A film review by Craig J. Koban December 2, 2011


2011, PG, 98 mins.


Gary: Jason Segel / Mary: Amy Adams / Tex Richman: Chris Cooper / Hobo Joe: Zach Galifianakis / Executive: Rashida Jones

Directed by James Bobin / Written by Jason Segel and Nicholas Stoller, based on Jim Henson's Muppet characters

All of the Muppet films have cheerfully invited many tricky questions regarding their characters and, in the process, have thankfully never wasted time to answer them.   

Like, for instance, in the original 1979 MUPPET MOVIE how is it that Kermit The Frog grew up in a swamp, but learned not only how to play the banjo, but also how to ride a bicycle (and just how did the filmmakers make him ride that bike…seriously).  In third Muppet film, MUPPETS TAKE MANHATTAN, Kermit and Miss Piggie get hitched, which begs the query: if they procreated, what would their children be?  Tadpoles, little piglets,  or a ghastly combination of the two? 

Now comes a reboot of the entire film and television series, simply called THE MUPPETS, which, like its predecessors, poses even more questions.  Can, for instance, a human man have a Muppet for a blood brother?  At the beginning of the film we are introduced to a Muppet named Walter (voiced by Peter Linz and looking suspiciously a bit like Ernie) who has a big brother named Gary (Jason Segel), who is human.  They have been, as Forrest Gump would say, like peas and carrots during their lives, but as Gary has matured into relative adulthood, Walter has remained the same pint sized figure he was during Gary’s childhood.  We never see their parents, which is a good thing.  I mean, are Gary and Walter the offspring of a Muppet mother and a human father…or vice versa?   

Nevertheless, THE MUPPETS - and all of its many antecedent film entries - never really cares about such issues.  It does not matter that personas like Kermit, Miss Piggie, and, yes, Walter are made of felt, padding, and are not superficially human.  Yet, they all are heartfelt, compassionate, charming, likeable, and have human emotions and deeply rooted human issues.  This is why the Muppets are icons and have been revered and remembered – and will go on to be – for decades to come: we like and care for them because their creators invested in them as distinct personalities.   

The late Jim Henson, who created them in the mid-1950’s, knew this, and the new makers of THE MUPPETS also adhere to this important foundation.  On paper, writers Jason Segel and Nicolas Stoller (purveyor of hard R-rated comedies like FORGETTING SARAH MARSHALL and GET HIM TO THE GREEK) and director James Bobin (who has worked on TV’s THE ALI G SHOW and FLIGHT OF THE CONCORDS) seem like the least appropriate candidates to helm the first Muppet big screen adventure since 1999’s forgettable MUPPETS IN SPACE.  However, what makes this collaboration so unexpectedly winning is that they - especially with Muppet-obsessed fanboy Segel at the helm - show great respect and admiration for the past films and have equipped themselves deeply in all things Muppet-centric.  What could have been a post-modernist and cynical trashing of Henson’s beloved creations actually emerges as a loving ode to them.  Who would have thought that makers of adult comedies could so easily and fluently tap into their inner child and make this new MUPPETS a delectably triumphant trip down memory lane? 



As for the story?  Walter has worshiped The Muppets since their heyday on TV.  When he hears that Gary and his girlfriend of “ten years”, an elementary teacher named Mary (Amy Adams, positively radiating adorable vivaciousness) are heading to Hollywood for their anniversary, he gets really excited at the prospect of touring the Muppet studio lot.  Gary, being an agreeable and decent man-child, invites Walter along for the ride.  Unfortunately, the Muppets are no longer as popular as they were in the 1970’s and 80’s, and when the trio arrive at their studio it’s a run down dump.  Even its tour guide (played slyly by Alan Arkin) seems less than thrilled to be there. 

To Walter’s horror, he uncovers a dastardly plot while sneaking into Kermit’s old office: a nefarious oil tycoon named Tex Richman (a very, very game Chris Cooper) is plotting with former balcony hecklers Statler and Waldorf to buy the Muppet studios, tear it down brick for brick, and then drill for its oil reserves.  Once Walter gets through a horrific screaming fit after hearing the news, he decides that the only thing that can be done is to locate Kermit and convince him to gather up all of the ol’ gang to put on a reboot of the ol’ Muppet Show and raise the required $10 million to save the studio forever.  Kermit, however, seems initially doubtful of such a Herculean task, but he soon realizes that Richman needs to be stopped and, with Walter, Gary, and Mary’s aid, proceeds to locate the other Muppets in order to put on the show of a lifetime. 

I found it increasingly difficult to wipe the wide smile off of my face all throughout THE MUPPETS.  Like the very best of the Muppet films, it’s bursting at the seams with a perky effervescence, goofy self-awareness, innocent charm, crafty showbiz satire, and, of course, endlessly amiable characters.  To say that the humans are less developed and, how shall I say it, less compelling creations when compared to the Muppets is possibly unavoidable, but even Segel and Adams themselves kind of bring a sweet and good natured disposition to their roles that could aptly be described as Muppet-ian.  Wisely, they hurl themselves guilelessly through the film, never once questioning why puppets surround them more than people.  The film has a relative who’s-who of celebrity cameos, which I will not spoil except for one: Jack Black sponsors Animal in anger management therapy. 

The film is joyously awash in other gags:  Kermit has hit rock bottom so hard that his only buddy is a robot butler from the 80’s that serves Tab and New Coke.  Also funny is Kermit scratching celebrity names off of his list of possible guest hosts (President Carter and Molly Ringwald are unavailable).  If there were to be a criticism of the film’s humor then it would be that it’s sometimes too self-consciously ironic for its own good with characters breaking the fourth wall on acknowledging the fact that they are in a movie.  A few of the gags are cute, but they seem like they belong in a whole other movie. 

Some musical comedies only wish to have one Oscar worthy number, but THE MUPPETS has several, including the top-tappingly engaging “Life’s A Happy Song” and Segel’s heartfelt tune “Man of Muppet?”.  Perhaps even more absurdly hysterical is the Chris Cooper gangsta rap (no, really) response to Kermit, “The Answer is No”, that is surely to become a cult favourite.  Aside from six brand new numbers, THE MUPPETS re-appropriates three classics, one of which includes the immortal “The Rainbow Connection” that will leave even the most pessimistic of viewers covered in wistful goose bumps.   

All of these musical interludes – and so much more - make THE MUPPETS a giddy and endlessly pleasurable travelogue into yesteryear, when family films were not populated by CGI and 3D artifice, editorial overkill, and incoherent visual diarrhea.  Some kids in the audience appeared restless during the screening, which is probably attributed to the steady modern diet of mindless and frenetic family entertainments they’ve probably endured.  THE MUPPETS, it could be argued, is a rare family film that will be enjoyed more by adults than children.  Watching it certainly made me feel like a tyke again.  Give me minimalist-looking puppets any day of the week.  

I’m still smiling just thinking about them. 


Oh, one last thing.  Something dawned on me after I saw THE MUPPETS: cruel irony permeates this film.  It’s about the characters tackling and overcoming malicious corporate greed in order to maintain their identities and livelihoods.  Yet, shove this up your mind: The Muppets are now owned and controlled as properties by Disney Studios. Maybe in the sequel they will plan an occupy protest outside of the Magic Kingdom?  

Actually, come to think of it…nah.

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