‘The Muppets’ – Jason Segel and Company Get Jim Henson’s Creations Just Right
Watching Kermit the Frog sing “Rainbow Connection” in “The Muppets” brought back one of my most cherished memories. “The Muppet Movie” was the first film I ever saw on the silver screen, and I consider myself fortunate that this was the case. I even brought along my own Kermit hand puppet with me, and I had him singing “Rainbow Connection” along with the real Kermit, and this was long before such actions might have been annoying to other audience members like when anyone takes out their cellphone during the latest cinematic spectacle which the MCU has to offer. These characters were a large part of my childhood, and I still find them endlessly entertaining all these years later.
“The Muppets” represents the kind of Muppet movie I have been yearning to see for years; one which appeals to the whole family and does not condescend to kids in the slightest. Ever since Jim Henson passed away in 1990, everything Muppet has been geared towards children without much thought to adults. The ironical humor we knew these felt characters for vanished without a trace, and Disney took over the franchise without really knowing how to sell them to either new or old generations. This became abundantly clear when “Muppets from Space” collapsed both critically and commercially back in 1999, and perhaps this was because they were not partying like it was 1999.
But with “Forgetting Sarah Marshall’s” Jason Segel and “Flight of the Conchords'” co-creator James Bobin directing and Bret McKenzie supervising the music, “The Muppets” is a movie the whole family can enjoy together, and it will put a smile on even the most jaded fan’s face. Granted, a number of puppeteers from this infamous franchise (namely Frank Oz) refused to participate because they felt the script did not respect the characters. I beg to differ on that.
Segel stars as Gary whose brother Walter is a Muppet himself, and both are die-hard fans of “The Muppet Show” in childhood. Their love for the Muppets stays strong even through puberty, and they finally get their chance to visit Muppet Studios when Gary invites Walter to come along with him and his girlfriend Mary (Amy Adams) on a vacation to Los Angeles. But when they get there, they find the Muppet theatre it is now in a dilapidated state as Kermit and company have not performed together or seen each other in years.
Even worse, Walter overhears the evil oil magnate Tex Richman (Chris Cooper) planning to buy the Muppet theatre not to preserve it as a historic landmark, but to instead drill for oil underneath it. As a result, Walter, Gary and Mary join forces to reunite the Muppets in order to put on a telethon which will raise the money needed to save not just the Muppets, but the theatre where all the magic started.
My guess is Oz and the other puppeteers never saw the Muppets splitting up and going their separate ways, but having re-watched a lot of “Muppet Show” episodes recently, they did not always have the best time working together. Besides, they did split up, if only temporarily, in “The Muppets Take Manhattan” when Kermit got all pissed off about the gang constantly leaning on him to figure out what to do next. Heck, that Kermit didn’t ditch Miss Piggy sooner is amazing in retrospect.
Starting off with the Muppets having gone their separate ways years ago gives “The Muppets” an interesting jumping off point. Like many, these characters wonder if they are still relevant in today’s popular culture. While they are a big favorite of my generation, whether they can translate to another is still feels uncertain.
Even though the voices of the original Muppet performers are not present, the characters have not changed nor have they gotten cynical (unlike Statler and Waldorf). Steve Whitmire performs Kermit the Frog and does great work in capturing his unforgettable mannerisms without ever simply going through the motions. The same goes with the rest of the puppeteers here as they make each character from Miss Piggy to Animal all their own.
It ia also interesting to see where all these Muppets are at today. Kermit is living in a mansion which is not in the best condition, Miss Piggy is the editor in chief of Vogue Paris, Scooter works at Google, and Sam the Eagle is a Fox News-like personality which seems to be the perfect venue for his endless pomposity. But the one Muppet who practically steals this movie is Animal who we meet up with again at an anger management clinic where Jack Black is his sponsor.
As for the human actors, Segel is a hoot as Gary, and his love for the Muppets shines through every contribution he has in this film. Amy Adams remains infinitely adorable as her sweetness is no act, and she scores a huge musical highlight with the song “Party of One.” We even get to see Chris Cooper do a rap song, and it is not as terrifying as it sounds. As for Jack Black, he becomes the most unwilling guest star “The Muppet Show” has ever had.
The music is really good as well, and it never becomes cringe-inducing thank goodness. “Life’s a Happy Song” starts off the proceedings with a happiness which feels genuine, and you can tell Segel is having the time of his life while singing it. The one song though which truly deserved a Best Original Song nomination is “Man or Muppet” where both Segel and Walter bring down the house in deciding who they really are, as if the answer was not the least bit obvious. And yes, it did win the Oscar in that category, but this should not have surprised anyone as this song did not have much in the way of competition.
It is also great to see that ironic humor the Muppets were famous for back on display here. They push the bounds of the PG rating to where if the kids do not get what is being said, it is probably just as well. I loved how they got away with the Muppet chickens singing Cee-Lo Green’s “Fuck You” without its explicit lyrics. Oh, I’m sorry, I mean Cee-Lo Green’s “Forget You” (right, whatever).
But what makes “The Muppets” so good is that everyone, be it the Muppets, the human actors or those making cameos, comes into this project without any cynicism. Making a movie with the best of intentions or one with a happy ending is greeted with our eyes rolling in the back of our heads as we come out feeling utterly and shamelessly manipulated. The filmmakers even bring back “The Muppet Show’s” opening theme song as it was performed in season three, and it looks almost exactly like it did all those years ago. Even “Mahna Mahna” is brought back, and being it was the very first sketch on “The Muppet Show,” that should show you how much these filmmakers value their childhood entertainment.
Kermit, Fozzie, and Miss Piggy will never feel or sound exactly as they did from years ago, but “The Muppets” proves they still have their charms and humor long after their glory days. It is a film made with a lot of love for the imagination Jim Henson gave us, and deep down we all would hate to see his wondrous imagination die away without a trace.
* * * ½ out of * * * *