It's time to play the music... it's time to light the lights...
Starring: Jason Segal, Amy Adams, Chris Cooper, Rashida Jones and many surprise cameos Muppet Performers: Steve Whitmire, Eric Jacobson, Dave Goelz, Bill Barretta, David Rudman, Matt Vogel, Peter Linz Screenplay: Jason Segal, Nicholas Stoller Director: James Bobin Producers: David Hoberman, Todd Lieberman Presented by: Walt Disney Pictures Release Date: November 23, 2011
In this age when so many of the things we loved in our youth have been bowdlerized, diminished, and dumbed down to suit the lowest common denominator, The Muppets stands as a grand example of family entertainment at its finest. The writers, director, composers and performers present us with that absolute rarest of combinations: people who genuinely love the property they have been given, people who actually understand what makes it work, and people with the talent to make it fly.
In The Muppets, we meet Gary (Jason Segal) and Walter (Muppet performer Peter Linz), the world's biggest Muppet fans. On a trip to Los Angeles with Gary's long-suffering girlfriend, Mary (Amy Adams), Walter overhears an evil oil baron (Chris Cooper) plotting to destroy the run-down Muppet Theater. To save it, the Muppets will have to put on the show of a lifetime and raise the money to buy it back. The only problem... the Muppets have broken up, and Kermit hasn't seen the rest of the gang in years.
From there, the plot is admittedly predictable. Nothing that happens will take you by surprise in the rest of the movie. How it happens, though, is a never ending flow of clever jokes, brilliant puns, gentle satire and beautiful, lowbrow slapstick by the truckload. We don't meet many new characters, but we don't need them. The classics carry the show as effortlessly as they did in the days that Jim Henson and Frank Oz were under the stage. And the new characters we do meet are wonderful. Walter is a terribly earnest, loveable character. Gary and Mary, the main humans, are a presence in the film, but never dominate it. And 80s Robot may be the greatest new character since Pepe the King Prawn.
Beyond that, we get everything we love about the Muppets. There are several new songs (and the return of a few favorites) that fit seamlessly in the Muppet catalog. Plus: celebrity cameos, a ton of them. Everybody from one of Hollywood's oldest legends to some of today's most bankable movie and TV stars, plus a couple of the most recent products of Disney's Child Actor Factory show up in this movie – literally, something for everyone. Between the cameos, the in-joke references to the old show and movies, and the subtle appearances of Jim Henson in the background, the film is an Easter Egg hunter's dream.
There is some lowbrow humor, but true to the Muppets, even that is justified. The scene in the trailer, for instance, with Fozzie's infamous “Fart Shoes,” is not merely a cheap joke, but actually used very effectively to underscore a conversation about what the Muppets actually are. The few grown-up moments (a hysterical G-rated cover of a song with hard R lyrics comes to mind) are presented in a way that kids will nod along, not quite getting the joke, while their parents shoot soda out of their nose trying to contain their laughter. I saw the movie late at night in a theater with only adults, and not only were the laughs coming from all corners at all times, after it was over complete strangers stood there, watching the credits, expressing their joy with one another.
The film has flaws, but blessedly few. Chris Cooper's oil baron character, for example, is pretty much a cardboard cutout in everything from his occupation to his motivation. Granted, we're not looking for a villain for the ages here – he's basically a device to bring the Muppets back together again – but the “oil baron” routine is pretty stale by now. We're also never really given a satisfactory explanation for why the Muppets broke up in the first place, with the exception of the rift between Kermit and Miss Piggy. It shouldn't have been a driving force in the story, but for fans who grew up with the characters the way my generation did, it's really hard to conceive Kermit leaving Fozzie and Gonzo behind for any longer than the length of a musical montage.
The ending, also, has a few rough spots. There's not one, but two deus ex machina that show up at the very ending to solve the main problem and resolve a character arc. While I hope nobody considers it a spoiler to reveal that The Muppets has a happy ending, there's something that could have been set up better and something else that feels like it was a last-minute add-on when somebody pointed out the primary conflict hadn't actually been resolved.
Are these flaws enough to diminish the film? Not in the slightest. Because you keep laughing, you keep singing along, you keep cheering for the Muppets every step of the way. Disney clearly wants this film to be a comeback for a set of characters they haven't quite known what to do with since they bought them in 2004. Today, the answer is obvious: just give them to creators who love them and let them do what they do best. If you loved these characters as a kid, you'll love them again. If you've got kids of your own who never met Kermit, Fozzie, Miss Piggy and the rest, grab them and bring them to the theater. It's time to play the music, it's time to light the lights, it's time to meet the Muppets all over again, and nobody could have reintroduced them better.