First, it was the Internet promo for a Jason Segel-Amy Adams project that surprised us when it turned out to be so much more than that. Next, it was the August release of The Green Album, a delightful redux of classic tunes and themes covered by everyone’s favorite B-list musicians—lead singer of Evanescence, anyone? Then, it was their triumphant appearance on November 19th’s episode of SNL, which showcased both the troupe’s trademark brand of self-referential humor (we all laughed when Segel called Fozzie a bear and Gonzo a “weirdo”) and the star power of its leading frog, Kermit. On “Weekend Update,” the amphibian tossed his oh-so-angular head back as he yelped, “Really?!?” in a rare show of outrage, and a truly brilliant moment in Muppet history.
Now, it’s time for the main event. With their Thanksgiving return to the silver screen—32 years after The Muppet Movie hit theaters, and 12 years since their last theatrical release—the Muppets are officially back.
This incarnation of The Muppets could better be called The Muppets Conquer Modernity. The plot, art-imitates-life at its finest, follows Gary (Segel), his long-time girlfriend Mary (Adams), and his Muppet brother Walter as they seek to revive the dying Muppets franchise. In their way is Tex Richman (Chris Cooper), an evil oil baron who plans to demolish the decaying historic “Muppets studio” in Los Angeles to drill for crude. Secondary villains are found in the TV studios that think the Muppets aren’t famous enough to warrant primetime billing anymore as well as the general public, whose apathy towards their once-beloved puppet icons is shown here and there—Fozzie is reduced to playing a nightclub in Reno; Kermit and the gang are no longer treated as VIPs; the seats at the Muppet theatre remain empty at the start of the film’s climax, the Muppet telethon.
As if the plot itself doesn’t say enough, writers Segel and Nicholas Stoller fold in oft-exaggerated examples of humanity’s fall since the Muppet Garden of Eden of the late ‘70s. Tex Richman seems to represent all evil of the 21st century: he’s a diehard one-percenter; he works in the industry that, to us, most represents greed and disaster and war (oil was much cooler in the days of The Beverly Hillbillies); and, he raps. Meanwhile, though The Muppets unfortunately includes a number of the cheap gimmicks associated with kids’ movies today, it associates most of them with negative behavior—when Miss Piggy and crew go into goofy, Bruce Lee-style karate mode, they’re kidnapping someone; Fozzie is repeatedly told his fart shoes are inappropriate and tasteless.
And don’t even get started on today’s celebrities. When Kermit tries to find a celebrity host for the Muppets’ comeback telethon, he turns to President Carter and then Molly Ringwald. This is both hysterical and introduces the film’s young audience to the famous and powerful of the “good old days.” In the end, the relatively established Jack Black ends up hosting—and is lampooned to no end by the film’s characters. More recent stars Neil Patrick Harris and John Krasinski are deemed unworthy of hosting duty, while Kermit elicits a laugh when he demonstrates that he doesn’t have the slightest clue who Modern Family upstart Rico Rodriguez is. The best celebrity cameo in the film, of which there are many, is given to Alan Arkin—who, no surprise, has been around forever and is the only actor in the new movie to have hosted The Muppet Show.
The wholesome adorableness of the Muppets of old shines throughout the film, and starts with its opening number, “Life’s a Happy Song.” The scene takes place in Gary, Mary, and Walter’s home, Smalltown, which seems like it’s right out of The Truman Show. Upbeat and melodious, the song—which is sung before any of the more established Muppets come into the picture—is sweet yet instructive, funny for kids and their parents, and is rich with the Muppets’ subtle self-referential humor. That humor finds its way into the song’s lyrics: Walter correctly feels like he’s “three foot tall”; as well as its choreography: in a split second, Gary’s dance step accidentally kicks the tiny, hardly noticeable Walter off the set. Most importantly, the chorus lyric “I’ve got everything that I need right in front of me” pays homage to the Muppet tradition, reminding us that the next hour and a half of The Muppets will stay true to its roots and reject the encroachment of modernity.
Though it’s far from a perfect effort—some of its new-age gimmicks are simply painful to watch—Segel and Friends do an admirable job of keeping the Muppets alive. Credit is also due to Flight of the Conchords’ Bret McKenzie, the film’s music director, whose craft is impressively reflected in “Life’s a Happy Song” and the Conchord-esque “Man or Muppet.”
The Muppets will delight its childhood audience, satisfy its fans, and maintains the creativity that Jim Henson instilled in the Muppet franchise decades ago. Jason Segel should be pleased—he’s just about found the rainbow connection.