Like Hugo, a family film that probably plays more to parents’ nostalgia than to their own kids’ delight, this update of the classic Jim Henson characters has them reunite for a telethon to save their precious Muppet Studios from demolition. They hear about the plan through a Muppet superfan by the name of Walter, who, while on a tour of the esteemed studios, overhears an evil billionaire (named Tex Richman…nice) talking about the huge gobs of oil hidden underneath the buildings, and his plans to buy the property to drill it out. Walter figures out that the only way to save the Studios is to reunite the Muppets and raise the money themselves, so he, along with his human brother and his girlfriend, sets out to “get the band back together,” so to speak, in an effort to preserve the relic from his youth that was his only signifier that he was the lone walking, talking puppet out there. Once Kermit is on board, the rest proves to be relatively easy, and some insecurity, some internal squabbles, and a few adorable songs later, they put on their show in the old theater, complete with both new and classic acts, as well as an unwilling hostage for a celebrity guest.
It was a clever idea for co-writer and co-star Jason Segal to focus the film around a fan, rather than one of the original muppets, in order to highlight the immense amount of nostalgia and reverence their fans still possess after all these years. Walter’s affection for Kermit, Miss Piggy, Fozzy, and the rest of the crew is infectious, and goes a long way to reaffirming the relevance and legitimacy of these characters in the 21st century. However, by the halfway point, when all the Muppets are on board with the show and are doing their various character schticks, we start to wonder how badly we really care about Walter and his human companions. This is partially due to Walter being, by far, the least interesting (read: most normal) Muppet, but mostly because of how endearing these classic characters remain after all this time. The corniness of Fozzy’s jokes have reached a post-modern irony, Gonzo’s self-destructive gags are interesting in the context of the came-and-went Jackass era, and Animal’s near-psychotic drum mashing has been subdued due to anger management training. While the human relationship between Walter’s brother and his commitment-seeking girlfriend takes up too much screentime, the relationship between Kermit and Miss Piggy is highlighted for a few touching moments (mostly due to the consistently heartwarming rendering of Kermit on display here).
That being said, it is their relationship, and how it is handled, that represents the root of the problem of this update. For one, giving them a more grounded, emotionally complex subplot eats time away from the other Muppets; apart from them, only Fozzy gets any substantial screentime, reducing the roles of favorites like Gonzo, Rowlf, Benson and Beaker, and, most tragically, Statler and Woldorf to merely a couple of lines each. But more than that, it sort of encapsulates the slightly off-target nature of Segal’s adaptation. Miss Piggy and Kermit have a very sado-masochistic relationship that is decidedly un-cartoony: she, big and boistrous, goads him into doing whatever she says, and in the way she says it, while he begrudgingly goes along for the approval and sense of validation. However, by reducing their interplay to a more traditional, “long-lost-love” romance, it sacrifices the subversive elements of the original concept for a more obvious, emotionally manipulative end product. This sort of abandonment of all that was even remotely snide and cheeky about the old show gives the movie both a sense of cynicism-free innocence, as well as a sort of muted air to the proceedings; we know that certain jokes, no matter how clever and outside-the-box, will only go so far, and the darkness creeping around the edges of the Muppet world (their uncontrollable compulsions, their inability to function independent of one another, and of course, Piggy’s domination of Kermit and, well, everyone else) will never even be hinted at. Even the villain is reduced to a clumsy, goofy fool, without the slightest shade of genuine malice or violent tendencies in him.
Thankfully, there is enough humor and good nature on display that the complete lack of darkness doesn’t prove to be a devastating problem. While Walter and, to a lesser extent, his human companions played by Jason Segal and Amy Adams grow slightly annoying and extraneous, they are so cheery and clearly enthusiastic that they never become too distracting or boring. They, as well as human co-star Chris Cooper as the baddie, are all given songs written by former Flight of the Conchords member Bret McKenzie that are light, frothy, and consistently entertaining, particularly an impromptu rap and the melodramatic “Man or Muppet?” Director James Bobin, also a vet of Flight of the Conchords, stages these scenes with the same verve and energy as the song numbers on that show, albeit without the self-awareness that made those segments true knockouts. There are a number of cameos on display, among them Jack Black, Neil Patrick Harris, and Alan Arkin, and they are cute, while not really adding as much to the proceedings as the archival clips at the beginning that show Steve Martin and Peter Sellers playing around with the characters. But, like Hugo, the films best quality is its unabashed sense of optimism and childhood wonder; while lacking that film’s period visual splendor, The Muppets remains an adorable family flick that is ideal for parents who can explain to their children just who these characters are and what their significance in pop culture is.
Recommended for families and for fans of the Muppets…no brainer. And for anyone who wants to see Chris Cooper throw down a priceless, if brief rap verse.