Review: The Muppets (2011)
Watching The Muppets, that rare, wonderful feeling washed over me – the feeling that I was witnessing something incredibly special. In an infectious synthesis of nostalgia and post-modernism, the film is a giddy treasure, the kind of experience that reminds us just how wonderful going to the movies can be. Bright and funny, wistful and bittersweet, the movie strikes a tone that is entirely reverent to Muppet history while thrusting the legendary creatures into a new era of legitimacy. And in its light, rollicking, musical way, it sort of restores our faith that our fondest childhood memories can indeed carry on forever.
The cheeky meta-narrative directly addresses this simple fact: The Muppets have been out of the spotlight for a while. There hasn’t been an original Muppet movie since 1999’s Muppets From Space, and there hasn’t been a broadly successful Muppet flick since 1992’s A Muppet Christmas Carol. Nearly 20 years since the Muppets were last at the height of their popularity, and now we have a film that doesn’t shy away from that fact. Frank Oz, one of the original Muppet performers, who gave us the voices of Miss Piggy and Fozzie Bear among others, refused to participate in this new film because he felt it disrespected the characters by basing its story on the Muppets’ perceived fading from the public eye.
A greater miscalculation could never be made; the most wonderful thing about The Muppets is that the movie loves the Muppets. In no way could the film be more reverent than it is – this is a 2-hour love song Jim Henson’s legendary creation, one that almost certainly will usher in a new age of Muppet Mania. The story is entirely simple and delightfully self-referential: three Muppet fans take a vacation in Hollywood, where they discover that the long-dormant Muppet studio is being bought by sleazy businessman Tex Richman (Chris Cooper, relishing every bit of scenery he gets to chew) and pillaged for the oil under its foundation. When a wistful Kermit the Frog is informed of this plan, he reunites the gang for an 11th hour telethon to raise enough money to keep the studio from Tex’s evil clutches.
Jason Segel and Nicholas Stoller wrote this screenplay, which is one of the year’s best – truly. It takes full advantage of the intentional leaps of logic that the Muppets have always embraced in order to lay very simple narrative groundwork for a Muppet reunion, hits all the familiar Muppet touchstones, creates new comic inventions in the Jim Henson spirit, and achieves surprising emotional depth in its characters.
Kermit misses his Muppet friends – especially long-lost love, Miss Piggy. In fact, the entire Muppet gang longs to be embraced once again, after years of loneliness and separation. The film’s real-life characters are stand-ins for the audience – lifelong fans who want to see a Muppet revival. Most fervent is Walter (voiced by Peter Linz), himself a Muppet, though he was born to human parents and lives with his human brother, Gary (Segel). Walter sees the differences between himself and the rest of the world, and has spent his life idolizing the Muppets because he identifies with them. How Walter meets and later integrates with the Muppets is one of the film’s great thematic joys – it is a coming-of-age story for a Muppet living in a world of humans.
The Muppets unfurls in equal bursts of humor and heart, propelled by the usual Muppet blend of self-referential jokes, goofy gags, celebrity cameos, and ebullient musical numbers. Its central anthem, “Life’s a Happy Song,” is a joyous classic that plays as sunny and earnest but also functions as a commentary on the general silliness of sunny, earnest musical numbers (it should be nominated for the Best Original Song Oscar – and probably win). It is part and parcel of a story and screenplay that embraces the Muppet lore while also commenting on it, squarely placing the legendary characters in a “Today” that is at once modern and old-fashioned, narratively simple and thematically complex. All of the performances are purposely outsized and BIG, the musical numbers work beautifully, and the story’s emotional resonance is undeniable. By the end, I had that infectious feeling that happens as a great Broadway musical comes to a sweeping conclusion. Except The Muppets combines that feeling with all the tools that make cinema unique. It’s like the best of both worlds. And Jason Segel is some kind of genius for being able to make a revival like this work.