Reviewing The Muppets is an almost impossible task. Simply put, the film is so self referential that pointing out any of its flaws would only result in eyes rolling. “Of course we are going to use cheap narrative tactics” Kermit would probably say to me “we’re the Muppets.” The film itself makes so many references to the cheesy “getting the old gang back together” formula that it practically writes its own critique.
So, I guess the only scale that can be used is in the film’s delivery of the “world’s third greatest gift -” laughter. And frankly, the film is so whimsical that it is impossible to leave the theater without a large grin on one’s face. The Muppets have long been a source of really sharp Hollywood parody disguised as a kid’s show. But unlike the celebrities who become famous for their illicit tapes and their drug habits, the Muppets (well, their creators anyway) genuinely have a love of entertaining. Watching any of their films, including this one, audiences can see how they tap into that vaudevillian entertainment mentality. It served people like the Marx Brothers and early silent comedians well, and it does here because the characters are so infectious.
The film involves two brothers – Gary (Jason Segel, who co-wrote the film) and Walter (voiced and controlled by Peter Linz). The two grew up in a literal Smalltown USA and bonded by watching the original Muppet show on television. This is not surprising – Walter himself is a puppet. I imagine that their father had some questions for his wife in the delivery room, but whatever, we’ll run with it. Anyway, in the present day, Gary is taking his long term girlfriend Mary (Amy Adams) to Los Angeles. Walter tags along so they can go to see the original Muppet studios (their tour guide is Alan Arkin). But Walter finds that the dilapidated building is about to be taken over by rich oil baron Tex Richman (Chris Cooper). Walter manages to find Kermit, who decides that the only way to raise the money to buy back the studio is to “put on a show” with the old troupe. But they’ve scattered far and wide. Fozzie now performs with a Muppet tribute band (with Dave Grohl on drums), Animal is in anger management (where Kristen Schaal leads the sessions), Gonzo has become a plumbing magnate, and Miss Piggy works in Paris as the editor of Plus Sized Vogue (where Emily Blunt is her receptionist). Will they be able to pull it off?
The most surprising thing I found in the film was the way that it treated the titular characters. Many references are made to the Muppets being “past their prime.” I can understand why. Their last theatrical film was twelve years ago and was not exactly warmly received. One scene shows a chart of what’s currently popular, and shows the franchise being hopelessly away from the center. Another child actor (who I didn’t recognize, but people seemed to laugh at his appearance) directly asks Kermit is he “is one of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.” It’s handled well, but it’s never a good idea to ask audiences to sympathize with an old act. Besides, in this era of children’s entertainment geared more at catering to their ADD, the Muppets seem that much more of an anachronism.
For the film to openly say any of this was a bold step. But the film doesn’t just say it. The Muppets runs with it and thumbs its nose at the present status of entertainment. The characters are all inherently the same that they were when they were introduced. Thus, showing them dealing with a changing world makes their comments on pop culture seem that much more relevant. A scene showing, say, Kermit the Frog in some Hollywood scandal may have gotten a laugh, but would have betrayed the spirit of the characters. But still, the Muppets are replacing a time slot meant for the game show Teacher Punch – the sort of ill spirited and poorly conceived show that is almost guaranteed a spot on the MTV line up. It makes Kermit and his friends seem that much better.
Again, it would be wrong to say that the film is not flawed, but the script seemed to know what the limitations in the film would be and used them to their advantage. The human characters seem underdeveloped, but this is a Muppet movie. Was anyone going to care about Amy Adam’s nuanced performance as a lover scorned? Or if Chris Cooper developed his character beyond that of just being villainous for the sake of being villainous? Besides, everyone seems so darned pleased to be in this film that their over acting becomes part of the charm. Some of the musical numbers actually extend into the scenes, with characters openly acknowledging and accepting them. This normally is a very disastrous technique (that sort of meta fiction is usually just a cheap laugh) but it makes sense in this context where humans and puppets comfortably coexist. It’s amazing how much a sense of fun can help a film. Normal productions are treated increasingly as a job by the studios. It makes sitting through them equally arduous. That’s never a problem with this film.
I should have surrendered myself earlier. The Muppets were one of my earliest film going experiences that I can remember. I saw A Muppet Christmas Carol in theaters when I was five and I still watch it today. It does mean that I have a bias, but then, the film anticipates that bias for its audience. Really young kids will probably have no idea who these weird puppets are, nor will they necessary appreciate the story of aging stars trying to remain relevant in a changing world. They’ll probably appreciate Fozzie’s “fart shoes,” but this film is designed for the adult fans. It shows those old pieces of felt still have some life in charm in them, and they didn’t have to adjust to the times one bit.