Directed by James Bobin, written by Jason Segel & Nicholas Stoller, starring Jason Segel, Amy Adams, Chris Cooper, and The Muppets.
I love the Muppets. When I was in preschool I was too preoccupied with SPEED RACER and JOHNNY QUEST to notice SESAME STREET. I was aware of SESAME STREET, but I didn’t watch it. My first real connection to Jim Henson’s characters came when I entered the first grade, and they entered prime time. Eventually I grew to appreciate the Disneyesque optimism of SESAME STREET, but I always preferred the Looney Tunes rambunctiousness of THE MUPPET SHOW. Because I love the Muppets, I hold them to a higher standard than entertainment for which I have less of an affinity; happily their first feature film in twelve years is worthy of that standard.
The script for the new film apparently had an extensive development period. It helps to have writers who are true believers in the world Jim Henson created a generation or two ago. It helps even more that one of those writers is an established television star who also has a string of mostly very successful films to his credit. Jason Segel‘s puppeteer character in FORGETTING SARAH MARSHALL, which he also wrote, hinted at his affinity for The Muppets. If someone loved the work of Robert E. Howard and John Buscema as much as Segel clearly loves Henson’s work, this summer’s revival of CONAN THE BARBARIAN would have been an amazing movie.
The core story of THE MUPPETS is shrewdly cobbled together from several archetypes of both cinematic style and classic story telling. Segel’s character Gary has a brother named Walter who is straight out of BILLY ELLIOT or RUDY. Walter so loves the Muppets that the greatest possible joy he could imagine is the chance that he might one day meet them. What separates Walter from Billy Elliot and Rudy Ruettiger, and indeed from Gary, is that Walter actually is a Muppet! This is part of what makes Muppet films unique: even as they embrace archetypes, like the underdog runt searching for his place in the world, they turn them on their head and subvert them to the Muppets’ own rules. In this story a human man and a Muppet can be brothers — and no one notices this as odd!
A staple element of ensemble buddy movies ranging from Frank Sinatra’s Danny Ocean up to, well, George Clooney’s Danny Ocean is the reunion of old friends for a new purpose. It worked in THE WILD BUNCH, it worked when Jake & Elwood Blues got the band back together, and it works for Kermit. In fact, it works doubly so for Kermit. Kermit’s quest to round up his stray friends propels this basic story of the Muppets’ rallying to save their old theater from their 70’s variety show days. The reunion angle simultaneously allows for the introduction of the Muppets to audiences too young to recall their last theatrical entry while addressing themes of aging and imposed obsolescence that resonate with anyone old enough to have watched the original primetime airings of THE MUPPET SHOW. Reminiscent of how Kal-El must have felt upon reading Lois Lane’s editorial on a world without Superman in SUPERMAN RETURNS, this film finds Kermit realizing that television has knocked the Muppets to the rock bottom of the hip-n-trendy scale. Kermit’s reunion with Miss Piggy culminates in a stroll through Paris, poignantly acknowledging that Muppets have to work as hard as humans to make love and friendship last, in a scene that would seem very much at home in a Woody Allen film. Each of these moments manage both the easy fix of keeping the pace moving, and the difficult trick of perfectly nailing the tone for each scene to keep audiences of all ages engaged.
All of this classic film structure aside, it’s wonderful to see the Muppets have not lost their touch for lunacy. They were expert practitioners of metafiction before that term was applied to film or television. Probably the best example of this is the song “Man or Muppet,” sung by Gary and Walter. As the man and Muppet brothers explore their existential void in the song, they cross into each others crisis, and transcend the film in a sequence reminiscent of some of the more groundbreaking 80’s music videos. Segel’s over the top Meatloaf-esque operatic wailing both parodies heart-on-your-sleeve pop songs and gives this oddball tune a ring of truth. I saw this movie in a screening geared toward college students. The general mumbling and rampant texting around me during this scene left the impression that this audience was more laughing at this moment than with it. This was a sequence worthy of The Marx Bros or Mel Brooks, but unless you are schooled in Groucho and Mongo, the absurd hilarity and sincere subtext of this song will not fully resonate.
Rumors on the internets about a “surprise cameo” were apparently referring to a moment in “Man or Muppet,” though the entire movie is laden with cameos, from Mickey Rooney to Rico Rodriguez. I’m glad that these cameos were not strictly reserved for celebrities, but also for lesser known characters from the Muppet universe. Personally I was a big fan of MUPPETS TONIGHT, the mid 90’s attempt to revitalize the Muppets on primetime TV. One of the characters from that revival, the dimwitted and overly confident lounge singer Johnny Fiama, appears during this song as Jason Segel’s Muppet doppleganger. The only thing that could have made Johnny’s appearance better would be if they found room for his angry monkey bodyguard Sal Minella; here’s hoping there’s room for Sal & Johnny in the next Muppet movie!
I’m a fan of divisive movies; I’ll always prefer a movie that folks either love or hate, even if I’m among those who hate it, to a movie that we are all equally ambivalent about. If you follow the IMDb message boards, you’ll see that THE MUPPETS has no shortage of detractors who bemoan nearly every Muppet effort since the passing of Jim Henson. I’m also a die hard STAR TREK fan; just as I acknowledge that the primary mission of the most recent STAR TREK film was to acquire a new generation of fans, such is the case with this film. My audience full of college kids texting each other were mostly born after Jim Henson died. If you grew up wit THE MUPPET SHOW on TV like I did, you’ve already had your fair share of Muppet films. These are the classic Muppets for a new generation, and they accomplish that job with characteristic style and surprising grace. THE MUPPETS will not change your life or make you a better person, but it just might open your kids’ minds the way SESAME STREET and THE MUPPET SHOW did yours.