The Muppets don’t rap or bust hip-hop moves. That in itself is almost revolutionary nowadays, when adorable family-franchise characters spitting bars seems practically de rigueur (e.g., Happy Feet Two, The Smurfs). True, Chris Cooper has a short rap scene, but a) he’s not a Muppet, and b) it’s funny because he’s an evil white businessman, not because he’s cuddly.
There is no crude humor or innuendo. No grating contemporary pop soundtrack. There are unabashedly retro original tunes, like the catchy Life’s a Happy Song and a very funny “dramatic” duet called Man or Muppet? There’s also an almost lump-in-throat-inducing reprise of the classic The Rainbow Connection. And, yes, there are pop songs, but they’re mostly from the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s: Paul Simon, Mahna Mahna, Starship (okay, odd choice there).
Even when they dip their toes into something more recent, like Nirvana, the Muppets transform it into barbershop-quartet style, which is really kind of wonderful. Jack Black thinks it’s horrifying, but that only makes me like it all the more. That Black is tied up the whole time makes me want to hug someone and burst into song. (Don’t ask me to explain why he’s tied up. You want me to spoil everything?)
Ahem. The point is: The Muppets is not trying to be hip and edgy, or at least any hipper and edgier than the Muppets ever were. This is quite deliberately not a reboot or reimagining or any such thing. Perhaps we can call it a revisiting. Like this summer’s charming Winnie the Pooh (also from Disney), The Muppets is a happy throwback, very much of a piece with material that my generation grew up with, eclipsing the lameness of recent direct-to-video efforts. Who would have thought two classic family franchises that have lain fallow for so long would be reborn in the same year?
The Muppets shrewdly taps into twin streams of Muppet nostalgia: the Muppet movies, especially the original, and also The Muppet Show. It’s been a dozen years since the Muppets were last on the big screen (in the uninspired Muppets From Space) and longer since The Muppet Show was on the air, so this movie is about getting the old gang together again after they’ve all gone their separate ways.
I like my friend Jeff Overstreet’s way of thinking of Kermit the Frog’s journey to Hollywood in the first Muppet Movie with dreams of “making millions of people happy” as a metaphor for the whole Muppet phenomenon, with Kermit symbolizing Jim Henson himself. In that spirit, this new film can also be seen as a kind of self-referential metaphor: an effort by fans to honor a formative influence by actually bringing their inspirations out of retirement, returning to the site of former glory, reaching out to fans long gone — all the while wondering whether the fans will turn up, whether the Muppets still matter today.
The onscreen fan is a Muppet named Walter (performed by Peter Linz) who grows up adoring Kermit, Fozzie, Gonzo and the others from afar, not unlike director James Bobin and co-writers Nicholas Stoller and Jason Segel, who also plays Walter’s brother Gary. When Walter says to Gonzo, “When I was a kid I saw you reciting Hamlet while riding your motorcycle through a flaming hoop … and it made me believe I could do anything,” it’s not just a goofy line. It’s a goofiness that the creative team learned, in part, from the Muppets, and in Walter’s appreciation, it is an echo of the filmmakers’ own.
It’s a typically Muppety absurdity that Walter is a Muppet and his brother Gary is human, but no one seems to notice. I was reminded of the conceit in The Great Muppet Caper of Kermit and Fozzie as supposedly indistinguishable twin brothers. (Side by side in front of a mirror: “Which one are you?” “I’m the one on the right.”)
Segel is right at home in the Muppetverse, and his confidence that Amy Adams would be too is fully justified. (Given Enchanted, it wasn’t much of a stretch.) The short video (now online) Segel made with Kermit to woo Adams to join the cast is surreally apt, and should turn up in the DVD extras.
Adams plays Mary, Gary’s longtime girlfriend. Their relationship is sort of in limbo: Mary waits devotedly for Gary to pop the question, but Gary is preoccupied with his brother’s needs. At times this subplot takes on too much of a life of its own, and Adams gets a montage duet with Miss Piggy that doesn’t seem necessary to the film, though Adams gives it her considerable all.
A movie, as the Muppets themselves are well aware, needs a plot, and this one has one of the oldest: The old Muppet Theater is imperiled by an unscrupulous businessman named Tex Richman (Cooper), and he can’t be stopped unless the Muppets raise $10 million.
After one of Richman’s flunkies mentions the loophole, another muses, “If I didn’t know better, I’d say you were reciting some sort of plot point that will be important later.” This is the way characters in Muppet movies talked back in the day. When Kermit shakes his head and says there’s no way they can raise the money, Mary sadly observes, “This is going to be a very short movie.” Of course The Muppets also perpetuates the usual parade of celebrity cameos. Who wouldn’t want to do the Muppets?
Meanwhile, what’s become of the various Muppets since the glory days? Sadly but not surprisingly, we learn that Kermit (Steve Whitmire, the man behind Kermit since Jim Henson’s death) and Miss Piggy (Eric Jacobson, replacing Frank Oz) haven’t spoken in a long time. Animal is in anger management. Sam the Eagle hosts a cable news show. Most unsettlingly, Fozzie (Jacobson for Oz again) is in Reno doing stand-up with a dodgy Muppet tribute band. It’s safe to say that Segel is well aware of the danger of fobbing off a poor imitation in place of the real thing. The Muppets gets it right.
It’s not perfect. The morose doubts of the first half linger too long. (Remember how the audience used to sing “Why don’t you get things started?”) The very end is a bit slapdash, with a couple of curiously arbitrary choices for key plot points.
Still, the energy and charm of the third act will leave viewers with smiles on their faces, and it’s nice to be left wanting more rather than the alternative. Kermit’s wish in the original Muppet Movie was to make millions of people happy. Thanks to The Muppets, he’ll go on doing just that.
Register film critic Steven D. Greydanus blogs at NCRegister.com.
Content Advisory: Very mild rude humor; a brief scene of comic violence. Fine family viewing.