Movie Review: Felt, Fur, Foam and Family

The Muppets make a triumphant return to big-screen form in a film that’s funny, touching, exhilarating and refreshingly retro.


Walter (Peter Linz) and Gary (Jason Segel) are brothers living in Smalltown, USA. They’re as close as people can be, even though Gary is a tall, goofy human and Walter is a tiny, orange Muppet. Walter tags along with Gary and Gary’s long-suffering girlfriend Mary (Amy Adams) to their trip to Los Angeles, where Walter is disappointed to find the Muppets Studio in a state of extreme neglect. While exploring, Walter overhears evil oil baron Tex Richman (Chris Cooper) planning to exploit a loophole in the Muppets’ “Rich And Famous Contract” to demolish the studio and drill for oil underneath. The only way to save the studio is for Gary, Mary and Walter to round up the Muppets, who have all gone their separate ways, and stage a telethon to raise $10 million to buy out the contract. Can Kermit, Miss Piggy, Fozzie, Gonzo and assorted dogs and frogs and pigs and chickens come together to put on one last show? Of course they can; they’re the Muppets!

You know them, you love them, you want some more of them.

When it was announced that a new theatrical Muppet movie was coming, the first one since 1999’s Muppets From Space, there was a great deal of speculation on whether the franchise was viable enough to make a theatrical comeback. The Muppets had languished in projects of wildly varying quality since Jim Henson’s death in 1990, and the fact that the script would be written by Jason Segel and Nicholas Stoller and then directed by Flight of the Conchords‘s James Bobin cast further doubt on the project. Frank Oz even came out against the film, saying that it was betraying the spirit of the characters. People need not have worried, and Frank Oz needs to stop eating sour grapes, because The Muppets is nothing short of pure, undiluted happiness made by and for the Muppet fans that have held on since day one.

In a time when the terms “re-imagining” and “reboot” have become epidemics, it’s tempting to see The Muppets as a way to restart the franchise. It is a reboot to a point, but only in the most technical sense. These are the Muppets as you know them, with their personalities intact and whole. There is no Shrek-style irony attached to the humor, and the pop culture references are wisely reined in. In fact, it serves as something of a direct sequel to the original Muppet film, skipping over everything in-between as if they were simply films the Muppets made after they came to Hollywood. For the first time in decades, we get to see the Muppets as they are in their own world dealing with the consequences of real life and real relationships.

Although some consequences are sadly unforeseen.

It’s clear from the start that Jason Segel may in fact be the real world’s biggest Muppet fan. He has perfectly captured everything that makes the Muppets who they are in his screenplay, from the corny jokes to the metatexutal asides to the core message of family and hope. Tongues are never in cheek, and the film is almost completely free of irony or sarcasm. This is clearly a reverential labor of love, as well as a gigantic fan letter, given as a gift to everybody who holds the Muppets dear. James Bobin keeps the mood going with crisp, unaffected direction that never distracts from the story and isn’t full of gimmicks. Besides being in glorious 2D, the film is nearly devoid of CGI. With its constant musical numbers and endearing directness, this film could very easily have been made at any point in the past 40 years and still maintained its power and warmth.

And what musical numbers they are. The opening number, “Life’s a Happy Song,” is remarkably catchy and deserves a prominent place in Muppet music collections right next to “Movin’ Right Along.” Kermit sings a touching ballad called “Pictures In My Head,” lamenting the Muppet diaspora as he Norma Desmonds around his unkempt mansion. Segel and Walter share a stirring and humorous duet in “Man or Muppet” (which features one of the best cameos in the film). Even Chris Cooper gets a not-as-silly-as-it-sounds-on-paper rap number. Pop songs do show up, but in the strangest of ways. If you thought Moulin Rouge‘s version of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was odd, wait until you hear it done by a barbershop quartet consisting of Link Hogthrob, Rowlf the Dog, Sam the Eagle and Beaker. The funniest song, though, has to be an all-chicken version of Cee Lo‘s “Forget You” that has to be seen/heard to be believed.

Only the Muppets could shut down Hollywood Boulevard to film a musical number.

