People who did not grow up with the Muppets may have a hard time understanding why they mean so much to those of us who did. Hell, even some people who DID grow up with the Muppets may have a hard time understanding it, but for some of us, Jim Henson’s fabulous felt creations had a profound impact on us thanks to their humor, their sense of wonder, and above all, their gentle natures. Henson’s characters were often silly and occasionally sarcastic, but mostly, they were genuine. Kermit and the gang were bastions of authentic hopefulness and legitimate niceness in an increasingly cynical world. Best of all, though, all of Henson’s creations sprang from the same well, and this same gentle spirit can be seen in nearly all of the projects he was around to oversee, from The Muppet Movie to Fraggle Rock to The Dark Crystal. Henson created worlds that latchkey kids wanted to live in, and some of us never outgrew the hope that someday we would. With the release of The Muppets (2011), one lucky kid got to do just that, and film audiences are a little better off for it.
Jason Segel grew up dreaming that he would someday get the chance to star in a Muppet movie, and now he has. Segel (who also co-wrote the script) stars as Gary, the film’s primary human. His brother, Walter (Peter Linz) is a Muppet who has always felt out of place in the world, despite Gary’s unwavering love and support. Gary is engaged to Mary (Amy Adams), a sweet young schoolmarm who sometimes feels like she plays second fiddle to Walter, but is too nice to say so. Anyway, the trio take a trip to Los Angeles to visit the Muppet Studios, only to find that it has been abandoned for some time, and that an evil oil tycoon named Tex Richman (Chris Cooper) has plans to buy the studio and demolish it to get at the black gold buried beneath it. So Gary, Mary and Walter find Kermit and convince him to get the old gang back together so they can put on a show and raise enough money to save the theater. Along the way, they meet up with a bevy of famous folks, all of whom come together to help their cause (some a little more reluctantly than others). Unfortunately, Richman is not about to let all that sweet, sweet oil go without a fight, and the Muppets will have to race against time if they want to keep not only their beloved theater, but the rights to their very name as well.
If all of that sounds corny, that’s because it is, but only if you’re the soulless, cynical type who thinks that sweet, upbeat stories are inherently bad. What is corny to some is endearing and heartfelt to others, and The Muppets is aimed firmly at the hearts of the latter group. Segel and his collaborators (which include director James Bobbin, co-writer Nicholas Stoller, and Flight of the Conchords’ Bret McKenzie, who composed all of the film’s original songs) have managed to perfectly capture the gentle and genuine spirit of Jim Henson, and channeled it into a film that manages to update the Muppets for a whole new generation, while at the same time keeping them true to their roots. They have crafted a film that is not so much an homage to all things Muppets, but is actually an authentic Muppet movie that fits perfectly into the established canon (if such a thing exists). Even more than The Great Muppet Caper or Muppets Take Manhattan, The Muppets feels like a true sequel to The Muppet Movie, yet it also manages to feel fresh and modern without ever feeling like it is pandering to contemporary audiences (with the possible exception of one cameo appearance by a popular sitcom star). One of my Facebook friends said something to the effect that this movie is what happens when the motivation to reboot a property is love rather than money, and I couldn’t agree more. The Muppets is a love letter to these characters by a fan, for the fans. The fact that the movie works as well as it does is just a bonus, and a testament to Segel’s talent as both a writer and a performer.
This isn’t a perfect movie by any stretch of the imagination (in fact, the whole thing sort of falls apart a bit during the ending), but what counts is that Segel and company got the tone and the characters right. The Muppets feel like the Muppets, even if the new voices are a bit jarring at first. While the inflections may not be quite right, what matters is that they totally nailed the characterizations, so much so that by the midpoint of the movie you sort of forget that they are being voiced by people other than Jim Henson and Frank Oz. It helps that the new songs are great, and feel…well, Muppety is really the only word for them. In much the same way Segel captured the spirit of Henson, Bret McKenzie captured the spirit of Paul Williams with songs like “Life’s a Happy Song,” “Pictures in My Head,” and “Man or Muppet.” Of course, I have to admit that I could just as easily hear these songs being belted out by Bret or Jemaine on any given episode of “Flight of the Conchords,” but they nevertheless fit seamlessly into the larger universe of the Muppets. This might be a simple case of two distinct styles meshing together perfectly, but it could also be another indication of how much of an impact the Muppets have had on popular culture over the last four decades.
Looking back on this review, I realize it is more than a bit gushing, and that it may set up some unrealistic expectations for a movie which may not necessarily be “Great,” but is undoubtedly really, really good. I can’t help it, though. I loved The Muppets, and I say that without reservation. It hit all the right notes for me, and worked like gangbusters from beginning to end. I will admit that it is very hard for me to be objective about this property, as I’ve been one of the faithful since I was a child. I will even go so far as to admit that I got a bit teary eyed during the rendition of “Rainbow Connection,” one of the few songs that still has the power to stir profound feelings of nostalgia within me. So as you can see, I’m not really that impartial when it comes to the Muppets. Nevertheless, as far as I’m concerned, Segel and company knocked it out of the park with this one. They have crafted a movie that is brimming with love for the titular characters, and anyone who shares in that love should be satisfied by this movie.