It wouldn’t be fair for me to spend this entire review comparing the latest entry in the Muppet franchise to the 1979 classic The Muppet Movie, but let me just say: I really, really love The Muppet Movie. The new film, called simply The Muppets, is based more on the original television series The Muppet Show than any of the films – in fact, the entire plot of the movie is built around the Muppets needing to put on a telethon and perform an all-new Muppet show, which allows them to even re-create the classic opening number to the old show, a joyous bit of fan service that plays well.
But, to compare Jason Segel’s The Muppets to the Henson-driven Muppets of the 70’s and 80’s would be unfair, a point consistently driven home by the plot of the movie. The story focuses on a curiously felt-based human, Walter, as he tries to gather the original gang back together to perform a benefit telethon to save the old Muppet theater which, because of an obscure clause in the original “Standard Rich and Famous Contract” that Kermit signed in 1979, is about to be handed over to Tex Richman, played with “maniacal” evil by the always-excellent Chris Cooper.
Jason Segel of How I Met Your Mother, Freaks and Geeks, and Forgetting Sarah Marshall co-wrote the movie, and was central in bringing it to the screen. Segel has a lifelong appreciation of the Muppets – in Forgetting Sarah Marshall his character’s dream is to create a vampire puppet opera, clearly inspired by the Muppets. Walter is an obvious stand-in for Segel, which allows him to express his own hopes and fears about becoming the new steward for his beloved franchise. Walter may become a Muppet by the film’s end, but he’s not one in the beginning. He must earn the audience’s welcome to be able to play along with the glorious fuzzy cast that is cherished by generations of children of all ages. Had the film been a failure, this would have looked foolish, and the joyous number that closes the film hopelessly tacky. But the film succeeds, and even though Walter and his brother Gary (played by Segel) do detract focus from the original Muppets, their story is funny and sweet enough to deserve our attention.
The early stretches of the film move quickly, propelled by big, giddy musical numbers that show life in Smalltown USA, where Walter and his brother Gary live. Once Walter and Gary, along with Gary’s girlfriend (played with predictable pluck by Amy Adams) reach Hollywood they discover Richman’s evil plot, and convince Kermit that he must round up the old gang to save the theater. This leads to a surprisingly emotional reunion scene between Kermit and Fozzie, as Fozzie tries to convince his old friend that he happy with the (literal) back-alley life he’s fallen into. It’s always fascinating to see just how much emotion can be created by the puppeteers, especially with Kermit the Frog, the one Muppet in which you can see the hand of the controller most clearly as it twists to form his bewildered expressions.
But around the middle section of the film, once it becomes clear that we’ve gotten the group together and we’re just biding time until a big show at the end, the early momentum is lost. In the sagging middle section there are so many plot lines happening at once that they all suffer for it, and numbers with real potential, like Cooper’s out of nowhere braggadocious rap and Adams’s solo musical number in the Hollywood Mel’s Diner don’t land with the energy that they should.
Having so much plot in the middle section, along with so much of the basic setup revolving around Walter and Gary means that the Muppets themselves are primarily gag delivery systems. Kermit’s plot never really gets off the ground. We never learn why any of the gang split up the first place, aside from Piggy’s and Kermit’s relationship failing due to Kermit’s perpetual state of romantic indecision. Kermit as a character is lost, really, until his big final speech. The themes of growing up and following your dreams don’t resonate with the same power that they did in The Muppet Movie. That film was about building your own dream, and this one is about becoming part of a legacy that already exists (and trying desperately not to fuck it up).
The movie captures the goofy spirit of the Muppets, where it’s often not the content that matters, but the delivery. Fozzie Bear has always been the character which most exemplifies that spirit – his jokes may be terrible, but that’s precisely what makes Fozzie so wonderful. That sense of guileless silliness is what makes the Muppets what they are, and the new movie carries that tradition forward, as blissfully free of cynicism as ever. As an entry in the series it may lag behind the original, but as a fresh start it looks promising.