The human cast of the film never distracts too much from the Muppets. In the first act of the film, there’s a fear that Gary and Mary’s subplot will threaten to overshadow the Muppets’ reunion, but once the Muppets start coming together, they graciously cede the stage. Both Segel and Amy Adams are perfectly cast, with Segel’s genuine optimism working wonderfully with the always amazing Adams’ effervescence. Cooper is a great villain, even if his screen time is shorter than it should be, and Rashida Jones is laser-sharp as the cynical TV executive who reluctantly gives the Muppets airtime only when the popular game show “Punch Teacher” (that’s a command, by the way) is unexpectedly pulled off the air. As with any Muppet endeavor, the celebrity cameos are plentiful, but they rarely seem gratuitous and are often quite funny. Selena Gomez shows up at one point saying, “I don’t know who you guys are. My agent just told me to show up.”

And besides, you can never have enough Neil Patrick Harris.

The Muppets are, of course, in their best form possible, even if several of the key players have passed away or no longer participate in the franchise. Aside from the higher-pitched voice Fozzie has under Eric Jacobson, it’s very hard to tell the difference. Virtually every Muppet from the early years shows up from Wayne and Wanda to Baskerville the Hound. The more modern Muppets are reduced to extras or bit players. Pepe the Prawn has only one scene (although it’s a good scene) and others like Clifford and Rizzo are nowhere to be seen. It’s another indication that this is tied to the classic Muppets, the ones that Segel (and everybody around his age) grew up adoring. 

The Muppets themselves show a great deal of depth and realism as characters. The co-dependency inherent in the Kermit/Piggy relationship becomes clear early on, and Fozzie’s lack of confidence and need to be validated is plain to see from his first scene. At the start of the film, the Muppets have all ended up pretty much where we would expect. Piggy is the editor of plus-size Vogue in Paris; Fozzie fronts a desperate and struggling “tribute” band called “The Moopets”; and Gonzo has become the king of toiletry (I guess Bombay didn’t work out). Even if they’re not in the places we expect them to be, it always fits with their core character. Animal, for instance, is part of a New Age anger management retreat with Jack Black as a sponsor and “drum” as a “trigger word.”

Reunited and it feels so good. But also cramped.

The newest addition to the cast fits right in. Walter is a wonderful character and a highly effective audience surrogate. It’s never explained why Gary has a Muppet for a brother, but it never needs to be, since nobody ever seems to question it. Walter, though, has always felt out of place and only gets a glimpse of where he might fit in when he sees The Muppet Show for the first time. It’s a feeling the vast majority of LGBT individuals can relate to, where you are the outsider, and you long to be part of something you can only experience by leaving home and growing up. Walter also needs to “find his talent” to be part of the show, something he realizes he has to do on his own. He’s a remarkably sympathetic character, played with a lot of skill and a lot of heart by Peter Linz in his first major Muppeteering role.

We are all made of stars.

The most significant aspect to the film, however, is its overwhelming metatext. In the film, the Muppets are told that they’re “relics,” and that they “aren’t famous anymore.” It’s a harsh mirror of the the real world landscape where desperate, wannabe-hip children’s programming rules the day, only when it’s not being insultingly juvenile. Walter reminds the Muppets that the world needs them more than ever, and that’s doubly true in reality. The Muppets have always been a kind of cross-generational common ground, appealing equally to kids and adults without ever pandering to either side. The Muppets is an excellent introduction to the cast of furry, felt-covered friends even as it’s mostly aimed at the 30-somethings who grew up with them. It’s telling that during the Muppet Telethon, nobody in the audience appears to be under the age of 25. 

Although the film is disappointingly light on plot, it makes up for it countless times over with its wit and heart. It’s without a doubt the funniest film of 2011, and it’s possibly the only Muppet movie that can come close to matching the perfection of the very first one. This isn’t a reboot. This is a tribute, a greatest hits collection and a very potent reminder that the Muppets never went away. On behalf of the lovers, the dreamers and me, thank you Jason Segel for making all of us very, very happy.

Rating: 9 out of 10 / A

JOHNNY M is a frequent FBOTU contributor and is both a man and a Muppet.<a href="; title="imageimage

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