The Muppets: Film Review

The Muppets - Movie Still: Kermit, Miss Piggy, Fozzy the Bear - H - 2011
Scott Garfield/Disney Enterprises
A mostly winning return for childhood favorites from a prior century looks to accomplish its goal of pleasing old fans and winning new ones.

Jim Henson's cultural mainstays return to the big screen for the first time since 1999 in the James Bobin-directed musical comedy.

“In this market, you guys are no longer relevant,” Rashida Jones' TV executive bluntly explains to a bunch of puppets hoping to make their showbiz comeback, but the veteran entertainers endeavor to prove her wrong in The Muppets. The first bigscreen outing for the colorful crew since Muppets from Space in 1999 and since Disney acquired the franchise from the Jim Henson estate in 2004, this perfectly enjoyable family comedy is disarmingly upfront about its raison d'etre—to reboot the Muppets for a new generation of moppets. In this it should succeed, while also entertaining old fans inclined to a bit of childhood nostalgia.

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A comic actor more identified with raunchy humor, Jason Segel has played a major hand in breathing new life into these 1970s-90s cultural mainstays, co-writing, co-executive producing and starring in this zippy feature that is about nothing more or less than the effort of bringing the long-since dispersed Kermit the Frog, Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear, Gonzo, Animal and all the rest back together again. It does so with good cheer, a frank acknowledgment of changing mores and time passed and a wink at its own squeaky clean silliness.

In fact, the most clueless characters here are not the Muppets, who have moved on to other pursuits with varying degrees of success, but the two would-be grownups, Gary (Segel) and Mary (Amy Adams), naïve goody-goodies who have been going together for nearly ten years and live in Smalltown, U.S.A., which bears more than a passing resemblance to Disneyland's Main Street. The stumbling blocks to matrimony are Gary's thoroughgoing immaturity and his related lifelong palship with Walter, a muppet who has always dreamed of jumping into the TV set to join his fellow relations. Human dishrag Gary no doubt wouldn't mind doing the same, but instead the two guys and a girl settle on the next best thing, a trip on a 1950s vintage Greyhound to Los Angeles to visit the Muppet Studios.

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Alas, the facility (in the movie's world located in a dilapidated rendition of Disney's Hollywood Boulevard flagship El Capitan Theater) has shuttered, although a tired old guide (Alan Arkin) offers a tour of what remains (“Is this the Universal Studios?” a befuddled Asian tourist inquires). But sneaking into Kermit the Frog's old office, Walter learns that evil real estate tycoon Tex Richman (Chris Cooper) will seize control of the whole operation unless $10 million can be raised to retain Muppet ownership.

So when in doubt or need, what do show folk do? Put on a show, of course. Finding Kermit in, of all places, Bel-Air, the intrepid group then traverses half the planet tracking down the other key players. On one end of the spectrum they find Fozzie Bear entertaining at a barrel-bottom lounge in Reno, while, by contrast, Miss Piggy now reigns over a top fashion magazine in Paris (with Emily Blunt, no less, as her assistant) and is understandably reluctant to chuck it all for a reunion of dubious worth.

But when a TV network desperately needs to fill a slot, the gang suddenly has but two days to pull together its fund raising special before Tex can move in replace the originals with his own “Moopets.”

Things bog down when the neglected Mary pouts over Gary's preference for the Muppets' company, although this does result in his pretty funny mock-introspective song bearing the essential refrain, “Am I a man or a Muppet?”

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While the answer to that question remains unclear, due to the immutable rag doll nature of Segel's limp leading man, the actual cloth creatures rise to the occasion splendidly, kidnapping an unbilled Jack Black to be their unwilling star headliner and putting on a show of which Mickey Rooney himself (who does a quick cameo early on) could be proud. For that matter, a good many others (Zach Galifianakis, Selena Gomez, Whoopi Goldberg, Neil Patrick Harris, Sarah Silverman) also support the cause by showing their faces for a moment or two, leading up to a climactic musical on Hollywood Boulevard that's more than a tad self-congratulatory.

While the script he wrote with Nicholas Stoller nicely serves its purpose, Segel does neither himself and nor his costar Adams any favors with the infantile characters they portray; his Gary is a lumpen bumpkin whose development was arrested at no later than age nine, while the normally wonderful Adams has never been so ill-served by any movie role since her big breakthrough in Disney's own Enchanted in 2007; literally taking a back seat to Muppets during the road trip, she's the ultimate tag-along, never allowed to assert herself and instead forced to patiently and silently endure the obsessions of Gary and the fuzzy ones, who rightly continue to be played by real puppets and not by some newfangled technological rendition of them.

Still, a breezy, keen-to-please attitudes prevails, and director James Bobin (The Flight of the Conchords, Da Ali G Show for TV) moves things along with good cheer; at one point, when the search for stray critters begins to wear down, one says, “May I suggest we save time and pick up the rest of the Muppets in a montage?” It's duly done.

An entirely superfluous shot of the team's old Rolls-Royce emerging from the sea onto the beach in Cannes will vastly amuse anyone who's ever been to the film festival there.

The Muppets will be preceded, at least initially, by a new, eight-minute Toy Story short in which the neglected toys engage in very amusing group therapy.

Opens: Wednesday, Nov. 23 (Disney)
Production: Walt Disney Pictures
Cast: Jason Segel, Amy Adams, Chris Cooper, Rashida Jones, Steve Whitmire, Eric Jacobson, Dave Goelz, Bill Barretta, David Rudman, Matt Vogel, Peter Linz, Alan Arkin, Bill Cobbs, Zach Galifianakis, Ken Jeong, Eddie Pepitone, Kristen Schaal, Sarah Silverman
Director: James Bobin
Screenwriters: Jason Segel, Nicholas Stoller
Producers: David Hoberman, Todd Lieberman
Executive Producers: Jason Segel, Nicholas Stoller, John G. Scotti, Martin G. Baker
Director of Photography: Don Burgess
Production Designer: Steve Saklad
Costume Designer: Rahel Afiley
Editor: James Thomas
Music: Christophe Beck
Rated PG; 102 minutes