Full disclosure: I’m a Muppets nut. I even saw Muppets in Space in the theaters, and I liked it; I’m that big of a nut. I had a beach towel with Kermit playing his banjo printed on it and it was the best thing. Seriously, the best thing. The most advantageous part about being obsessed, even mildly obsessed with anything, is that there isn’t too much room for disappointment. Likewise, the slightest bit of news, gossip, or whatever is enough to elicit boundless excitement. So when I heard about the newest Muppets movie, needless to say, I could barely contain myself (and I don’t think I was alone). Also I knew not to expect anything miraculous, no transcend use of puppetry technology, no masterful strokes of storytelling, because after all, this is the Muppets we’re talking about.
But this is precisely the charm of the Muppets, or at least the largest part of their charm. The humor is decidedly innocent and genuine, clever without touches of irony, and it reminds us what it was like to laugh before we all turned into cynical a-holes. With the Muppets, you’re laughing with someone, never at someone, which may make the Muppets a completely humanist endeavor, the kind that easily shucks off any sticky-sweetness or saccharine glib. Perhaps we can agree on two things: Jim Henson was the nicest person ever, and if you don’t like the Muppets you are missing a soul.
All this doting brings me to my biggest point: if you go to see The Muppets with high expectations that you’ll see a movie worthy of Henson’s legacy (a legacy, you must admit, is skewed by the rosy glasses of childhood), a movie that will skyrocket Kermit and crew back into the popular consciousness and provide a whole new generation with felt-covered love; if you think you’ll see a movie that will reaffirm your inner child and redeem your faith in Hollywood, a movie that will do this all in some seamless harmony, you are bound to be let down on some level. The Muppets have never been about these types of expectations. The Muppets are about doing your best, believing in yourself and others, and, hopefully, with the help of friends, pulling off a show that will delight and entertain. All that stuff that makes us secretly break out in goose bumps. It’s that simple, and whoever tries to complicate this may very well be the world’s biggest jerk.
The first movie of the franchise in over ten years finds the Muppets studio in disrepair and threatened by an evil tycoon, Tex Richman (Chris Cooper), who wants to tear down the theater and drill for oil. According to Kermit’s “standard rich and famous contract,” control of the Muppet empire will be ceded to Richman after 30 years. That is unless the gang can muster up the ten million dollars needed to save the studios. Unfortunately, in our modern age, the Muppets are off doing their own things. Gonzo is a plumbing tycoon, Miss Piggy is the plus-size editor for Vogue in Paris, and Electric Mayhem is busking in Times Square. It’s up to three friends, Gary (Jason Segel), his Muppet brother, Walter, and Gary’s girlfriend, Mary (Amy Adams), to reunite Kermit with the rest of the team and put on one whopper of a telethon show.
A large issue the movie deals with, or that Disney (who bought the franchise) feels it should deal with, is how to introduce the characters to a younger audience without alienating the generation that grew up watching the movies and the television series. At its core, The Muppets is meant for children and adults alike, and the movie does a fair job of accomplishing this. In one scene Kermit, looking for a celebrity to host the telethon, debates calling Jimmy Carter. There’s a barbershop quartet rendition of “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” and an appropriate cover of C-Lo’s “Forget You” by a gaggle of clucking chickens. There are also guest appearances by Selena Gomez, Jack Black and Feist (who made a cameo on Sesame Street as well), each kid-centric in their own ways, while James Bobin, of the absolutely adult Flight of the Concords and Da Ali G Show, directs. In one respect there’s no denying that The Muppets belong to an older crowd, but only incidentally so.
I’m not going to say The Muppets is a great movie, but it is a labor of love for co-writer, Jason Segel (a confirmed Muppet-phile), and for all those involved, even the audience. This is obvious and this makes the movie hard to fault. Sure, if this was any other movie, I couldn’t make this excuse, but this is the Muppets for heaven’s sake! However there are certainly some noteworthy pieces of craft in The Muppets, namely the original songs written by Flight of the Concords’ Bret McKenzie, especially “Me Party” and “Man or Muppet.” And the set design is fresh and visually pleasing. If you’re looking for a good reason to see The Muppets, it’s this: You really, really want to, and you know it.