Being the final day of Muppet Week at Antagony & Ecstasy
The Muppets would be first and above all a nostalgia trip was probably to be expected; that it would be so very little else besides is a faint disappointment at least, though the fact that it is, after all, the Muppets we're talking about takes some of the sting out - if you're going to be nostalgic, you might as well be nostalgic for the very best. It's clear through every single inch of the movie is that co-writers Jason Segel & Nicholas Stoller love the characters created by the late Jim Henson with the purest and most undying sort of love, and obviously regard it as the privilege of a lifetime that they have the opportunity to write a grand comeback for them. It's awfully easier to wish that the film could be a bit more of its own thing and a bit less "wow, isn't it wonderful how we all came into the theater already loving the Muppets so much?", but it is a far better thing than their last theatrical vehicle, 1999's Muppets from Space (though it's hard to imagine what wouldn't be, outside of a feature-length video of Segel lighting the puppets on fire and then urinating on the ashes), and that's worth at least a little bit of something.
It's not just that the film is full of references to Muppetania past, or that it proudly and willfully trumpets its attachment to jokes and attitudes that were already deliberately anachronistic during the Muppets's heyday, though it does these things. In fact, the plot is itself about Muppets nostalgia: it introduces us to a pair of brothers from Smalltown, U.S.A, Gary (Segel) and Walter (Peter Linz), the latter of whom just so happens to be a three-foot tall felt puppet himself - the movie does not dwell on this fact any more than is absolutely necessary to drive the plot, for which I am especially grateful - and whose youth was a plagued experience until he first saw The Muppet Show on TV, and realised that there were other beings like him in the world. This made him a lifelong Muppet obsessive, with the single overriding dream of visiting Muppet Studios in Los Angeles to meet his heroes and expressive his love and gratitude. His chance comes when Gary and his girlfriend Mary (Amy Adams, who was born to be in a Muppet movie) elect to spend their tenth anniversary in the city of Mary's dreams, that selfsame L.A. - making Mary arguably the least sympathetic person in the history of cinema, but let's run with it - and extend Walter an invitation to tag along; at least Gary invites him, Mary sort of passive-aggressively doesn't actively say no.
There, they find the old Muppet Studios a creaking, abandoned relic, and even worse, Walter overhears a big oilman, Tex Richman (Chris Cooper), plotting about how he's going to buy the property and raze it to drill for his precious, precious crude. The rest of the movie concerns the attempt to thwart him, which inevitably involves finding the Ur-Muppet, Kermit the Frog (Steve Whitmire), and convincing him to put on a show to save the place. This in turn requires finding all the usual suspects, and then proving to themselves and the world that even though time has passed the Muppets by, they are still just as clever and funny and necessary as they ever were. This is done successfully, though maybe not in quite the way you'd predict.
I am first not entirely convinced of the honesty of the theme: while the plot of The Muppets neatly mirrors its practical function to Walt Disney Pictures, attempting to prove the financial viability of the classic characters with a target audience that was not yet born at the release of their last truly great vehicle, the 1992 picture The Muppet Christmas Carol, it's really not at all the case that Kermit, at least, has been invisible for so long that your average 12-year-old has absolutely no idea who he is, and the film goes even farther by suggesting without saying it outright that the last time anybody cared about the Muppets was at the time of 1979's The Muppet Movie, and that's just plain insanity (The Muppet Show itself stayed on the air until 1981, and it wasn't poor ratings that ended it). But in a less literal sense, it is true that family entertainment has moved on a lot since the days that Henson worked his special brand of optimistic humanist magic, and not for the better. So much of the film's relentless pursuit of proving that Kermit and friends remain legitimately fun, appealing, and hugely worthwhile entertainment is certainly a valid point of view, and since the method in which Segel, Stoller, and director James Bobin (treating the material with pointed anonymity and absolutely none of the dryness of Flight of the Conchords, the arch-ironic sitcom he co-created) try to prove this point is by showcasing the Muppets being the Muppets as best as they can write it, it's basically a whole hell of a lot of fun. If you're a Muppet fan. Or willing to be made a Muppet fan; but really, why would anyone flat-out not be a Muppet fan? This is, anyway, the movie's perspective on the matter, and I am content to agree with it.
