip to Los Angeles with his brother Gary (Jason Segel, who also co-wrote and executive produced) and Gary’s girlfriend Mary (Amy Adams), Walter makes it a priority to visit the now-dilapidated Muppets studio — only to learn that oil tycoon Tex Richman (Chris Cooper, hilarious) has a nefarious plan to demolish the structure. Walter, Gary, and Mary then reach out to Kermit, now a wealthy recluse, and convince him to bring the old gang back together for one last show to raise the money they need to save the theater. Problem is, as one TV exec (Rashida Jones) crisply puts it, the Muppets aren’t famous anymore.
Walter functions as the perfect audience stand-in on multiple levels. Like newcomers to the franchise, he’s new to the team; like longtime fans, he’s excited to see all his favorite characters reunite once more. But his real job is to be a surrogate for real-life Muppet lover Segel, who was integral in getting the movie made. Through Walter, we experience Segel’s labor of love — his excitement and joy at working with his childhood heroes to restore them to their former glory, as well as his sadness that the world has forgotten about them to begin with. Though The Muppets also deals with themes of friendship, belonging, maturing, and so on, it’s really Segel/Walter’s unmitigated passion that provides the emotional hook.
The Muppets establishes its tone swiftly and surely with an opening number, “Life’s a Happy Song,” in which Gary and Walt skip and twirl through Smalltown and their fellow townspeople instantly fall into step. It’s a ludicrously catchy tune about the joys of friendship, but it’s also sharp enough to get in a couple of cheeky jabs at its own absurdity, as when Gary offers Mary some flowers and apologizes for their having been crushed by all that dancing. While that kind of knowingness can sometimes make a film feel mocking or smug, it works here because it feels less like the movie patting itself on the back and more like the filmmakers having fun with the unreality of it all. The franchise has always been sharp about pop culture, and The Muppets does an excellent job of striking the balance between childlike innocence and grown-up intelligence.
Adams, in a toned-down variation on her cartoonish sweetness from Enchanted, is a perfect fit for this universe, as is the very game Cooper. Segel, meanwhile, is great when he’s acting but less so when he’s singing or dancing. He’s outmatched by his co-stars and most of the extras in his musical numbers, but he tries so hard and with so much good cheer that it’s difficult to hold that against him. It goes almost without saying that the Muppets themselves are fantastic as well. Nicholas Stoller and Segel’s script allows their familiar personalities to shine, while also taking them in new directions that make sense for each character. Of course Miss Piggy would be an editor at Vogue.
So it’s disappointing that the film’s biggest misstep is the parallel subplots of two major characters. Mary’s given the thankless task of forcing Gary to mature by demanding that he pick her over his brother, while Miss Piggy fares even worse. Although her obsession with Kermit has always been an integral part of her persona, watching a character dropping everything to crawl back to someone who once dumped her at the altar is an uncomfortable experience even if the couple in question consists of a pig and a frog. A number shared by Miss Piggy and Mary, “Me Party,” is ostensibly a celebration of self-sufficiency, but the message is totally undermined by the fact that both characters are so obviously miserable without their respective partners.
For the most part, however, The Muppets marks a return to form for the characters after a long period away from the big screen. The way it plays on our real-life memories of the Muppets make it feel like an instant classic, though I suspect the film might have less emotional pull for children who don’t have that preexisting relationship with the characters. Then again, that relationship has to start somewhere for those kids — and a film that offers “Rainbow Connection” and an all-clucking rendition of Cee-Lo Green’s “Fuck You” with equal enthusiasm seems like very promising start.