REVIEW: The Muppets [2011]

Score: 7/10 | ★ ★ ★

Rating: PG | Runtime: 103 minutes | Release Date: November 23rd, 2011 (USA)
Studio: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
Director(s): James Bobin
Writer(s): Jason Segel & Nicholas Stoller / Jim Henson (Muppet properties and characters)

“Laughter, the third greatest gift of all!”

If you saw Forgetting Sarah Marshall, it’ll be no surprise that Jason Segel and Nicholas Stoller were chosen as the ones to bring The Muppets back to the big screen. Almost three decades since the last true Muppet movie besides their literary adventures after Jim Henson’s untimely death, it’s also not shocking that the two decided to base their plot around this lengthy hiatus. Years removed from the original “Muppet Show” that began in 1976, this new iteration begins by introducing us to two of their biggest fans—Gary (Segel) and Walter (Peter Linz). Brothers despite one being human and the other puppet, they’ve stuck together through thick and thin as the latter found difficulty understanding his place in a world outgrowing his stature.

It’s Gary’s ten-year anniversary with girlfriend Mary (Amy Adams) that eventually provides them chance of a lifetime. Traveling to Los Angeles for a romantic getaway, the duo invites Walter along so he can visit the Muppet Studios and meet his idols—and species. But along with their disappearance from TVs and multiplexes, the Muppets have also disbanded and gone separate ways. Without their presence to keep the studio buoyant and bright, the tourist trio finds only an elderly guide (Alan Arkin) and cobwebby, closed attractions behind the gates. Desperate to catch a glimpse of some remnant from his heroes, Walter sneaks inside Kermit’s old office and discovers Waldorf and Beauregard talking to oil magnate Tex Richman (Chris Cooper). Apparently, if the Muppets don’t raise ten million dollars soon, the land goes to Richman with plans to destroy it all for the black gold beneath.

Distraught, Walter explains everything to Gary and Mary and they decide to find Kermit (Steve Whitmire) and the gang to stop what would be a crime on nostalgia. Through a series of trips to acquire the frog, Fozzie, Gonzo (David Goelz), and Animal from a random assortment of new career ventures and a self-aware montage to gather the rest, everyone readies for one last show to save their legacy. After Miss Piggy (Eric Jacobson) is found via ‘travel by map’ in Paris, a musical interlude plays as they repair the run-down stage for their new CDE Network telethon. With a series of performances by all the old stalwarts, the Muppets themselves will rediscover what made them come together in the first place while Gary and Walter figure out where they truly belong too. It’s a film that retains the spirit I remember from my childhood and hopefully will inspire a new generation much the same way.

In that respect, however, I was disappointed by its redundant nature in comparison to The Muppet Movie. Rather than craft a completely new entity, Segel and Stoller borrow a lot from that first adventure to LA. I felt cheated as I recalled the past and acknowledged how much better it was. But as a new introduction for today’s children, I guess you can’t ask for a more successful example to follow. So for them The Muppets will be an exciting tale the likes they haven’t seen with the type of heart and comradery usually pushed aside these days for exciting graphics and cool, hip jokes. I could argue parents should have been exposing their children to these adorable creatures in the first place, allowing the new film to stand on its own two legs as new and exciting. That’s asking too much, I know.

I didn’t dislike it—I actually laughed a ton and would love to watch it again. Would I have rather Walter gone to LA himself in search of his identity? Yes. The Gary and Mary storyline is unnecessary when remembering how the Muppets themselves carried Movie, Manhattan, and Caper all on their own. And I understand these actors wanting to go big and broad, but it simply felt like Amy Adams was phoning it in with tacked-on clunky song and dance sequences. I didn’t mind Segel since his acting style generally goes off the path of authenticity anyway, but I do believe he should have stepped aside to let the Muppets lead the way. At least he wasn’t afraid to be self-referential and meta when he was driving the plot. Listening to characters flippantly talk about the music numbers they performed was a brilliant gimmick true to the franchise’s tone.

Although the Muppet tradition of human villains stays intact, there is something off with Chris Cooper’s Richman. Between the misstep of having him rap and his awkward ‘maniacal laugh’ gag causing confusion since the payoff isn’t until the very end, his character is more silly than evil. But where that part ultimately failed for me, the litany of cameos accompanying the action did not. Rashida Jones is great as a cutthroat TV executive, Zach Galifianakis somehow reins in a performance as a homeless man I was sure would go too far, and the addition of Jack Black as himself grounds the tale in reality perfectly. The funniest of the bunch are the more blink and you’ll miss them roles from the likes of Neil Patrick Harris, Ken Jeong, David Grohl, and Rico Rodriguez—each instantly remembering their love of the Muppets, finding a renewed fervor, or simply pawns for absurdity.

With Bret McKenzie as music supervisor and James Bobin director, you will get a “Flight of the Conchords” vibe at times, but at the end of the day The Muppets stays true to its roots to successfully continue the tradition. Can I see why Frank Oz and others had reservations with the script and refused to participate? Yes. Do I think they made the right decision? No. Segel and Stoller may have brought Kermit and company into the twenty-first century by updating a mold that may not have needed it, but they’ve also proved they’d never consciously degrade the product itself. Homage like Sweetums running by Mad Man Mooney’s will tickle you with delight and hearing “The Rainbow Connection” will flood you with emotion. And even if it didn’t quite live up to expectations, watching Walter finding himself with the help of Jim Parsons through the song “Man or Muppet” will make it hard not to want to love this film.

[1] OLD DOG, NEW TRICKS – Kermit the Frog tries to talk Rowlf the Dog into returning to show biz so they can save the Muppet Theater. But even with help from Gary (JASON SEGEL), Mary (AMY ADAMS) and Walter, it’s tough to talk a happy dog out of a cozy hammock. Photo by: Patrick Wymore. ©Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
[2] WORLD’S WEIRDEST PITCH MEETING – Kermit the Frog is joined by Gary (JASON SEGEL), Mary (AMY ADAMS) and a multitudinous mass of Muppets as they try to convince a TV exec to put their save-the-theater telethon on the air in THE MUPPETS (Opening in theatres on November 23rd). Ph: Patrick Wymore. ©Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
[3] BAD GUYS INC – Tex Richman (CHRIS COOPER) is advised by his sinister second-in-command UNCLE DEADLY and his less-helpful-than-you-might-wish assistant BOBO THE BEAR in THE MUPPETS (Opening in theatres on November 23rd). Photograph by: Scott Garfield. ©Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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