I have to start off my review of The Muppets with two statements that don’t sound like they belong together at all. Firstly, like a great many people around my age and somewhat younger, I’m a great fan of the Muppets. Secondly, the Muppets haven’t been very good in twenty years. I understand that for many of you this is blasphemy and you’re preparing the torches and pitchforks at this very moment, but please hear me out.
Over at Press Play, Jason Bellamy’s video essay Searching for the Muppets puts the case better than I could without going too far afield. In a nutshell: when the Muppets stop being their gloriously mediocre, self-aware selves, they lose what made them truly great. I couldn’t have explained it at thirteen, but I knew as I sat watching The Muppet Christmas Carol that this was just wrong and not how it was supposed to be at all. The closest they’ve ever come since Jim Henson’s untimely death was the short-lived series Muppets Tonight, with Muppets in Space a distant second. Disney’s purchase of the property has, with the exception of a handful of viral videos, only seemed to seal its doom.
The Muppets, as I see them, properly consist of the original Muppet Show, Muppets Tonight, and the original three films: The Muppet Movie, The Great Muppet Caper, and The Muppets Take Manhattan. Everything else is — as they say in Star Wars circles — in the “expanded universe”, and while others may enjoy them I personally leave them alone.
And so as news came out that there was going to be a new Muppet movie, I have been of two minds. As I saw friends and acquaintances get more and more excited with each step towards its release, I felt my own tempered with a sense of dread. The post-Henson Muppets have promised and failed to deliver over and over again; did I dare get my hopes up? Could Jason Segel and Nicholas Stoller — two talents undeniably from my own generation and possibly sharing my appreciation for the Muppets — bring the property back to its roots, or would the new owners turn any attempt into another cynical attempt to squeeze one last bit of cash out of what remains of our goodwill?
The answer is: pretty much, yeah. The story centers on Gary (Segel), his ten-year girlfriend, Mary (Amy Adams), and Gary’s plush brother, Walter (the single character for puppeteer Peter Linz), as they travel to Los Angeles. Walter never felt like he fit in much — though he was always close with Gary, at least — until he found old tapes of The Muppet Show and became their most ardent fan. When Gary and Mary head off to visit California on her two-week spring break from teaching at Smalltown’s elementary school, he comes along, positive vibrating with excitement over the prospect of seeing Muppet Studios.
The reality is somewhat disappointing; it looks like the Muppets haven’t really been around in about twenty years. Walter pokes around and overhears Statler and Waldorf arranging a deal to sell the property to Tex Richman (Chris Cooper), followed by Cooper’s gloating that rather than turning the studios into a Muppet museum, he plans to raze the lot and drill for oil. The only way to avoid this would be for the Muppets to somehow raise ten million dollars within — conveniently enough — two weeks. But when Walter, Gary, and Mary track down Kermit, he confesses that the gang have lost touch long ago; he himself has become something of a hermit in his old house, and even his robot assistant is stuck two decades in the past. Still, rather than end the movie so soon he decides to come along. They set out together to collect their old friends and put on a Muppet Show telethon to raise the money.
And all the Muppets get to be themselves: a huge assortment of frogs and dogs and bears and chickens and whatever, and all of them chock full of neuroses. Walter, though not really as interesting as the rest, fits right in with his self-doubt as compared with all the “incredibly talented” Muppet performers. We see in him our own self-doubt, just as we see our vanity in Miss Piggy, our bewilderment in Kermit, our irrational exuberance in Gonza, and our crankiness in Statler and Waldorf.
The story — collecting the scattered characters together for a big show — is nothing new; it’s basically the same plot as The Muppet Movie and The Muppets Take Manhattan over again. The new musical numbers are all over the map; Chris Cooper, in particular, should never try to rap. Segel and Adams’ plotline sometimes gets foregrounded over the Muppets’. But The Muppets succeeds despite, if not because of, these flaws. It’s supposed to be about singing and dancing and making people happy, and it does admirably at that. If you’re around my age and can watch without having to stifle a cry of pleasure at a favorite muppet on screen — Big Mean Carl, Crazy Harry, Sweetums, whoever — you have no heart. And if you can watch dry-eyed as they sing “Rainbow Connection”, you have no soul. We can only hope there’s more to come.
Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: fail.