Don’t Call it a Comeback: The Muppets’ Big-Screen Return

Since the unexpected loss of their creator, Jim Henson, in 1990, the Muppets have struggled to find their way creatively. There have been some high points (such as 1992’s Muppet Christmas Carol) and there have been some very low points (such as 2005’s The Muppets’ Wizard of Oz). The characters found themselves too often shoehorned into storybook adaptations rather than getting a chance to play themselves. There was also a short-lived 1996 series, Muppets Tonight, and then there was 1999’s Muppets from Space, a critical and financial disaster.

There were a few scattered projects, including a lame web series with Statler and Waldorf reviewing movies (not as funny as the concept sounds), and there were dreadful TV specials with Disney tween stars. While there still were the occasional talk-show and game-show appearances, it seemed like the Muppets’ day in the sun had disappeared forever.

Now it seems, though, as if the Muppets are on the verge of a revival with the wonderful new film, The Muppets, which opens Wednesday in theaters everywhere.

I had the opportunity to see a preview screening on Saturday, and I can tell you that the film captures everything that a Muppet movie ought to be. Jason Segel, the Muppets’ unlikely rescuer – mostly known for raunchy films such as Forgetting Sarah Marshall and Knocked Up – has crafted a script that’s at times fall-down funny and at times deeply heartfelt. (Also, despite Segel’s pedigree, the movie is totally family-friendly. I’m not even sure why it received a PG rating, except possibly for marketing purposes.)

The basic plot: When Gary (Segel) and his brother Walter (humorously personified as a Muppet, played by Walter Linz) go to Hollywood with Gary’s girlfriend Mary (the amazing Amy Adams, from 2007’s Enchanted), they’re horrified to see that the Muppet studios have been shut down and to learn that an evil oil tycoon named Tex Richman (Chris Cooper) plans to destroy the property. So they recruit Kermit to get the old gang back together to stage a big musical to earn the money to get the theater back. It’s the type of story that Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney would have done back in the 1930’s (and in fact, Rooney makes a cameo), and the Muppets themselves did a variation on this plot in 2002’s mediocre telefilm It’s a Very Merry Muppet Christmas Movie. The execution of the material, however, is much better in this film.

The movie works on a number of levels. On one level, it’s a love letter to the Muppets and to the fans who have followed them for years even through the rough times, as represented by Walter, who has seen every episode of The Muppet Show on video and owns tons of Muppet memorabilia. There are direct references to songs and plot elements of 1979’s classic The Muppet Movie and 1984’s The Muppets Take Manhattan, and much of the spirit of 1981’s The Great Muppet Caper is represented, particularly in how the characters frequently acknowledge that they’re in a movie. (More on that later.)

On the other hand, a film that plays only to the hardcore fans could be too obscure for mainstream audiences. Segel and company have nicely sidestepped that problem. The movie makes its plot and characters completely clear for anyone who’s never seen a Muppet production before (and considering how infrequently the Muppets have been on TV, that possibility is extremely likely for the younger kids in the audience). The jokes are funny and the characters are well-defined enough that anyone can enjoy the film.

Often when a movie tries to play to “kids and adults,” it makes jokes that kids will get, combined with unnecessarily lewd jokes for the adults (the Shrek movies come to mind). That’s not the kind of adult humor here. The comedy is geared towards the characters making references to the movie conventions being employed (“Sorry, the flowers must have gotten crushed during that musical number”), and towards turning movie cliches on their heads (when Kermit first appears, a choir is heard on the soundtrack – and then we see a bus pass by with an actual choir singing in it). The Marx Brothers would approve of the first gag; the Zucker brothers would approve of the second.

Whereas the first five theatrical movies all had music by one composer each, and Muppets from Space inexplicably eschewed the musical format for a ’70s funk soundtrack, this production is a wonderful mixed bag of music. Some of the songs are brand-new tunes from Bret McKenzie, half of the very funny music/comedy duo Flight of the Conchords. Some are covers of existing songs, such as “We Built This City” and (hilariously) Smells Like Teen Spirit,” in acknowledgement of the covers that the characters always performed on The Muppet Show. And one song is a Paul Williams-Muppet classic, reprised from the very first Muppet movie. Christophe Beck also provides a superb background score.

Part of the fun for Muppet fans is seeing a lot of obscure Muppet characters in the background that haven’t been seen in a long time. Over the years, the “Muppet aesthetic” has been lost in recent productions, as boring and generic background characters took the place of the ones familiar from the old shows and movies. A lot of these old puppets undoubtedly had to be rebuilt for this film, which shows the level of dedication and love on the filmmakers’ part. But even for those who don’t know Uncle Deadly from Wayne and Wanda, the film still makes perfect sense.

It’s often been embarrassing over the past 20 years to admit that I’m a Muppet fan. But there’s no reason for embarrassment anymore. The Muppets are back and they’re once again working at their peak. Disney similarly lost its way creatively for about 20 years after its founder passed away, until a resurgence came in the ’80s, fueled by projects such as Who Framed Roger Rabbit, The Little Mermaid, and TV’s DuckTales. It looks like the Muppets are on the verge of a similar resurgence with this wonderful film. Kermit seems to have found his rainbow connection again.

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