And so, that's what we get: a love letter to the Muppets, crossbred with just a soupçon of fanfiction - that Segel has written a part for himself in which he becomes best buddies with the Muppets makes him something of a Mary Sue (and I like to imagine that the names Gary and Mary indicate that Segel isn't entirely unaware of this). Given what it is, it's no surprise that the affair is uneven, though it surely skews towards being successful. The flat moments are rare, and mostly bunched up near the front, during the more patently expository phase (though it's shocking how much the Gary/Walter plotline isn't annoying and is, in fact, somewhat touching in spots). There aren't more than two or three outright dead spots, of which the two that most rankle are both musical numbers: a "clean up the theater" montage pointless set to "We Built This City", and a gruelingly unamusing barbershop quarter cover of "Smells Like Teen Spirit". Most of the other missteps are so minor that it barely seems right to call them flaws: there's an over-reliance on pointing out that movie characters can use montages and the like to do things more quickly than real-world people (and the biggest problem there is how closely together the jokes occur); the celebrity cameos, outside of Alan Arkin and maybe Zach Galifianakis, are nowhere near as inspired as they were in earlier Muppet movies.
The worst thing is that, for a film that bases itself so utterly on our collective cultural love of the Muppets, there's a lot of fumbling with the characters: Whitmire's Kermit has never been better, but he still labors too intently under Henson's shadow, and refuses to put his own stamp on the character. This has the effect of ossifying the genial frog, much as the '40s and '50s turned Mickey Mouse into a cardboard Everyman. Some of the other characters are better than others: Eric Jacobson, who took over Frank Oz's characters in the early '00s, does wonderful things with Fozzie, and acquits himself fine with Animal, but turns Piggy into a shallow caricature; Bill Baretta makes a hash of Dr. Teeth and Rowlf in their small roles. Dave Goelz, the only Golden Age Muppeteer on hand, at least provides needed and welcome continuity with Gonzo, but there's not enough of him.
Still and all, complain though I might about incidentals, for every one moment that made me outright grimace, there were a half a dozen "aww" moments, and though the film is heavier on grins than on belly laughs, there are a couple of absolutely ingenious conceits dotted here and there, which tact forbids me from mentioning for fear of spoiling. The new songs, mostly written by Bret McKenzie, are generally not as memorable as one would hope for, but none of them are bad, while one, "Pictures in My Head" (the only one not written by McKenzie, as it turns out), gives Kermit a sweetly heartwrenching chance to muse on the friends he's lost over the years - it's frankly a bit too harshly depressive for the Muppets of yore, but it feels right in the moment, anyway - and the opening "Life's a Happy Song" is an exceptionally bouncy bit of fun that swiftly and painlessly introduces us to the new characters. The musical highlight is a reprise of "Rainbow Connection" that's not half as exquisite or simple as in The Muppet Movie, and this somehow feels lazy, but we might well ask if it is every the wrong thing to hear Kermit the Frog sing "Rainbow Connection", in any context.
The whole thing is ultimately too in awe of its own characters, respecting them without pushing them, to feel as fresh and sharp as The Muppet Movie; but it compares tolerably well to the early sequels The Great Muppet Caper and The Muppets Take Manhattan; none of the new filmmakers have Henson's gift for being embarrassingly earnest without coming across as treacly, and there are a lot of places where the movie suffers from an acute attack of the sweets. But they've kind of earned it, don't you think? They're the freaking Muppets, after all, and while there's nothing terribly ambitious or ingenious about a movie that hoists out the characters with pornographic abandon and says "Here. Muppets. Love them", no pop-culture figures of the last 50 years are quite as worthy of that kind of abnegation of intellectual rigor. If its reflected glory is not probably enough to make it a classic in its own right, the way the first three movies are, thirty-odd years later, it is neverthless a fine and enjoyable Muppet picture for this day, and if it manages to bring the characters back into the sun and spawn its own run of sequels, I am assuredly not one to complain.