Film review by: Witney Seibold
Your enjoyment of “The Muppets” will be directly proportional to your inherent and already-standing goodwill toward the Muppet characters. If you grew up watching “The Muppet Show” in the ’70s and ’80s, and if you have any sort of affection for 1979’s “The Muppet Movie,” then James Bobin‘s new film will be catnip for you. Seeing the characters in action is handled with just the right touch. There is little in the way of cheapness or feelings of crass exploitation. And while the film does have some shameless fan-service callbacks (the film offers a big-budget reprise of “The Rainbow Connection” from the 1979 film), and a lot of the gags are non-starters, there is something genuine about this film that will tap into the childhood enjoyment of the Muppets. This is a film made with love.
I think a lot of this has to do with an ineffable purity that hovers around the Muppet canon. Despite being owned by Disney at this point, The Muppets seem pure in themselves. Like Peanuts or the Olympic games, no amount crass commercialism or marketing overexposure you smear on the characters can mar them; they seem to come out feeling fresh as a daisy, and earnestly eager to bring magic into your life. I would include Bugs Bunny in that list, but thanks to the horrific glut of Warner Bros. In the mid 1990s, those characters became soured for decades to come.
“The Muppets” was created by fans, and it shows. The story is essentially about rewarding people for having fandom. But, unlike other films that seek to congratulate people for being hyperventilating, slightly-defensive new-generation geek fanboys (“Paul,” or “Rock Star”), “The Muppets” cleaves closer to a more classical feeling; the fans were clearly seeking to retrieve some sort of lost magic that The Muppets seem to have misplaced since their last feature film, the cloying “Muppets from Space” (1999). The film follows a puppet being named Walter (voice of Peter Linz) who is brothers with a human boy named Gary (as an adult, co-screenwriter Jason Segel). It’s never explained why a man and a three-foot-tall puppet man are related. I guess being born a puppet is kind of like being born left-handed; it just sort of happens occasionally. The two live in a small town, where Walter obsessively watches reruns of “The Muppet Show,” and dreams of meeting his heroes.
Jason Segel is celebrating his tenth unmarried year of dating Mary (Amy Adams), who is a bit chagrined at his unwillingness to commit. Their tenth anniversary trip to Hollywood involves visiting the Muppet studios with Walter in tow. The Muppet studio set is actually where Jim Henson studios is, although in this universe, it’s fallen into extreme disrepair and unpopularity. I’m not sure how comfortable I am with the conceit that the Muppets have fallen out of favor in the eyes of the world. Sure, they haven’t made a movie in over a decade, but they’ve hardly slipped from the public eye. I guess defending your object of affection, even when there’s nothing to defend, is one of the tentpoles of being a legitimate fanatic. Lord knows I’ve done it. And, on second thought, how much are The Muppets really relevant today? Is the old-time variety-show premise really even understood by the average 12-year-old today? Probably not. That “The Muppets” openly acknowledges the sort of old-school stodginess of the characters perhaps works in its favor.
But no matter. In order to save the studio from being demolished by an evil exec (a delightfully evil Chris Cooper), Walter, Gary and Mary must convince Kermit the Frog and the rest of the old troupe to reunite and put on a show to raise the $10,000,000 it would take to save the old buildings. The Let’s-Put-On-A-Show genre is as well-worn and as ancient as vaudeville. Kermit is living alone in a Hollywood mansion with his 1980s robot butler (in a hilarious reference to “Rocky IV”), and thinking gloomily about his ex-girlfriend Miss Piggy. The film then follows the old-fashioned (and only occasionally contrived) comedy plot of reuiting the old gang, overcoming talent obstacles, and resolving romantic crises.
Is the film solidly funny all the way through? Well, some of the gags fall flat, not all of the songs (by Bret McKenzie of “Flight of the Conchords”) really work, and the film drags a bit through its second act (the human story seems compulsory and tacked-on). Does any of this matter? Not for a second. The characters are still charming, and the film’s general tone is so earnest that it’s had not to get caught up in things. I laughed at “The Muppets” more than I’ve laughed at a film in a long time. By the time Chris Cooper raps about being evil (which he REALLY SELLS!), I was hooked. The celebrity cameos (by most of the current generation of hot comedians) were perfect, and the film almost made me cry near the end. Critics like me can intellectualize “The Muppets” all it wants, but the pure joy of the film manages to cut through any cynicism. This is a return to form, even if they weren’t gone. What a grand, fun movie.