On Saturday Night Live last week, Seth Meyers asks Kermit to explain the difference between a puppet and a Muppet. Kermit responds with, “A puppet is controlled by a person, whereas I am an actual talking frog.” After watching the old Muppet movies for decades, I still prefer to believe him. No other franchise evokes joy quite like Jim Henson’s prized characters, and director James Bobin reboot The Muppets recaptures that elusive quality. As a terrific tribute and reboot, the movie never waivers from its infectiously positive good humor.
Gary (Jason Segel) is a young man from Smalltown, USA. His girlfriend, Mary (Amy Adams), is a school teacher who specializes in vintage automotive repair. Together they leave for a Los Angeles vacation, bringing along Gary’s brother Walter. At roughly three feet high, Walter is made of felt and plastic. Both he and Gary share unwavering love for the old Muppet show; the trip will be an opportunity to visit their famous studio.
When Walter arrives, the disrepair of Muppet Studios disturbs him. Kermit and the gang have fallen out of fashion in the past years. What’s worse is how billionaire Tex Richman (Chris Cooper) plans to buy the property, destroying it so he can drill for oil underneath. Walter happens to overhear that Kermit can re-purchase the studios for $10 million, so after some cajoling, Kermit agrees to reunite with his old friends for one last show. In front of an empty theater, The Muppets light the lights for their late-night telethon, complete with a celebrity host.
The simplicity of the plot is playful and ironic, giving ample opportunity to catch-up with all our old friends. Some Muppets are doing better than others. Fozzie performs in front of ungrateful crowds, for example, while Dr. Honeydew and Beaker are scientists at the Large Hadron Collider. Clever, fresh jokes like these – from familiar characters, no less – engages that sweet spot of cheer and nostalgia.
Written by Segel and Nicholas Stoller, the screenplay breaks the fourth wall in inventive ways, yet remains emotionally engaging. The reunion of Kermit and Ms. Piggy, for example, is complicated and realistic. Like any worthwhile romance, both parties have baggage and quirks they must work through. Thanks to Segel’s writing and the Muppets’ expressive movement, they make Twilight’s Edward and Bella look relatively inanimate.
Seeing the classic Muppets is terrific fun, this is true, but the new faces are equally important players. Segel and Adams are naturally likable and, as a surprise few, have easy chemistry. Cooper rarely appears in material this goofy, but is a perfect villain because, in the tradition of Charles Grodin and Michael Caine, he plays it totally straight. Still, Walter is the most interesting addition to the crew. His quivering energy is funny and sincere, so it is easy to accept his unlikely transition from person to Muppet. Walter may be superfluous for longtime Muppet fans, but I suspect younger movie-goers will treasure him the most since he eases them into this quirky universe.
Walter notwithstanding, The Muppets includes all the terrific stuff that made the early movies such a success. The cameos – I won’t dare spoil any of them – arrive quickly and from surprising sources. Flight of the Conchords’ Bret McKenzie is the music supervisor, and he combines classic songs with tuneful originals. If the movie has any flaw, it’s that that it has one too many sentimental scenes where characters come to a renewed understanding between one another. But I don’t blame Segel/Stoller for including these moments since the Muppets deserve to solve their problems before they get back to making us happy. In fact, I’m at a loss at who could possibly dislike The Muppets. Perhaps humorless, real-life versions of Statler and Waldorf might, and who cares what they think, anyway?