Review: ‘The Muppets’

“The Muppets is a very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very funny movie.”

William Bibbianiby William Bibbiani

The Muppets is a very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very funny movie. More than that, it is also a great one. We’ve heard rumors that the new Muppets film was in some way an unfaithful “modern” update of the classic series of TV shows and movies, but that couldn’t be more wrong. There are some modern references, sure, but if they’re jarring it’s only because the true heyday of The Muppets is about 20 years gone now, and they are currently viewed mostly as nostalgia entertainment. If The Muppet Show had miraculously lasted to this day as a benevolent counterpoint to Saturday Night Live, then goofy covers of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and C-Lo Green’s “F**k You” would certainly have been in their repertoire. And either way, they’re hilarious.

The Muppets have never been “hip,” “now” or “with it.” They’re vaudevillian showmen, outdated even at their outset with a borderline-naïve hopefulness and an almost hackneyed belief that any problem can be solved by “putting on a show.” They are, to put it mildly, dorks, and actually, that is their power. They were bastions of innocent entertainment in an otherwise complicated modern age, in which the very presence of Muppets – fuzzy felt anthropomorphic creatures who innocuously cohabitate with humanity at large – was amusing enough that their early movies, The Muppets Take Manhattan in particular, often coasted on the very drollness of their existence. But their charming and benign outsider mentality was also enough to inspire loyalty in young fans. Jason Segel, his co-writer Nicholas Stoller, and new Muppets director James Bobin were obviously among them.

Their version of The Muppets begins with a new Muppetish character, Walter, who has a loving human brother (Segel), but otherwise feels isolated by his innate strangeness. (The creation of a new Muppet specifically for the film narrowly avoids accusations self-indulgence by casting long-time Jim Henson puppeteer Peter Linz as Walter’s voice, as opposed to Segel or some other “name” actor.) The Muppet Show becomes a safe haven for Walter, who at last finds kindred spirits in its joyful cast. Early fears that the film will become some kind of bizarre racial allegory, examining the inherent difference between Man and Muppet, as personified by Walter and his human brother, prove unfounded. It is instead a story about passionate fandom inspiring, as opposed to arresting, a protagonist’s coming of age.

Walter travels with his brother and his brother’s fiancé (Amy Adams) to Los Angeles, where the Muppet Studios have fallen into ruin. To Walter’s horror he discovers that millionaire Tex Richman (Oscar-winner Chris Cooper, who turns out to have the best “maniacal laugh” in film history) is buying the land in order to – what else? – drill for oil. The only way to stop Richman is to raise $10,000,000 in two weeks, so Walter and his friends track down Kermit the Frog, who has been living in a vaguely Xanadu-like mansion since his retirement. Kermit waffles, then agrees to reunite the old gang who – as in films past – have their own lives going on before the call to action finds them. Fozzie is frontlining an “edgy” cover group called “The Moopets” (with Dave Grohl as Animal!), Gonzo is a surprisingly successful plumbing supply magnate, Miss Piggy runs Vogue magazine and Rowlf really enjoys his hammock. They agree, some more reluctantly than others, to bring The Muppet Show back as a one-night-only telethon to raise the dough, since apparently none of our heroes were business-savvy enough to capitalize on what should have been some cushy royalty checks.

The laughs are as plentiful as ever – perhaps more so – and the new filmmaking team understands that adding post-modern irony to the mix would have been a wrongheaded notion. The Muppets takes The Muppets seriously, and that of course means letting them be their silly, foolish selves. But moments of genuine depth arise from Walter’s journey to genuine Muppethood (“Muppet” is a title, not a species), and via a surprisingly insightful, totally frank conversation between Miss Piggy and Kermit about the difficulties in their relationship. As with many early Muppet fans, I used to think Kermit was vaguely battered by Miss Piggy’s overpowering romantic melodrama, but The Muppets dares to acknowledge – rightfully so – that Kermit has always been emotionally unavailable to the point of dickishness. Not that The Muppets delves into pop culture psychoanalysis to the degree of, say, Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies, but the new film’s dedication to its protagonists as more than mere comedy vending machines is impressively thoughtful and engaging.

Where the film falters, at least structurally, is with Segel’s and Adam’s characters. Like most non-Muppet protagonists in the Muppet movies they’re not terribly important to the plot, but they do have their own, ridiculously simplistic storyline to get through and the film pretty much forgets about them for most of the second act. It would have seemed less distracting if they weren’t, well, Jason Segel and Amy Adams. The two most important human characters in The Muppets are little more than over-glorified celebrity cameos, making their presence less meaningful than it perhaps should have been, but as actors, Segel and Adams do everything with perfect, Muppety aplomb. They just needed to be better integrated with the story as a whole. But we’re in nitpicky territory now. It’s my job to be nitpicky, but still.

The plot of The Muppets is, of course, a parallel to the behind the scenes shenanigans of making a new Muppets movie after many years, which would not have been possible without the involvement of existing fans (like Segel in real life, and Walter in the movie) who call the Muppets back onto the stage but mostly stay out of their way, contributing to but not dominating the real stars’ show. The Muppets gives the title characters – unsurprisingly – a happy ending in which they find newfound popularity through their sincerity, good natures and showmanship. In real life, I imagine the filmmakers are crossing their fingers that the same happy ending befalls them too, although odds are that they’re hoping for more than $10,000,000 for their trouble. Time will tell, but if the quality of this film is any indication, its success seems like a sure thing. The Muppets are back, and the world is better for it.