As Hollywood’s bottomless recycling bin continues along the dark path of rebooting, relaunching, CGI-ing and 3D-ing an entire generation of young executives’ childhood memories into franchise-ready properties, the idea of a new Muppet movie sounded like an extremely dire one indeed.
Dormant on the big screen since 1999’s reportedly dismal (I never saw it) Muppets From Space, Jim Henson’s iconic creations have languished for quite some time as fully owned subsidiaries of the Walt Disney Corporation. Jim Henson is dead. Frank Oz retired from puppetry and became a terrible filmmaker. Was the dream over?
But to my shock and unending delight, Director James Bobin’s The Muppets turns out to be a (mostly) marvelous return to form. Defiantly and gloriously retro from start to finish, this proudly 2-D movie eschews computer animation in favor of felt puppets, embracing the schticky vaudeville ethos of Henson’s original television program, in which anarchic silliness and un-ironic sweetness stand hand in hand.
Credit writer/co-star Jason Segel, a Judd Apatow mainstay who cashed in his clout after the raunchy surprise hit Forgetting Sarah Marshall for a chance to bring his old heroes back to the big screen. Segel’s script (co-written with his Sarah Marshall partner Nick Stoller) is an incredibly savvy bit of post-modern noodling, confronting head-on the question everybody in the audience is already asking: After so many years away, are the Muppets still relevant in our cynical modern world?
Segel stars as Gary, a rubber-limbed galoot who likes to wear matching outfits with his kid brother Walte—a meek little puppet who seems to think he’s a real boy. Gary’s about to leave Smalltown, USA, for the very first time, bringing his exceedingly patient girlfriend Mary (Amy Adams, reprising her wide-eyed cartoon performance from Enchanted) on a trip to Los Angeles so that they can celebrate their 10th anniversary in style. But at the last minute, Gary can’t resist asking Walter to tag along—if only so they can visit the legendary Muppet Studio that brought them so much joy in TV reruns.
Alas, that old auditorium ain’t what it used to be, having fallen into abject disrepair over the decades after an acrimonious split sent the gang scattered across the country. Even worse, there’s a greedy Texas oil baron (Chris Cooper, having a grand old time) aiming to knock down the building and drill for black gold. This leaves a very limited window of time for Walter, Gary and Mary to get the old gang back together, hoping that a Muppet telethon might raise the $10 million needed to save the theatre.
So we meet the reluctant Kermit, estranged from his old friends and singing one of those classically heartbreaking Muppet songs of regret in his empty, Bel-Air mansion. Piggy has become a fashion editor in Paris (and Emily Blunt is her assistant, because Moi wears Prada.) Fozzie works a run-down Reno tourist spot with a terrible cover band, but Scooter at least seems to be doing OK, since he works for Google.
It’s a classic, getting-the-band-back-together routine combined with a “hey, let’s put on a show” narrative, reintroducing beloved characters in witty and surprising ways. (In keeping with Henson’s custom of always breaking the fourth wall, someone eventually suggests that the movie would go much faster if they rounded everybody up during a montage.)
The problem, of course, is that nobody cares about the Muppets anymore, at least according to a TV executive played by Rashida Jones. And so the characters must even ask themselves, will people still tune in for an old-timey variety show chockablock with zany throwback comedy and plaintive banjo songs? Poor Kermit exhausts his dusty Rolodex to land a celebrity host: “Is President Carter available?”
Director Bobin’s deliberately fakey candy-colored palate accentuates the wonderful artifice. In the grand Muppet tradition, everybody here knows they’re in a movie and is self-aware about it without being smarmy. Bret McKenzie, of Flight of the Conchords fame, composed the new songs and understands that fundamental balance between silliness and pathos.
Segel and company get the effervescent spirit so damn right, it’s easy to forgive them a few noncrucial missteps. For starters, humans in a Muppet movie serve just as much purpose as those boring romantic couples in later Marx Brothers pictures —a presumably necessary distraction. There’s a bit too much to-do over Gary and Mary’s relationship woes, bogging down the bouncy proceedings.
But any such complaints are rendered moot by the singing-and-dancing extravaganza that rounds out the third act. It would be churlish to give too much away, save to say that Camilla and her chickens clucking Cee Lo Green’s “Fuck You” made me happier than any musical number of the past 20 years. This extended sequence did the impossible: I laughed at Jack Black.
And then there’s “The Rainbow Connection,” a song that remains haunting in ways I still can’t quite put into words. At its best, The Muppets honors that magical mix of chaotic comedy and resounding melancholy.
It’s good to have them back. Manah, Manah.
Director: James Bobin
Starring: Amy Adams, Jason Segel and Chris Cooper
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