As a moviegoer these days, you’ve got to be wary of Hollywood’s manipulative attempts to pull dollars out of unsuspecting pockets through nostalgia. Those who grew up devouring the cartoons and assorted creative properties of the late 1970’s and early 80’s have become prime targets for the major studios’ seemingly endless parade of re-makes, re-boots, and re-imaginings of these cherished pop culture touchstones. But sweet sentimentality can go only so far without well-developed characters and a solidly-constructed narrative. Thankfully, The Muppets is one of those rare instances where heartfelt reminiscence is blended in perfectly with an excellent production.
The premise of The Muppets is kept intentionally simple to allow the audience to re-discover their love for Kermit and the gang: A brief and amusing prologue introduces us to an “everyMuppet” named Walter who – along with his very tall and very human brother Gary (the goofy, gleeful Jason Segel) – grew up watching Muppet Show re-runs and idolizing Kermit the Frog. During a tour of the long-abandoned Muppet Studios in Los Angeles with Gary and his girlfriend Mary (the sweet-as-pie Amy Adams), Walter eavesdrops on a nefarious plot by evil oil tycoon Tex Richman (the scenery-chewing Chris Cooper) to raze the Muppet Studios and drill for some black gold underneath the property. Horrified that his longtime idols are about to lose their former home, Walter enlists Gary and Mary to help him find Kermit and the rest of the Muppets so that they can re-unite for a telethon at the theater to raise the $10 million necessary to retain the deed to the property.
The film keeps the necessary Muppet film caveats intact: Muppets living alongside humans, constant fourth-wall breakage, numerous silly-yet-sweet musical numbers, and of course, the trademark charming, cornball vaudevillian humor that modern audiences likely haven’t experienced since Kermit and Miss Piggy tied the knot in 1984’s The Muppets Take Manhattan. All of these elements work effectively and mix seamlessly with some modern-humor flourishes such as The Moopets – a hard-edged, cynical group of Muppet dopplegangers dressed in gangsta attire, tats, and goatees. Or the painfully honest sequence where network-head Rashida Jones informs the Muppets that they are way off of the current pop culture radar; their cheesey humor and song-and-dance numbers long forgotten and replaced with reality fare like Punch Teacher (In which the reliably maniacal Ken Jeong urges kids to, well…punch their teachers).
Minor pacing issues aside, the only real flaw of The Muppets is the same issue that has plagued Muppet projects since Jim Henson passed away – the voice work. No living soul can ever hope to duplicate the subtlety and true emotion that Henson brought to Kermit, Rowlf, Dr, Teeth and others (the same goes for Frank Oz’s Miss Piggy and Fozzy the Bear), but the voice work on display in this movie is by far the best it’s been since the mid-1980’s (The old hecklers, Statler and Waldorf, still aren’t even close, however). At times, Walter’s story and the relationship drama between Gary and Mary (he wants to be there for his brother, she wants him to devote more time to her and propose) threaten to eat away at the film’s running time; throwing a monkey wrench into the main ambition of the production – namely, the resurrection of Jim Henson’s felt creations back into the cultural vernacular. Thankfully, Segel’s script knows when to veer away from the obligatory human element and focus on Kermit, Fozzy, Gonzo, Miss Piggy as they try to recapture the chemistry and camaraderie they once shared.
It’s obvious to anyone who has ever seen Segel’s brilliant puppet musical number at the end of Forgetting Sarah Marshall, that he has a deep-seeded love for Henson’s menagerie. With the help of his longtime writing partner Nicholas Stoller, that affection is on full display in The Muppets. The duo do their best to let all the characters shine – everything a Muppet fan could want in a movie is here, from Gonzo’s zany stuntman antics to Fozzy’s corny jokes to the Swedish Chef’s classic BORK BORK BORKS!. Under the stylish direction of James Bobin, whose previous work includes Da Ali G Show and the delightfully insane Flight of the Conchords, The movie plays like a big-budget event picture; not the previous cheap, half-hearted Muppet productions like Muppet Treasure Island or Muppets in Space. Bret McKenzie, one-half of the aforementioned comedy musical act Flight of the Conchords, provides much of the rousing and sunny musical numbers here, and while they may not live up to the brilliance of Paul Williams jaunty tunes, they are beautifully written and performed (not to mention catchy as hell!).
Though Henson is long gone, his gentle – and genuine – spirit inhabits every frame of The Muppets, somehow watching over his creations and imbuing the film with magic that made Kermit and the gang feel like their old selves for the first time since his untimely death in 1990. The Muppets hits all the right emotional beats (just try not to get choked up when Kermit and the gang launch into “Rainbow Connection”). This film is not nostalgic for nostalgia’s sake; rather it’s a warm, funny, and heartfelt return to glory for a wonderful assortment of oddball characters that at one time nearly matched Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader’s places in the cultural zeitgeist.