Smalltown, USA, is an idyllic setting. Gary (Jason Segel) and his best friend Walter (Peter Linz) are like brothers, and growing up they do everything together in spite of their differences.
You see, Gary is human, but Walter is a Muppet. In spite of everything, they’re as close as brothers. This extends into adulthood. Gary and Walter are roommates and best friends, and when Gary takes his girlfriend Mary (Amy Adams) to Los Angeles for a romantic 10-year-anniversary trip, Walter comes along.
Walter idolizes the Muppets, and all he wants is to see the famous Muppet Theater. Unfortunately, when Walter and company arrive there, they find that the glory days of the Muppets have long since passed. The Muppet Theater is a wreck, condemned by the city and in complete shambles. The Muppets are nowhere to be found, the group having split up years ago. That means greedy oil tycoon Tex Richman (Chris Cooper) can execute his plan to buy the Muppet Theater, destroy it, and drill for oil.
There’s only one person who can stop Tex: Kermit the Frog.
After Walter tells him about Richman’s evil plan, he embarks on a mission to save the Muppet Theater by getting the old gang back together (with Walter’s help) and throwing a telethon to raise the $10 million needed to buy the Muppet Theater and save the group. Of course, before that can happen they have to get on TV and kidnap…er, ‘temporarily inconvenience’ a celebrity guest host.
The Muppets is a sheer joy to watch, because it feels like a labour of love. And it is love, at least for Jason Segel. After all, he’s the one who kicked off the whole idea of doing a new Muppet movie with his Dracula Muppet musical in Forgetting Sarah Marshall. And now he’s getting his chance to do his thing with the real, actual Muppets.
Segel and his screenwriting partner Nick Stoller really nail a pitch-perfect Muppet movie. It’s sweet and earnest, but it never takes itself too seriously and loves to break the fourth wall. There are some tear-worthy moments of sentimentality and sweetness, and then there are some big belly laughs.
Director James Bobin has an extensive television background thanks to Da Ali G Show and Flight Of The Conchords, and it’s in the scenes with the Muppet telethon where his handling of the camera, his staging of the characters, and his feel for comedy really comes through.
Due to his experience with Conchords, he also nails the theatrical song and dance numbers that make up the core of any good Muppet experience. It has a Conchords feel to it at points, which isn’t a bad thing. The movie’s new songs (from Flight Of The Conchords performer/writer/etc. Bret McKenzie) provoke chuckles and giggles while having that Muppet feel.
However, don’t mistake the joy for simple nostalgia. Segel, Stoller, and Bobin have taken the traditional Muppet formula and reinvigorated it. The Muppets feel fresh again (even Fozzie’s terrible jokes). Part of this is simply due to the passing of time, part of this is due to the new performers taking on the Muppets (save holdover original Muppeteer Dave Goelz as Gonzo), and a big part of it is due to the perfect setting for the Muppets themselves. We know them and love them, and it makes sense that the Muppets would get to have a Travolta-like arc from fame to obscurity to fame once more.
After all, that’s kind of how it’s been for them in recent years. The characters have a back story as to where they’ve been, with Miss Piggy becoming a fashion editor for Vogue (naturally), Kermit becoming a recluse (consider his origin as the only talking frog in the swamp), and Fozzie becoming the headliner of a Muppet tribute group (like many other struggling former star, he’s plying on the last few scraps of good will he has).
The Muppets have personalities, and where they’ve been while off-screen reflects that. Is there any doubt that Gonzo would become a successful plumbing magnate, given his Andy Kaufman-like intellectual pursuit of comedy as absurdist art?
The human performers (especially Segel, Amy Adams, and Chris Cooper) invest a lot of energy into making this film work. Cooper is appealingly broad as a villain, and he’s got a great voice. As for Segel, he just projects this earnestness and sweetness and kindness. Gary cares about Mary, and he cares about Walter even when no one else would. The cameos are spread throughout the movie and a great deal of fun. Even Jack Black is used to great effect as the kidnapped celebrity guest host for the evening, and Jack Black is rarely used to great effect in anything not Tenacious D or High Fidelity.
Some of the faces are more recognizable than others, but the fact that they worked them into the movie is a brilliant nod to the way the Muppets used to do things.
I had reservations about Walter, but he’s actually pretty funny, and Peter Linz is both a great voice actor and a great puppeteer. As a humanoid Muppet in a human’s world, he works as a great fish out of water. Also great are the Moopets, the edgy, streetwise, cynical versions of the Muppets who compose Fozzie’s tribute group. They’re the bizarre world version of a Muppet reboot (and are possibly mocking Pepe the King Prawn).
The Muppets is a rollicking good time. It feels like a Muppet movie should, equal parts anarchy and sentiment. It harkens back to the glory days of the Muppets, but doesn’t slavishly try to recreate them. Instead, it takes the Muppets and revitalizes them for new adventures that are hopefully yet to come.
The Muppets don’t need reinventing; they’re timeless. All they need is someone who cares to guide them, the talented performers to bring them to life, and some fart shoes.