Movie Review: The Muppets
By Matthew Huntley
November 29, 2011
I don’t think the Muppets will ever be what they used to. As one Hollywood executive says to them in The Muppets, “You’re not popular anymore.” It’s sad but true. In an age when the family genre is overrun with CGI and broad humor, the rawness and sophistication of Jim Henson’s felt puppet characters simply can’t have the same impact they once had.
But thanks to this new movie, Kermit, Miss Piggy and the rest of the Muppet gang will at least see a resurgence in popularity, and they might even be able to pull off a new cinematic adventure every few years like James Bond. Although the time for them to have their own TV series has passed, The Muppets reminds us why this witty group of animals and various other creatures was special in the first place, and if the filmmakers play their cards right, they can continue to be.
In the tradition of the late 1970s The Muppet Show, and the roughly half-dozen movies that followed over the next twenty years, The Muppets is a jolly and completely self-aware farce. It once again turns conventions and clichés on their heads, and for that reason alone, I’m grateful to it. I’m also pleased it doesn’t necessarily assume all the audience members are kids and must therefore simplify its humor to make sure everyone gets it. Such a turn would go against the Muppets’ universe, but luckily, and despite being taken over by the family-friendly Disney, their edge is mostly kept intact.
It might be pointless to summarize the plot in the usual manner since Jason Segel and Nicholas Stoller’s screenplay deliberately goes against anything that is usual. They know the plot is merely an excuse to bring the Muppets back together, but we play along and the experience is whimsical and unabashedly delightful.
Segel plays Gary, big brother to Walter, a Muppet who doesn’t know he’s a Muppet until he sees Kermit the Frog on TV. Up until that moment, Walter could never figure out why Gary was growing and he was always staying the same height. It would have been funny if the screenplay hinted at how Gary and Walter could ever be brothers - Was Walter born from the same mother? Was he adopted? - but never mind. Gary and Walter live in the quaint Smalltown, U.S.A. and Gary is about to take Mary (Amy Adams), his girlfriend of 10 years, on a trip to Los Angeles for their anniversary. Walter tags along in hopes of meeting Kermit and taking a tour of Muppet Studios in Hollywood.
When they arrive, Muppet Studios is nothing more than a rotting dust bowl, empty and forgotten. Walter discovers the current owner, aptly named Tex Richman (Chris Cooper), plans on tearing it down and digging for oil. The Muppets’ only hope is to raise $10 million and buy it back (we’re made aware of this by the heckling Statler and Waldorf). So Walter, Gary and Mary seek out Kermit and the rest of the Muppets to plan a comeback TV special, complete with celebrity guests.
But enough about the plot. The real point of the movie is to celebrate the Muppets and cheerfully make fun of popular culture, whether it’s the idea of everyone suddenly breaking out into song and dance; or characters coming up with the right ideas at the right time; or calling Hollywood out on its conventions while still paying heed to them. This is what the Muppets do best, and although many of the jokes will fly right over kids’ heads, they’ll still appreciate the movie’s colorful characters, bright photography, catchy tunes and funny gags. Meanwhile, adults will be able to the enjoy the whole package, including the cameos by celebrities like Alan Arkin, Jack Black, Emily Blunt and Whoopi Goldberg. Granted, they’re not as memorable as those from the past (Steve Martin, Bob Hope, Richard Pryor), but they’re part of this new, modern Muppet era.
If The Muppets does successfully re-establish Kermit and friends as a viable franchise, I hope the filmmakers look beyond having to constantly remind us who these characters once were and simply provide them new, fully-realized adventures. They can keep up with the self-aware humor, but in order to stay relevant, I think the Muppets need to branch out and continue to develop. If the movie suffers from anything, it’s that it’s too in love with its own ideas and sense of humor and therefore doesn’t always feel the need to stay focused on its story. After a while, it sort of becomes a one-joke movie, and while the script is rich and emotional enough to carry itself the whole way, I sensed the premise growing tired.
Still, there are some very original and inspiring moments along the way, particularly when Gary sings, “Are You a Man or a Muppet?” and has to decide between his little brother and Mary. There were other times, however, where I felt the script was forsaking substance simply because we’re not meant to take it seriously anyway. I just hope the filmmakers don’t forget that, in spite of the material being silly, we still need a reason to care about what we’re watching.
And all in all, we do care. If you’re familiar with the Muppets and are a fan, you know what you’re in for and will find The Muppets pays off handsomely. Now that we know they still got it - charm, wit, pizzazz - it’s time they take it in new directions. If they do, no Hollywood executive will dare say they’re not popular any more.