When I originally heard that Jason Segel was writing a script for a brand-new Muppet movie that would attempt to reboot the franchise, I was excited, and nervous. It’s been almost 20 years since the last decent Muppet film (The Muppet Christmas Carol, among our favorite holiday movies), and after a long hiatus since the last one, it was going to take a big hit to overcome any skepticism after the mediocre Muppets from Space and the disastrous Muppet Treasure Island to revive the brand. Segel’s endeavor could easily have been the death of the Muppets, too. I’m beyond thrilled to report that it’s a rebirth instead, and one of the most enjoyable nostalgia projects I could imagine.
Segel has created a two-layered script that accomplishes the most important thing in any Muppet film: He has them put on a show, which, naturally, is needed in the story to save the theater from destruction at the hands of evil oil baron Tex Richman (played by Chris Cooper, clearly having the time of his life). The basic story has Segel’s character, Gary, and his little brother, Walter (who is a Muppet, but no one seems to realize this, which is a great conceit that just sits in the background like an inside joke), headed to Los Angeles with Gary’s girlfriend Mary (Amy Adams), where they go to tour the Muppet Studios only to learn of Richman’s evil plot. They track down Kermit the Frog, living in semi-retirement in the home that he should have shared with Miss Piggy, and persuade him to put the gang back together for “one more show.” And Walter, who has never been able to fit in as the lone felt creature in a town full of actual humans, lives the ultimate fan’s fantasy, working alongside his idols and finding, for the first time in his life, a community where he really fits in.
The macro story here, and the real theme of the The Muppets, is that there are, and have always been, millions of Muppet fans out there just waiting … and waiting … for someone (one of us, as it turned out) to bring them back into the spotlight in a movie that cuts right to the heart of what we love about the characters individually and as an ensemble. Segel is such a fan that he inserts himself and his fuzzy alter-ego brother into the movie, only to wisely work Gary and Mary back out of the story in the second half of the film so that the Muppets can take over. And take over they do, with Walter on board, and a great turn by Jack Black playing the, um, reluctant guest host of the show-within-the-film. Amy Adams also deserves mention for an incredibly game performance that includes a very silly dance number in the middle of a diner and a slew of wide-eyed, deadpan lines that kept emphasizing how very absurd all of this is. Having seen her in The Fighter a few hours later, I feel like she’s the Nicole Kidman of this generation of actresses, up for absolutely anything and able to nail whatever role she’s given; let’s hope she doesn’t botox herself into zombiedom in her 40s like Kidman has.
That’s not to say the celebrity cameos, such a critical element in the best Muppet movies, are absent – they’re there, and many of them make an impact in just a few seconds of screen time. Neil Patrick Harris has one line and it’s one of the funniest jokes in the film. Mickey Rooney’s cameo is a funny nod to past cameos. Jim Parsons’ cameo would be ruined if I tried to explain it, but he’s nails. I kept waiting for someone to point at Rashida Jones with both hands and say, “Ann Perkins,” and she was one of the best at interacting with the Muppets, grabbing Kermit by the lapels and shaking him like half the guest stars on the original The Muppet Show used to do. Dave Grohl hams it up as “Animool,” maybe his best performance since the “Big Me” video. And Zach Galfinakis has to be a lock to appear as Hobo Joe in every Muppet movie going forward.
Segel also shows off his knowledge of the characters with some Muppet cameos as well. The Beautiful Day Monster is taking pledge calls in the balcony, and Wayne and Wanda appear for a moment when the lights come back on after Chris Cooper briefly cuts the power to the theater. The Newsman (one of the few voices that didn’t work for me) appears briefly in the balcony as well. Marvin Suggs and the Muppaphone appear in the “Life’s a Happy Song” reprise. Behemoth is in Jack Black’s dressing room – and how did he not eat anything? – with a few other monsters I couldn’t name. If Segel had a checklist of Muppets to include, he couldn’t have been more complete.
