It’s been over a decade since the Muppets last appeared in theaters, yet when those red velvet curtains open up again in Disney’s The Muppets, it feels like they never really left. Kermit and the crew slip back into their roles effortlessly, as if they just stepped out of a time machine from the 1970s. This new revival of the franchise succeeds in just about every way it needed to, serving as a perfect love letter to Jim Henson while also proving to a new generation what’s so special about these lovable, heart filled, fuzzy creatures.
The film stars Jason Segal (How I Met Your Mother), who also wrote the screenplay, as Gary. His brother Walter is the Muppets’ #1 fan, sleeping with Kermit pajamas and eating out of Fozzie Bear cereal bowls. They haven’t put on a show in a long time, though, so he’s stuck watching taped reruns of The Muppet Show,dreaming of seeing the gang come back together again. On Gary’s 10th anniversary with his girlfriend Mary (Amy Adams), he decides to take her on a trip to California, and Walter comes along in hopes of seeing the old Muppets studio with his own eyes. When he gets there, he’s disappointed to find the studio is in ruins, and now used only for tours (which few people actually take.) An evil villain brilliantly named Tex Richman decides to buy the Muppets Theater, secretly planning to tear it down and drill for oil. There’s one catch, though: the Muppets keep their old theater if they can somehow manage to raise $10 million. So Walter, Gary and Mary set out on a journey to reunite the gang and put on one last celebrity filled show to save everything the Muppets stand for.
A lot has changed in entertainment since The Muppet Show. As the film points out, we live in a cynical society filled with violent, trashy shows like Punch Teacher, with the pure, innocent fun of Jim Henson’s day left by the wayside. As the executive of CDE (Rashida Jones) explains, the Muppets simply aren’t relevant anymore. It’s not just nostalgia talking when older viewers complain about the shows kids are watching these days. When was the last time we’ve seen a kids program with as much humor and heart as Henson’s? Segal, the producer of The Muppets, aims to prove to us why we need the Muppets now more than ever, to combat the pessimistic tone all too prevalent in entertainment these days. It’s never too preachy though, and the film’s message comes across naturally without ever feeling too dwelled upon.
From the very first scene, everything about The Muppets is intentionally over the top and silly. Gary and Walter skip down the street while citizens of their colorful town, Pleasantville, join in with them in a choreographed dance number, with music provided by Flight of the Concords’ Bret McKenzie. Segal captures the tone of the Muppets flawlessly, keeping things delightfully silly and constantly breaking the fourth wall. At various points, just as in the original Muppets films, characters reference the fact that they’re in a movie, with Fozzie Bear pointing out, “Wow, that was an expensive looking explosion! I can’t believe we had that in the budget.” Segal’s script carries the whole film, and as soon as the old Muppet cast is introduced, it’s clear he understands exactly what made the original movies and shows so successful and why we still hold them close to our hearts. Nearly every Muppet imaginable is featured, and they’re just as perfect as they’ve always been. With so many characters to juggle, the fact that almost every single one is given at least one or two individual gags is impressive, and a welcome treat.
The film is heartfelt and somber at times, as Kermit the Frog reflects upon how he misses the crew, and worries that the world will no longer be receptive to them. It’s also filled with some really well executed social commentary, as it contrasts the society we live in now with the society the Muppets strive for through their show. But in the end, the Muppets are meant to make us laugh, and this film has no shortage of memorable gags. They’re rapid-fire and non-stop from beginning to end, and like the Muppets themselves, they have such a refreshing simplicity to them. Some of the funniest jokes in the film are the most subtle ones, like Amy Adams’ character reading a thesaurus, or Gonzo having a bright red “blow up factory” button. These days, so many kids movies rely on cheap gags and easy references to pop culture. While the movie isn’t absent of references, like with a Muppet rendition of “Forget You,” the majority of the gags are brilliant in their simplicity, relying on a play on words or subtly placed scenery.
All of the human actors know their roles, not taking up too much screen time but also not acting simply as background scenery. Jason Segal’s performance is delightful and heartfelt when necessary, and Amy Adams is bright and lovely as always. Chris Cooper, normally known for his dramatic roles, plays the villain Tex Richman. His character is essentially a parody of every villain ever featured on film. He sits atop a giant skyscraper with his name on it, dips everything he owns in gold, and has two Muppet henchmen who he trains to manically laugh on cue. The character and Chris Cooper’s performance fit perfectly with the tone of the film. Celebrity cameos are constant, especially in the last act, and yet somehow they don’t feel distracting or unnecessary. While it would have been great to have a classic Muppets host like Steve Martin return, every audience member should see at least one actor they recognize, nod and smile at.
The Muppets really are characters who live in the 70s and 80s, so bringing them into modern day and making today’s kids care is a difficult task. The film never alienates children nor does it pander directly to them and ignore older audiences. Segel and the crew strike a perfect balance, relying on older viewers’ fond memories of the original show, with references to Bob Hope, Steve Martin and even Jimmy Carter, but also providing enough humor and light heartedness that kids can latch on to and enjoy. Viewers who grew up in the 70s should light up when they see the classic Muppets Show theme reproduced shot for shot, viewers who grew up in the 90s can enjoy references to the original Muppets movies, and newcomers will laugh at Fozzie’s cheesy gags, Gonzo’s stunts, and Stalter and Waldorf’s zingers just like their parents did. By the time the credits role, adults are reminded of why they love Kermit so much, and a whole new generation of kids joins in on the fandom.
The Muppets is a hugely successful movie, and it really could have been a complete disaster. Jason Segel, a relatively young actor and producer, was given the task of reviving a 40-year-old franchise loved by millions, with an entirely new cast and crew. Even though many of the voice actors were replaced and the screenplay is composed by someone brand new, The Muppets fits in perfectly with the original series. It’s funny, sincere, and most importantly, it’s pure, simple movie magic, striking a perfect balance between the old and the new. It’s certainly one of the best Muppets movies, as well as one of the best family films in recent memory. The Muppets have always been about putting on a great, entertaining show, and everyone involved here has put on one of the best you’re likely to see at the theater this year.