It’s time for a new generation to meet the Muppets. That had to be what was going through the minds of writers Jason Segel and Nicholas Stoller when they sat down to pen the latest big screen Muppet tale, simply called The Muppets. It’s a title some will argue lacks originality. I say it fits perfectly, as this is a Muppet film that harkens back to simpler times when the Muppets were just, well….Muppets. They weren’t soaring off into space or invading Manhattan. They weren’t sailing off on some treasure hunt or singing Christmas carols. They were just being Muppets.
While The Muppets is good fun for all ages, I have to think that this particular film was made with us older fans in mind. It certainly felt that way as I watched most of the kids in my audience fidget with mild amusement as their parents laughed hysterically and gazed upon the screen with the same wonderment that consumed them thirty five years earlier. You see, this was a throwback Muppet experience. It was a reunion tour. It was returning to your old hometown and driving past the house you grew up in. It was sifting through your parents attic and rediscovering an old lost toy or pictures of happy moments from your youth. You get the point.
The story centers around Gary (Jason Segel) and his brother Walter. Walter is a Muppet, but we’re never really sure that Walter, or Gary for that matter, truly understands this. Although brothers, they are the best of friends, growing up in a loving home, playing baseball and going to carnivals. It never seems odd to Gary that his brother is 2 feet tall and made of felt. They routinely bond over old Muppet shows on the television. Besides being a bit of a geek and having an abnormal affection for Muppets, Gary manages to maintain a somewhat normal existence, having a job and a girlfriend of nearly ten years in Mary (Amy Adams).
Gary and Mary plan a trip to Los Angeles to celebrate their upcoming anniversary. Doesn’t seem like it would be on the top of my list of romantic destinations, but to each their own. Ultimately, Gary invites Walter along on the trip. It’s amazing what oddities we are willing to cast aside in the Muppet world that would likely result in expensive therapy sessions and restraining orders in our own. I digress. Walter is beside himself with excitement over being able to tour the old Muppet studio, despite warnings from Gary to not expect too much since the Muppets haven’t been around for a long time.
Everything up to this point is nice, but it is when we get to the Muppet studios that the movie shifts from cute and cuddly entertainment to a nostalgic trip down the streets of yesteryear. Memories of childhood pour back from the subconscious in a waterfall of felt and feathers. I felt everything Walter was feeling. The amazement of seeing the old studio props and re-imagining the moments just as they had played out on our parent’s 19 inch Magnavox three decades ago was absolutely surreal. The poignancy of the moment was lost on the kids in the theater. They didn’t understand. Perhaps thirty years from now they’ll experience the same thing taking their kids to a Spongebob movie.
The studio is run down and dilapidated, much to the chagrin of Walter. When he is off exploring he overhears a discussion about the future of the property. A greedy oil tycoon, Tex Richman (Chris Cooper), is planning to buy and destroy the studios so he can drill for the oil he knows is under the property. Walter convinces Gary and Mary to help him find Kermit the Frog, knowing he will be able to help save the theater. Once they’ve found him, it is decided that the only way to earn enough money to block the sale to Richman is to hold a telethon.
The next half hour is devoted to rounding up the old gang, all of who have moved on to other pursuits in life. What is great about this movie is that all Muppets are acknowledged. Characters you had forgotten about from the old show are given some face-time at some point in the film. It’s as fun looking in the background for some of the hidden gems as it is to watch what is happening in the forefront.
The icing on the cake for me was when they designed the telethon to look and feel exactly like an old episode of The Muppet Show, complete with the familiar music, intro and sets. While I was grateful for this brief glimpse into the past, I was also saddened at the fact that my kid would never likely experience moments like this. In this era of instant gratification and over consumption, the ritual of tuning in once a week to immerse yourself in a fantasy world such as the Muppets was lost. Today, I can just stream the five seasons of the show, and maybe the kid will glance up from her iPod on occasion to chuckle halfheartedly at the screen.
Segel and Adams have a blast with this film. It’s obvious they are fans and that just oozes naturally into each of their performances. Cooper is a standout. Here is an Academy Award winning dramatic actor that appears to have been given the keys to unlock Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory. He immerses himself into the role of the evil Tex Richman with the same intensity he gives to his more serious endeavors.
The film is peppered with cameos, including stars of old and a few the kids will recognize from today. The generational divide couldn’t have been more glaring than the moment I was excited to see Rowlf the Dog and 5 minutes later the little girl two rows in front of me squealed because Selena Gomez showed up on screen. Kids these days.
Jack Black plays the part of the celebrity host of the telethon, but it is played from the angle of him being kidnapped and tied to a chair throughout the show. Oh how I wished they would have brought out one of the old timers to play this role. After spending so much effort to capture the feel of the old show, it would have been so incredible if they had used someone like Steve Martin or Paul Williams.
I got just about everything I wanted out of The Muppets. It’s clear making this film was a labor of love by people who were fans of the show. If I have any criticism, the script fell flat a couple of times. There were a few moments where I felt they took the easy way out on some jokes and I didn’t really care for the way they chose to resolve Richman’s storyline in an aside during the rolling credits.
In the end, this is a Muppet movie that all ages will enjoy. For those of us that remember the series, there is something more special to take away from this experience. I know I’ve used terms like surreal and poignancy to describe a Muppet movie. That might make me sound a bit sappy. Whatever. I guess there’s still something about frogs playing banjos and fart shoes that still resonate with me.
The Muppets is finally released in UK cinemas from today.