The music, which really set the two good Muppet movies (the original and the Christmas Carol) apart, is outstanding here, making Bret McKenzie the somewhat unlikely heir to the legacy of Paul Williams, who wrote most of the music in those two earlier flicks. “Life’s a Happy Song” is the breakout hit, stuck in my head for the rest of the day (which is fine by me) and so good they included it twice, while “Man or Muppet” inserts some much-needed humor at a point where the film threatened to get all serious-like on us. But the gem on the soundtrack was actually written by a songwriting team largely responsible for writing bubblegum pop songs for Disney artists: “Pictures In My Head” has Kermit walking down the hall in his House of Usher, looking at old photographs of his castmates and wondering “Would anyone watch or even care, or did something break we can’t repair?” It’s the first of a surprising number of highly emotional moments in the film.
One of those other emotional moments comes when Segel, constantly paying homage to history, has Kermit and Miss Piggy perform a duet of “Rainbow Connection,” which is a high point of the film but had particular resonance for me. In 1994, PBS aired an episode of “Great Performances” on the life of Jim Henson; when they reach the end of his life in the documentary, the producers used “Rainbow Connection,” apparently at Jerry Juhl’s suggestion, to close the discussion of Henson’s life and death and lead into the closing credits. I’ve only seen the show once, when it first aired, but that song, already a favorite of mine, has always brought me back to that point in the documentary, where the full impact of our loss seems to hit all at once. (If whoever holds the copyright on that show has any sense of marketing, they’ll put it out on DVD now while the Muppets are hot again.)
If you don’t love these characters already, however, the film is going to feel a little thin. The story is good by Muppet movie standards, but the contortions required to get the Muppets back together and on the stage don’t leave much time for plot. The film is actually not that funny – it’s sweet, sentimental, almost romantic, but has only a handful of real laugh-out-loud moments, more from the humans than the Muppets. (I’m pleased to report that the much-maligned “fart shoes” joke turned out to be funnier, and more clever, than the trailer indicated.) Chris Cooper rapping is something I never need to see again – and really, can we just put a moratorium on older white male actors rapping badly in film and on TV? It’s not funny now, because it was never funny. I mentioned the Newsman’s voice being off, and Fozzie Bear’s voice was only intermittently right, like two people were behind it, or like the one person behind it couldn’t hold the right pitch and kept slipping out of character, although the vast majority of Muppet voices were more than good enough. I could also pick nits at the absence of a ballroom scene or Veterinarian’s Hospital, but now I’m just being (in my wife’s words) a “Muppet sap.”
I was a little surprised that they tweaked some of the Muppet characters’ personalities, although that may just emphasize just how much I have invested in the characters at this point. Kermit remains the flawed hero, frequently frustrated but less stalwart than in the past, and I missed his old habit of freaking out and flailing his flippers all over the place. (They had a chance, too, in the kidnapping discussion.) Gonzo seemed a little less, well, gonzo, and I don’t remember any lines from his pal Rizzo. Even Miss Piggy seemed a little older and wiser, with just one real “Hiiiii-YAH” in the film, although she made it count. But again, if you lack history with them, you’re not even noticing this stuff, let alone nitpicking like I am. You’ll find it a sweet film with fun music, corny humor, and very high production values compared to any previous Muppet film, but you won’t get all choked up when Kermit walks out of the theater doors for what might be the last time.
If you do love the characters, and I assume by this point you know where I stand on that subject, you couldn’t ask for a better film than this. It’s a tribute, a love letter, a nostalgia trip, a shot in the arm, and probably the impetus for a slew of sequels – and perhaps a revival of the TV show? Please? – written and performed by people who feel the same way we do. But the highest praise I can offer is that after we walked out of the theater, my five-year-old daughter, who knows the characters but obviously doesn’t have the same history with them, said to us, “I want to buy that movie.” I’m hoping her generation takes to these characters the way mine did.
Oh, and next spring, when I need to go see high school players scattered across the country, I am absolutely going to travel by map.