We all know the Muppets. They may not be as ubiquitous and popular as they once were, but we know them and we love them because they’re delightful characters who appeal to kids and adults alike with their mixture of slapstick, strangeness, satire, and singing. The Muppets‘ director James Bobin and co-writers Nicholas Stoller and Jason Segel (the latter of whom also co-stars) never forgot what makes Jim Henson‘s creations so special and this deep respect creates a movie that will introduce Kermit, Miss Piggy, Gonzo, and the whole gang to a new generation, and make the older generation fall in love with the Muppets all over again.
Gary (Segel) and Walter are brothers even though Walter is a muppet (the film wisely doesn’t explain how this happened). Walter’s not really sure about his place in the world, but then he sees The Muppet Show and it changes his life. Kermit, Fozzie Bear, Animal, and everyone else are Walter’s heroes and in his wildest dreams he hopes of one day becoming a Muppet (the capitol “M” denoting the stars of The Muppet Show). When Gary and his girlfriend Mary (Amy Adams) take a trip to Los Angeles, Gary brings Walter along so they can all take a tour of the Muppet Studios (somewhat to the chagrin of Mary who would like some one-on-one time with her boyfriend). However, when the trio reaches the studios, they find that it’s become dilapidated and the Muppets have disbanded. Walter thinks it couldn’t get any worse until he overhears a sinister conversation between some muppets and oil baron Tex Richman (Chris Cooper) who want to tear down the studio in order to get to the oil underneath (maniacal laugh). It’s up to Walter, Gary, and Mary to bring the Muppets back together so they can stage a telethon and raise the $10 million to save the studio.
It’s a getting-the-gang back together plot and it’s ingenious because the movie is trying to appeal to two audiences: the young kids who probably only recognize muppets from Sesame Street (and those aren’t THE Muppets), and the adults who remember the TV series, the old movies, and everything in between. The movie spends the first half bringing everyone back together and showing how most of the Muppets have turned their backs on who they are. Fozzie is now performing in Reno with “The Moopets”, Gonzo is a plumbing magnate, and Animal is in anger management. At least Miss Piggy has found a perfect diva lifestyle in Paris as the editor-in-chief of a fashion magazine, but she and Kermit feel incomplete without each other even though they’ve grown apart. This introduction/re-introduction brings the characters to a new audience while providing plenty of in-jokes and references that will remind older fans why the world of the Muppets is so magical.
The movie also appeals to both age groups through its diverse humor. The kids are going to laugh at the slapstick, the funny voices, and the goofiness, and the adults are going to enjoy all those things plus the satire, the breaking of the fourth wall, the clever wit, the throwaway but totally bizarre one-liners, and a few gags that no kid will get (or at least shouldn’t get) but have older audience members doubled over in laughter. It’s a serious challenge to balance all of these comic styles, but the movie holds it together with a central concept: you can be smart and silly. Silliness is usually perceived as an immature kind of comedy and so lazy writers make it go hand-in-hand with stupidity. The Muppets proves that’s a false corollary, and the filmmakers have delivered intelligent, consistent, and fast-paced comedy that’s expertly performed by both human and muppet cast members.
Jason Segel co-wrote an incredibly generous movie when you consider that he’s one of the stars. I can imagine that anyone who didn’t truly appreciate the Muppets would have expanded their own role, but Segel gives the movie over to his felt-and-foam cast-mates. He has an enchanting enthusiasm, a warm, energetic, and cuddly persona coupled with a gigantic smile, and you’ll be won over the moment he begins singing the opening number “Life’s a Happy Song” (which deserves an Oscar for Best Song). But while Gary has his own subplot, Segel knows this movie should belong to The Muppets, and he trusts his and Stoller’s script, Bobin’s direction, the music, and the muppeteers.
Watching the old Muppets together, it’s interesting to see how new technology has allowed the characters to do new movement that was a marvel thirty years ago (for example, the bicycle scene in The Great Muppet Caper), but audiences will be surprised to learn how much was still done practically. However, the development in muppet technology provides an unintended contrast when you see a new muppet like Walter side-by-side with Kermit. It wasn’t until this movie that I realized the limitations of Kermit’s expressions since he has no eyelids, and he lacks the costume decoration of his muppet co-stars (except when he’s wearing a tuxedo). But in an odd way, Kermit doesn’t need it. He’s the leader of the gang and that’s enough to let him stand side-by-side with his more expressive muppet co-stars.
The return of the Muppets isn’t without some minor flaws. There’s sure to be some complaints from Muppets aficionados who will argue that the movie isn’t faithful enough to the TV series or the movies, but The Muppets has remained true to the defining qualities of these characters, and a large part of the comedy comes from playing off their well-known personalities. Less debatable is the use of Mary who doesn’t get much of a character arc. Her inclusion is solely based on her relationship to Gary and even her song “Me Party” (the weakest song in the film) comes off like a self-delusional attempt at empowerment. It’s a bit of a waste considering Adams’ enormous comic and vocal abilities, but she makes the most of her one-dimensional character.
Thankfully, both Mary and Gary take a backseat (sometimes literally) to the Muppets. This is their movie and it’s marvelous to see how you can take simple characters and make their comedy fit into so many different styles, but keep the same warmth and affection throughout. The Muppets is based on the premise that the world had forgotten the characters. The movie shows we only forgot how much we loved them.