One would have expected James Bobin and Jason Segel’s The Muppets to amount to little more than a shameless cash-in, what with it being the seventh cinematic entry (thirteenth if you count the television specials) in a 38-year-old series. However, the film comes off as a genuine labor of love. Segel spent years trying to get the project off the ground, and, now that he has, the man seems as happy as a clam. What’s more, his joy proves infectious. I was humming the flick’s tunes and repeating its jokes weeks after the premiere.
A literal celebration of the franchise, The Muppets tells of Walter (Peter Linz), an ordinary suburban puppet who sets out to reunite Kermit (Steve Whitmire) and his friends after learning of Tex Richman’s (Chris Cooper) ploy to level the Muppet Theatre and dig for oil (“Maniacal laughter, maniacal laughter”). A googly-eyed felt creature born in a human family, our hero grew up worshipping The Muppet Show, and we sense Segel might have based the character on himself, even though he plays the loyal brother Gary, who keeps neglecting his girlfriend Mary (Amy Adams).
Their subplot proves surprisingly amusing, given it consists of tired rom-com clichés recycled with tongue firmly in cheek. Mind you, I suspect that may be half its charm. The other half lies in Amy Adam’s uncanny ability to play the girl next door as larger than life and in Segel’s unabashed enthusiasm despite his inability to sing, dance, keep a beat, keep a straight face, or do anything believably except give it his gosh-darn-tootin’ all (which is precisely what the role requires). At any rate, the thread provides a vital through line to a movie that might’ve otherwise come off like a random assortment of absurdities.
After all, the main plot only serves as a device on which to hang various sketches involving our favourite Muppets (not to be confused with Richman’s evil Moopets). Like newcomer Eighties Robot, who keeps assaulting his companions with dated pop culture references and the screech of his dial-up modem, The Muppets feels old-fashioned by design. It occurs to me that a good twenty years have passed since we last saw a comedy structured this way, though, in fairness, most of us skipped the sixth Police Academy sequel.
Then again, you’d be hard pressed to find Mahoney belt out this calibre of songs. As homage to the television series, the final act of The Muppets consists of an extended variety show featuring, of course, a ballad with Kermit and Miss Piggy (Eric Jacobson), a deadly barbershop number, and a fantastically ludicrous pop cover by Gonzo’s brood of hens. The original tunes performed by the human characters, Gary and Mary, aren’t too shabby either. Bret McKenzie of Flight of the Concords earned an Academy Award for the hilarious “Man or Muppet”, but I fell in love with the opening piece, “Life’s a Happy Song”. Ask all who know me: for months, I made their ears bleed with the freaking thing.
Also in keeping with tradition, The Muppets brims with gratuitous cameos, though this time the celebrities usually play themselves. They include Jack Black, Neil Patrick Harris, Whoopi Goldberg, Selena Gomez, and some kid I had to look up on Google. The eclectic mix serves, I think, as testament to the wide reach of Jim Henson’s creations, which is why I wish Segel and co-writer Nicholas Stoller had done a bit of homework instead of basing their script on personal nostalgia alone. Younger viewers might be puzzled at Gomez and Kermit treating each other like strangers when they worked together just four years prior on Studio DC: Almost Live!, a modernised version of The Muppet Show.
Otherwise, the filmmakers’ affection for these long-standing characters gives the movie much of its resonance, allowing it to transcend even the most contentious plot points. Consider Walter’s show-stopping performance in the final act. His newfound talent seems to come out of nowhere. Worse, it bored me half to death, inviting the realisation that our hero, as a deliberate everyman, lacks the zaniness inherent to Kermit and his crew. I decided there and then I wouldn’t want to see him in the sequel, which, of course, by that point, I’d already taken for granted. Therein lies the power of The Muppets, mahna mahna.