If ever encounter someone who hates the Muppets, chances are they shouldn’t be trusted. Something about Jim Henson’s charmingly hilarious felt creations have captured the imagination of generations of children and regressed children alike, and the original movies and TV shows still hold up in a time when (perhaps tragically) hand puppets don’t exactly qualify as the pinnacle of children’s entertainment. It’s hard to believe it’s been over 10 years since the Muppets' last big screen outing, and I can’t help but feel a whole generation of children have missed out on the delightful shenanigans of Kermit and co. Fortunately, the gang has made a long overdo return to film and in Apatow comedy veteran Jason Segel, they found and unlikely ally. The writer/actor is clearly a lifelong fan, and turned his passion for the material into easily the finest Muppet movie since the 80s. It’s not perfect, but if you’ve been jonesing for a little Muppet action lately, this should satisfy you needs.
The film stars Segal as a man who inexplicably grew up with a Muppet named Walter as his brother. They came of age in a cartoony suburban paradise where Segel fell in love with a beautiful teacher (the always wonderful Amy Adams) in that manner that only happens in movies because it involves a lot of choreographed musical numbers. Walter, on the other hand, never fit in since he’s a puppet in a man’s world and all that. He did become eternally obsessed with the Muppets for obvious reasons though. When Segal and his special lady decide to take a trip to Los Angeles, they take Walter along to visit Muppet Studios, much to his delight. Unfortunately they arrive to discover that Muppet Studios is a decaying wreck that Chris Cooper’s evil land developer (as if there was any other kind) plans to demolish. Walter and Segal quickly set out to reunite the Muppets and put on a show to save the studio. They have quite a trek ahead of them, with Kermit now a recluse in a Citizen Kane-style empty mansion, Miss Piggy currently working as the plus-size editor of French Vogue, Gonzo running a successful toilet factory, etc. But don’t worry; the gang wants to get back together. The film has a simple “reunite the band and put on a show” structure that works surprisingly well.
Perhaps the best decision that Jason Segal made when he was brought on as the writer/ star of the new Muppets movie was ensuring that the humans were never the stars of the film. In the opening scenes, it seems like the Muppets might play supporting roles to a Segal/Adams love story, but their plot quickly fades into the background and almost feels like an afterthought by the climax. Once the quest to reunite the Muppets kicks off, no character who doesn’t have a middle aged-man standing off-camera with a hand up their butt gets too much screen time. Segal loves the Muppets, and gives every fan favorite at least one scene to shine. Seeing what everyone’s up to now is a hilarious montage (especially Fozzie’s pathetically dirty lounge act and Animal’s new calm temperament fostered at a strange, culty meditation retreat). With so many classic characters who need screen time to appease fans, the plot can get a little overstuffed characters over action. It gives the movie more of a sketch comedy feel than a narrative, but that’s been an issue that’s plagued Muppet movies from the beginning. In the end, The Muppet Show was probably the best vehicle the puppets ever had because they are better suited to the 20-minute variety format than feature length narrative, but that’s mostly quibbling.
Indeed, this new movie shares more with the old Muppet movies than the loose rambling structure. It’s also packed with cameos ranging from Jack Black and Sarah Silverman to Alan Arkin. Sometimes the cameos feel appropriate and sometimes they seem tagged on, but that’s practically a requirement for a Muppet flick. Segel, his co-writer Nick Stoller (who also co-wrote and directed Segel’s Forgetting Sarah Marshall), and director James Bobin (Da Ali G Show) clearly love the old Muppets movies as much as any viewer and it shows. They didn’t come to the project anxious to impose their own voice on the material, they set out to make a tradition madcap Muppet adventure and created probably the best vehicle for the puppets since The Muppet Movie (and yes, Paul Williams fans, they even included The Rainbow Connection). Sure, their movie can feel rambling and unfocused at times, but it’s still a joy to watch.
Having seen the film, it’s actually a little odd that original Muppets creators like Frank Oz have come out and spoken against it. I’d imagine that’s probably just because they’re jealous that they didn’t get to join in the fun this time. If the word “Muppets” pumps life into your blackened, icynical heart or if you even have a pulse, you should probably check out this movie. This is the Muppets as we remember them and hopefully it will be successful enough to revitalize the franchise because no generation of children should grow up without a steady stream of Muppets movies. That would be cruel.