After 12 years away from the big screen (and, for the most part, the public eye), the Muppets are back in a big way with The Muppets, a big-budget, semi-star-studded road picture meant to kick off new Muppet adventures for the 21st century. It's been a passion project for star/writer/executive producer Jason Segel, who memorably included puppet numbers in his Apatow-produced romantic comedy Forgetting Sarah Marshall, and his devotion to the franchise and its characters shows through -- in ways both good and bad.
The story finds Henson's felt friends in the same place they are in reality: out of the limelight (well, okay, save for reality's six months of advertisement for this very movie). Kermit (Steve Whitmire), estranged from the rest of the gang, is on the verge of signing over the Muppet Studio to oil baron Tex Richman (Chris Cooper), who claims he'll turn it into a museum celebrating the Muppets' accomplishments, but when Walter (Peter Linz) overhears Richman's true plans to raze the studio and dig for oil, he convinces Kermit to try and buy the land himself. With the help of Walter's human brother Gary (Segel) and Gary's girlfriend Mary (Amy Adams), the pair plot a reunion charity show, with the goal of raising $10 million dollars before the sale closes in a few days.
For the most part, The Muppets straddles the line between sweetly old-fashioned and cleverly modern. Even with Segel and Adams hanging around, the film puts the Muppets front and center, allowing them (and, in turn, their Muppeteers) to shine. The heavy aura of nostalgia (coming from both Walter and the film itself) is pleasing rather than treacly -- it's hard not to get a little gleeful seeing the gang perform the intro to "The Muppet Show" -- and other bits, like the gang rocking out to "We Built This City (On Rock and Roll)," are lively and fun. Segel and Stoller are eager to puncture their own tension with a smattering of fourth-wall gags, and all of it plays out with the support of several catchy original songs co-written by Flight of the Conchords' Bret McKenzie, which often have a very Conchord-y sense of wordplay. Director James Bobin, also a Conchords vet (from the band's popular HBO TV show), keeps things moving at a snappy pace, and has no more problem mounting a musical number with 20 people than he does mounting one with 2000 people.
From an entertainment standpoint, the film is solid, but its story isn't as smooth. Walter, who is obviously a puppet, has self-esteem issues stemming from being different than Gary, and he is both excited and terrified when Kermit offers him a spot in their show. Meanwhile, Mary struggles with Gary's devotion to Walter, which threatens to ruin their anniversary. The film switches haphazardly from traditional Muppet shenanigans to this trio of new characters, and it almost feels like the movie might've been better off just allowing Kermit to be the impetus for everything. Despite a very funny musical number involving both Gary and Walter, neither of the two threads play out with the level of satisfaction and resolution they deserve, with key elements (Walter's true talents, Gary's despire to be a Muppet) ending up somewhat lost amongst other shenanigans. At least Walter and Segel keep their heads above water; the script has very little for Amy Adams to do, relegating her to a musical number that uncomfortably treads the line between funny and embarrassing.
Segel also struggles to find balance in many aspects of the script. The most complicated is the need to decide between continuing the story set up by previous Muppet films and trying to introduce the characters to a new generation. It's understandable that he favors the former, but the movie's specific references and some of the character trademarks often feel like they could use more introduction, especially for younger fans who don't have any built-in knowledge of, say, Kermit and Miss Piggy, or who less-prominent characters like Scooter even are. Even weirder is Kermit's remarkable pessimism; hardly a scene goes by in the movie where Kermit doesn't have some sort of doubts about everything working out. There's no denying I got a little misty-eyed from time to time, but almost every other scene feels like it's designed to tug at the heartstrings, and in the exact same way. Combined with Segel's almost desperate eagerness to please, the overall experience is a little schizophrenic; some rewrites might've smoothed the overall balance.
Still, all things considered, The Muppets is a success. By the time the movie rushes to a close (several crucial developments only happen during the credits), cracks in the veneer are evident, but even if the film's "pretty good" instead of "great," any desire for nothing less than perfection stems from a basic love for these characters and the bright, optimistic world they inhabit. It's as rough as any show by a group of performers who haven't worked together in ten years, but it's also fundamentally warm and earnest. I may have walked out with reservations, but I also can't wait to see it again.
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