Muppet News Flash! Your friends in felt are back on the big screen, ready and waiting to charm a new generation of…moppets. It’s The Muppets show, with very special guest star/co-writer Jason Segel orchestrating a fun kiddie flick and a heart-tugging nostalgia exercise for Generation X.
Along with co-writer Nicholas Stoller (Forgetting Sarah Marshall) and director James Bobin (who proved his creative chops with Flight of the Conchords), Segel winningly pays homage to the legacy of Muppet creator Jim Henson and his extended family of writers, artisans, and Muppeteers (in that last category, Dave Goelz and Steve Whitmire continue to perform). Though Henson has passed on, his Muppet character Kermit the Frog remains; ditto for diva Miss Piggy despite the defection of retired Muppeteer Frank Oz.
The new film concedes defeat for the Muppets in order to allow them to blaze a comeback: fans may squirm a bit at the emphasis put on the Muppets’ decline (in reality, the Muppets have been absent from the big screen since 1999’s Muppets from Space but have been kicking around in TV movies and in viral videos). In The Muppets, they’ve disbanded and the Muppet Theater has fallen into (comically) sad disrepair. The realization devastates Muppet super-fan Walter (a puppet performed by Peter Linz), who—with his brother Gary (Segel)—makes a pilgrimage to take the “Muppet Studio Tour.”
When Walter overhears oil baron Tex Richman (Chris Cooper) describe his evil plan to foreclose on the Muppet Theater, demolish it, and drill for crude, Walter, Gary and Gary’s longtime girlfriend Mary (America's sweetheart Amy Adams) set out to reunite the Muppets and save the theater by putting on a Muppet Show telethon. Down to a big-screen recreation of The Muppet Show opening sequence, the filmmakers show their pious reverence for the postmodern-Vaudeville source material, and the film often plays like a direct sequel to 1979’s The Muppet Movie, complete with celebrity cameos and a reprise of Paul Williams and Kenny Ascher’s Oscar-nominated song “Rainbow Connection.”
The movie takes an everything-and-the-kitchen-sink approach, beginning by establishing a Pleasantville-esque Midwestern hometown for Walter, Gary and Mary, advancing to the “getting the band back together” midsection, and arriving at the “let’s put on a show” third act, amusingly and a little wistfully populated with nutty novelty acts. Minor missteps (like Fozzie Bear exclaiming, “Hey look, fart shoes!”) shouldn’t discourage real-life Walters, who are guaranteed both to laugh and wipe away a few tears (yes, that's a confession). Four new songs by Bret McKenzie (also of Conchords) are cute enough, but the new Kermit ballad “Pictures in My Head” (by Jeannie Lurie, Aris Archontis, and Chen Neeman) brilliantly evokes the work of Williams and Ascher.
Kermit sings of the Muppets’ return, “Would anybody watch, or even care? Or did something break we can't repair?" The words poignantly evoke the lingering doubt following Henson’s 1990 passing, but the movie that surrounds them reassure that the Muppets can’t be beat.
[This review first appeared in Palo Alto Weekly.]