Muppets, The

Reviewed By Brett Gallman
Posted 11/24/11 19:03:19

"It's time to meet The Muppets again."
5 stars (Awesome)

You’d probably call me a casual Muppets fan, I suppose; I don’t recall much of the original “Muppets Show,” but I grew up with “Muppet Babies” and saw the first four feature films at various points during my childhood. I think this is important to note because the latest Muppets adventure feels like it could just be nostalgia porn; even I can admit to tapping my toes to some familiar tunes and chuckling at some of the more obvious references. However, I think this revival of Jim Henson’s beloved gang is an earnest one that isn’t content to coast on the wave of longing and nostalgia because whatever familiarity hooked me in was also matched by the freshness of it all. This film manages to capture the awe of seeing Kermit and company on the big screen doing what they do best without feeling like a half-hearted retread, all while keenly introducing the characters to a new generation.

That heart emanates from writer/star Jason Segel, who grew up as a huge fan of the property--and it shows. In the film, he stars as Gary, just an average guy from Smalltown, USA who has a girlfriend, Mary (Amy Adams), and a brother, Walter, who has somehow been born a muppet. Unsurprisingly, he becomes the biggest fan of the famous Muppets; actually, he might be the last fan left now that they’ve fallen out of popularity. They’ve fallen on such hard times that a tycoon (Chris Cooper, whose rap number is among the most memorable moments at the movies this year) is about to buy their dilapidated studio and drill for oil. To prevent this, Walter and Gary convince Kermit to get the band back together for one last show.

This is much easier said than done, as “The Muppets” begins in a rather dire, almost sad place--Kermit’s holed up in a mansion in Bel-Air, Gonzo’s become a plumbing magnate, Animal is in anger management, and, perhaps most depressingly, Fozzy’s the lead man in a terrible lounge act/tribute show. The weightiness of this maybe isn’t all that unexpected, as The Muppets always treaded into heady territory; besides that, it’s a fantastic hook. If you ever doubted the power these silly characters can hold, I think they’ll be washed away when Kermit strolls down memory lane while singing “Pictures in My Head.” Though they’ve shown up in some poorly-received features during the past 20 years, it feels like they’ve been gone so long, and this little number captures the lament of missing your friends and even the danger of wallowing in nostalgia.

But this is The Muppets, so infinite sadness obviously isn’t in order, as this becomes a bonkers little road movie, full of great gags and self-awareness. This is a crucial sequence that does a fine job of reintroducing both the main Muppet stars and some of the less famous ones, and the irreverent laughs are great. Some of the jokes are genuinely clever; Fozzy has always been known for jokes that are only funny because they’re so bad, but he’s got some really witty stuff. Like the great Muppets films before it, it revels in silliness for the kids, but it plumbs some clever depth for adults.

The second half of the film continues to mine nostalgia, as we return to the old Muppets Theater, where we’re eventually treated to a revival of the old "Muppets Show." Your heartstrings will come alive when you hear the old familiar theme blare and witness a near-perfect recreation of the variety show. There’s a stream of fantastic cameos, backstage antics, fun sketches (which feature some great, unexpected cover songs). This is just great, old school showtime razzmatazz that The Muppets always excelled at.

Thankfully, they stay at center stage; it’s funny that one subplot finds them desperately searching for a celebrity host for their telethon since their network boss (Rashida Jones) thinks they aren’t famous enough to carry it themselves. I think it would have been easy for Disney to take the similar approach with Segel and Adams, whose romantic overtures get just enough screen time without suffocating the stars here. Really their plot is just a mirror for Kermit and Miss. Piggy, who have become estranged after all these years.

In fact, Segel is so committed to the title characters that Walter is the only newbie that’s a real star. He’s an inspired, calculated creation, as he’s a stand-in for those in the audiences who grew up with these characters; they’ll instantly identify with wide-eyed awe of his heroes, and his chance to join them and find his place in the world is a resonant journey. While his brother continued to grow up and become (relatively) normal, Walter was left being knee-high to everyone, with his optimism and belief in everyone else carrying him far in life. It takes his childhood heroes to cause him to realize that believing in himself is the final step--a classic Muppets trope trumpeted for a new age.

The Muppets also have to hear that message for themselves; the meta-fictional, down-on-their-luck angle is similarly inspired because it’s soaked in truth. Since Henson’s death, they’ve been mired in a slump that’s finally broken here in spectacular fashion. This is proof that icons can be reinvigorated when placed into the right hands (both literally and figuratively in this case). Audiences old and new should be turned into a puddle of pure joy by this nice and achingly sweet film.

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