The praise—both critical and popular—for The Muppets comes across as virtual sigh of relief: “They didn’t screw it up!” is the implicit refrain. Each new installment of a franchise runs the risk of torpedoing former glory, of course. So, in that sense, the appreciation is unsurprising. But, in this particular case, there’s an interesting twist. The premise of The Muppets is that no one cares anymore about these felt relics of the pre-Internet era. But, in both the world of the movie and “in real life,” as we now say, it’s apparent the late Jim Henson’s puppet pals are more durable than that.
The story begins with Walter, a Muppet in form if not yet in formal affiliation. Walter lives with his twin brother, Gary (Jason Segel, who cowrote the movie), in an impossibly quaint, cartoonish but nevertheless very human town. Though the unchanging Walter is a fan of Kermit and the rest of the crew, he is unaware of any deeper connection. So, when Gary and his fiancée, Mary (Amy Adams), kindly include Walter on their trip to Los Angeles and agree to include a trip to the Muppets’ legendary studio, his excitement is just that of a very devoted fan.
His investment is dramatically increased when he discovers a plan by the nefarious oil baron Tex Richman (Chris Cooper), to purchase and destroy the now-dilapidated studio for the oil beneath its ground. Walter is suddenly charged with a mission: to reunite the Muppets, who have become estranged, and stage a telethon to raise the $10 million required to buy back the property.
Fans of previous Muppet movies likely can easily identify constituent parts from here in: There’s a road trip to locations both ritzy and flea-bitten; there are surprising and delightful cameos; there are songs both pop-culture savvy and sentimental. But, really, it’s the quality, the feel, the Henson-osity of the thing that we’re concerned about, right?
The good news is, as aforementioned, they didn’t screw it up. Cowriters Segal and Nicholas Stoller get the good-hearted, goofy, sappy, sarcastic chaos of the Muppets down. And director James Bobin reproduces the feel of the original Muppet Show flawlessly. The telethon is staged as a “live” version of that show, and was so spot-on as to give me nostalgic shivers. As with the old television show, a great part of the pleasure is found in the songs—either parodic or original—and the team led by musical supervisor Bret McKenzie (of Flight of the Conchords) nails it. Not only are the originals amusing, but the movie features one of the best, funniest takes on a recent hit I’ve ever seen. I won’t spoil it, but it involves chickens. Watch for it.
The human cast are all game and enjoyable, and the Muppets themselves are a pleasure to revisit. When I attended, the kids in the audience were vocally enthusiastic and the several adults viewing unaccompanied seemed to enjoy themselves equally. Rumor has it that the movie has benefitted from a small handful of viral videos featuring Muppets that have made their ways ’round the Intertubes (a version of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody,” in particular). It will be interesting to see what The Muppets does for the theatrical franchise. If the creative team attached to this one can be wooed to continue, the onscreen comeback may just be reproduced IRL.