It’s not all that far into The Muppets when TV executive Veronica (played by Rashida Jones) tells Kermit flat-out, “you guys aren’t famous anymore.” What’s ironic is that the Muppets likely remain much more famous than many (most?) of the properties Hollywood tries to reboot/remake 10 or more years out, and yet The Muppets uses that humility and eagerness to rebuild the brand as a natural jumping off point for a get-the-band-back-together movie. Even better, it allows the characters to return to doing what they do best with no gimmicks: put on a damn good show. Kermit and the gang are able to do just that, and the result is the most fun and felt-filled movie of the year– there’s no way NOT to have a good time with The Muppets.
Of course, The Muppets is the result of a vision from Jason Segel and Nich Stoller to bring the characters definitively into the 21st century as a big-screen property. With that comes the injection of a few new human characters, Gary (Jason Segel) and Mary (Amy Adams), as well as a new humanish muppet, Walter (Peter Linz). The new gang provides our entryway into the story as we learn Walter is the ultimate Muppet superfan, having grown up and identified with the TV show and movies his whole life (via VHS tapes and reruns, of course). Naturally it’s never specifically acknowledged that Walter is himself a felt creature different from fleshy humans like his brother, though it’s treated as destiny that he belongs with the other Muppets like him.
Gary however, is Walter’s brother and best friend, and another Muppet superfan by association. Here there is the slightest hint of subtext indicting the man-child/fanboy, but it’s a very lightly present theme and has an interesting pay-off later. Gary is building a real human life with his longtime girlfriend Mary, and the two are nearing a point that would make it difficult for him to continue living a Muppet-fanboy lifetstyle with Walter. As sweet as Mary is, you can sense the frustration when Gary invites the co-dependent Walter on the couple’s romantic trip to Los Angeles. It’s in these early scenes –before there are even any traditional muppets present– where you can detect that Segel, Stoller, and director James Bobin have a firm grasp on the right kind of tone for this film. The jokes right from the start are full of puns and slapstick, and are most importantly self-effacing without a hint of cynicism. There’s definitely a stronger tone of broadway to the big dance numbers, as opposed to the vaudevillian touch of traditional Muppet songs, but it’s all just chipper and funny enough, with the right amount of winking.
The full on Muppet adventure kicks up once a visit to the now defunct and run-down Muppet Studios has Walter stumbling on a plot by Tex Richman (Chris Cooper) to takeover, demolish, and start pumping oil from beneath the Muppets old workplace. Though Gary and Mary would love to have their romantic getaway, the trip becomes a mission to convince Kermit, now living alone in he and Miss Piggie’s rundown mansion, to reform the Muppets and put on a big enough telethon to save the studio. Here the film briefly kicks into Blues Brothers mode and gains more and more momentum with each Muppet that rejoins the gang. Some, like Gonzo and Fozzie, get full scenes detailing their current (hilarious) stations in life, while other are brought in with a quick meta-joke (Rowlf’s re-appearance is perfect). So too start the cameos, which are dense and, for the most part, very contemporary. Don’t expect a ton of allusions to guests of yore (there are a few), but rather the inclusion of a new generation of comedians and stars, largely pulled from shows like Parks & Rec, The Office, and Community. Hell, even The Big Bang Theory cameo fits in perfectly. Don’t believe any particular cameo list or rumor from the past few years though, as many high-profile appearances one might be expecting never come, while the film does have a few big surprises from out of the blue. A few of them are a touch indulgent, and Zach Galafianakis is as underutilized as he’s ever been, but for the most part the appearances are funny and add to the film’s charm.
Midway through the movie settles into a classic rhythm of behind-the-stage antics and rehearsal disasters where dozens of Muppet favorites at least get a moment or two. Naturally there is plenty of room for meta-jokes and references to the past, while new characters have a wide-eyed sort of wonder about the whole thing. The plot becomes less important than just seeing these guys interact and put on their performance. It’s a good thing Chris Cooper gets some very excellent moments of villainy (along with the crew of very Feeble-esque henchpuppets he picks up), as any kind of heroic pay-off or “saving the day” is entirely an afterthought. Ultimately the momentum of the show starts banging the plot off the rails a bit, and yet it seems perfectly in line with the Muppet sensibility to sacrifice something as trivial as a proper third-act climax to a self-mocking sight-gag. That doesn’t mean more thought or set-up couldn’t have been put into Walter’s little character arc though– his “talent” that makes him a part of the muppet ensemble comes out of nowhere, and yet could have been easily teased from the start.
Musically the film is well balanced, integrating a few classic Muppet songs along with some Muppet-ized pop hits and of course a few original numbers– “Life Is A Song” will have you skipping out of theater if you’re not too busy clucking out the chicken chorus version of Cee-Lo’s “Fuck you” instead. Between the music choices, exuberant but character-serving filmmaking, and general sense of humor it’s clear Segel and Bobin understand what makes a movie like this work. The Muppets and their particular mix of incompetent vaudeville hamming amidst elbow-rubbing with Hollywood favorites in service of terrible puns is so timelessly charming that it probably didn’t need a “reboot,” and yet that tone ultimately fits the characters perfectly. The addition of some musical pay-off to the human subplot works well, and a song that has Gary facing his need to grow-up while Walter steps up to finding his own identity amongst the Muppets is the highlight of the non-Muppet action. Frankly, it seems like as good a payoff as any for Segel’s own struggle between being a famous man-child and yet being a big enough actor that he does get to live out his childhood fantasy and play with Muppets!
And maybe we need the Muppets just as much, you know? In an a time that seems crushed by a grim world outlook and the often crushing omnipresence of ironic detachment in our culture, there’s something special about sitting down to appreciate a good old-fashioned show starring puppets that, while entirely self-aware, exist solely to entertain and bring joy. Even the fact that they are tactile performers given trully in-the-moment feeling by trained and passionate craftsman feels refreshing after growing so used to seeing fantastic character realized solely through computers. There’s a timely value to what the Muppets brings to the table, and it’s something only these colorfully manic characters can provide, and that you don’t have to be a long-time fan to appreciate. Perhaps we don’t deserve to have them back, but I’m getting the increasing sense that we need them.
As for their relaunch on the big screen, there are certainly nits one can pick with The Muppets, and maybe a legitimate complaint that the humans get a hair too much screentime but frankly, you’d pretty much have to be a giant asshole to not have a great time with this movie. There might be a funnier comedy this year, or a catchier musical, and maybe an overall better sequel or two, but there’s certainly no movie that does all of those things better at the same time. Nor is there a film this year that will as successfully introduce a new generation of kids to characters they’ll enjoy for the rest of their lives. If there’s any fun or joy in your heart, The Muppets will find it and make it shine. You owe it to yourself to see Kermit, and Miss Piggy, and Fozzie, and Gonzo, and Rowlf, and Sam The Eagle, and Beeker, and Rizzo, and Statler, and Waldorf, and Animal, and Dr. Teeth, and Swedish Chef, and Zoot, and Dr. Bunsen, and now Walter light up the big screen with a big story deserving of a big crowd.
Out of a Possible 5 Stars