So it's come to this: Up and coming comedy sensation Jason Segel has taken it upon himself to salvage the legacy of the Muppets, and property owners Disney has opted to let him. For his big self-starring Muppet revival, he's recruited the effervescent Amy Adams to play his girlfriend, and "Flight of the Conchords" Bret McKenzie to provide original songs. Per his screenplay (with credit shared by Nicholas Stoller), he's even made up a new character, Walter, a Muppet who lives among humans, blissfully unaware of his, er, muppetness. Clearly Segel harbors a fondness, even love, for vintage era Muppets. That is something that really shows in this mostly enjoyable film. The trouble is, all of that love and fondness for the title characters has to wait until all the other things, listed first in this review, are firmly established as the main thrust of the film. Never mind that when Kermit and company finally do show up, Segel and Walter are in effect yanked from the spotlight with a narrative vaudeville stage hook... In short, Jason Segel may've initially set out with best of intentions regarding Jim Henson's treasured creations, but when push came to shove, he just couldn't resist making himself the star - even when his own storyline is begging otherwise.
The sad state of the Muppets since the death of their creator Jim Henson over twenty years ago has almost been enough to turn a fan green. In that time, amid a sea of murky corporate juggling over ownership of the property, their feature film work has included only so-so (at best) literary adaptations (the terribly unfunny "Muppet Christmas Carol" and the underrated "Muppet Treasure Island") and a galactic misfire ("Muppets from Space"). There was a forgotten TV series ("Muppets Tonight"), as well as several TV movies, the best of which may be 2002's "It's a Very Merry Muppet Christmas Movie" (more on that in minute). Lately, there's been a small flurry of exclusively online Muppet content ("Bohemian Rhapsody" a few years ago, OK Go doing an off-kilter version of "The Muppet Show" theme this year). And those parodies - egads, those parodies. Since the marketing machine for "The Muppets" ramped up earlier in the year, we've been affronted with clumsy spoofs of everything from "Green Lantern" to David Fincher's upcoming "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo".
This, despite repeated claims by Segel that this new film will be the Muppets done right: innocent absurdity that is free of cynical pop culture comedy trappings. At least, that's what I (a lifelong Muppets devotee) very much hoped he meant, but the ad campaign did little to back up his words. A new feature film was finally on the way, but if it struck the wrong tone or loused up the property on this prominent of a scale, the future of the whole thing might just be doomed. On top of that, the press began to confirm some of my worst fears about this project with reports that several of the longtime Muppet performers were thoroughly disenchanted by Segel's "Muppets" either in the script phase or during production. No, it was not easy being green. Not at all.
Well, the movie is here, and the news is generally good. "The Muppets", while about as solid as a wad of felt, does in fact hold water. Sure it's soggy and kind of misshapen, but it's so soft, squishy and fun! Grown Muppet fans may enjoy this more than the kids in the audience (the kid-pandering "fart shoes" gag failed to amuse the tykes at my screening), as the nostalgic bits (heavily referencing the classic original film "The Muppet Movie" and it's predecessor, the syndicated television hit and landmark "The Muppet Show", both hailing from the late 1970s) are what unquestionably work the best. In fact, the nostalgia may work a bit too well. Sure, I was moved to sing along to the new film's revival of "The Rainbow Connection", but that warm moment also underscored how the few new tunes in this film (along with the slew of extremely tired classic rock needle-drops throughout, including, yes, "Bad to the Bone") simply fail to measure up to the unabashed lyrical depth and musical craftsmanship that Paul Williams brought to the table way back when. By the time "The Muppets" opts to go out on a montage of "Mah Na Mah Na" over the end credits, one can't help but wonder if, amid all this fun, we're actually riding the nostalgia train into Muppet oblivion.
Most of the core plot is a direct rehash of "It's a Very Merry Muppet Christmas Movie", a film that is to "The Muppets" what Michael Mann's TV movie "L.A. Takedown" is to his feature crime epic "Heat". In both films, the Muppet Theater is in danger of being demolished when a ruthless business tycoon (a hilarious Joan Cusack in the former, a rappin' Chris Cooper now) ends up owning the place. The Muppets must rally together, clearing away the cobwebs of the past, and do a big show to save it. "Muppet Christmas" deviates heavily by focusing on Kermit's crisis of confidence via a prolonged "It's A Wonderful Life" segment - a portion of that otherwise overly cornball film that actually elevates it, even if it is a familiar retread of Frank Capra. "The Muppets", whether intentionally or not, is a familiar retread of the rest of "A Very Muppet Christmas" - right down to guest appearances by Whoopi Goldberg (a human Muppet if there ever was one).
Like "Scream 4" earlier this year, "The Muppets", unable to decide if it's a sequel or a reboot, ends up being a precarious version of both. The agreeably fun (and somewhat meta) story of Kermit, Fozzie, Miss Piggy and company returning from obscurity for a new shot at the big time keeps getting stopped in favor of more time spent with Segel (in wide-eyed doughboy mode all the way) and Walter (who logically should've been the central character in the story instead of Segel, but instead his part is yet more regrettable deadweight). Including Amy Adams as a star of a Muppet movie is a perfect no-brainer; too bad she doesn't get to do anything in this one. While Adams' presence is wasted, Segel's utter lack of dancing ability is painfully obvious in the big musical numbers he's placed himself at the center of. Disney, taking no chances with "The Muppets", and unable to ever decline a chance at crass cross-promotion, trots out Disney Channel stars for cameos, and dresses numerous background signage with distracting "Cars 2" and "Winnie the Pooh" imagery. (Hey everyone, guess what's new on Disney DVD??)
All that said and endured, you will still love "The Muppets". Heck, not all the new music is forgettable - Kermit's new tune "Pictures In My Head" tugs the heartstrings just as it should. Sharp-eyed fans will notice a lot of obscure Muppets we haven't seen in a long time. Do go see this film - you'll be voting at the box office for more Muppet movies. And who knows, maybe those will be better. As they say, someday they'll find it. The old gang is a little worn here, and Disney's choice of celebrity mending may not be the best, but it's still great to see the classic Muppets movin' right along again.
- Jim Tudor