Soaked in nostalgia and promising a new beginning, The Muppets is very much a cinematic panacea for troubled times, suggesting that everything can be set right by refocusing on what and who is important in your life.
It is a resounding success, a pure triumph of pleasantness and simplicity, and if you don’t leave the theater with a smile on your face and a desire to reconnect with loved ones that you’ve let slip away, then you have less of a heart than the furry and fuzzy puppets that populate this film.
At times hilarious and at other times heartbreaking, The Muppets is a sweet, sentimental prescription for the contemporary ills of America. It’s easy to say this film is awash in nostalgia (in part because it spends so much time reminding you that people have forgotten about the Muppets) but there’s more than that going on here.
Intended or not, The Muppets offers a cultural critique for a nation that’s lost its way. Whenever anyone talks about how the Muppets have been forgotten, it feels like they’re talking about all of us, about the national collective that’s somehow come off its guiding rails so much that we’ve become something else, and unwanted.
Think of the Muppets as stand-ins for us and their once-beloved, now-decrepit theater as America. A bad guy wants to tear up the Muppet Studios and dig for oil, but it doesn’t just feel like he’s being a dick to the Muppets (they’re not using the theater anymore, after all), but rather that he’s a stand-in for leaders who’ve sold out our country’s ideals in their insatiable quests.
The Muppets are not free from this blame. They are consistently shown as out of touch with modern America, toiling away at their own lives without concern for the whole. Kermit is holed away in his house that Miss Piggy paid for, doggedly living in the past. He shares his dusty house with a 1980s robot that says anachronistic sayings such as, "Gag. Me. With. A. Spoon."
While the story doesn’t push him into Howard Hughes territory, Kermit’s house is filled with large paintings of his Muppet colleagues; when he needs a moment to think, he walks down this painting-filled hallway, singing to himself and hallucinating his friends joining in to sing "Pictures in My Head."
It’s a really great song, a wonderful sequence and one of the best in the movie, displaying humor, sentimentality, and imagination. Any qualms I had about the movie (my hopes were rather high going in) were lost in this sequence. I simply relaxed and enjoyed everything that followed.
Kermit’s not the only Muppet shown as out of touch. Everyone has gone their own way. Fozzie is working with a Muppets cover band. Animal is taking an anger management course. Rowlf is hanging out on his porch.
I like that there’s a nice mix here. Some Muppets have gone on to great personal success while others have fallen by the wayside; fitting in with the movie’s larger theme that American entertainment interests have shifted, the Muppets who stuck with the entertainment business are struggling the most.
The plot in The Muppets sees humans Gary and Mary, and Gary’s Muppet brother Walter (this isn’t explained) visiting Los Angeles from their home in Smalltown, USA, the kind of place that’s stuck in time. It’s simple, it’s old-fashioned. Gary and Walter still share a bedroom and there’s a wonderful sense here that while the nation needs to revert, Walter and Gary need to move forward.
Gary is clueless in the ways that a teenage boy is clueless about why his girlfriend is mad at him. Gary and Mary are headed for their romantic anniversary and Gary thinks it’s a fine idea to bring Walter along so he can visit the Muppet Studios and see his heroes, but Mary wants Gary to come to the realization by himself, of her importance in his life.
Gary cares deeply for his brother, always making him feel included. There’s a really nice sequence that shows Walter and Gary growing up together; they start out the same size but as they age, Gary grows while Walter remains the same size.
Gary, Mary, and Walter and the town break out into a catchy tune, “Life’s a Happy Song,” setting the tone for a nice sprinkling of musical numbers throughout the film. There are old songs ("The Rainbow Connection," "The Muppet Show Theme"), new songs, and non-Muppet songs. Director James Bobin sprinkles the songs perfectly through the film, and the new songs by Bret McKenzie (from Flight of the Conchords) deliver exactly what each scene needs.
When Gary, Mary, and Walter get to the Muppet Studios, they find it in disrepair. Walter accidentally discovers the bad guys. If the Muppets want to keep the studios, they’ve got to raise $10 million. The visitors from Smalltown seek out Kermit and the cast.
Their first target is Fozzy, who’s working in Reno. Now, I live in Reno. When the city was announced as the first destination and the signature Reno Arch made an appearance, the crowd offered up a knowing whoop and chuckle, a tangible sense of "Hey, that’s us!" and "Yes, this is where people circle the drain of life."
Fozzy is working with a Muppet tribute band, and has reworked "Rainbow Connection" into a casino jingle. There isn't really anything more depressing than hearing a piece of The Muppet Show’s heart commodified.
A montage ensues, a knowing wink to the audience. This kind of fourth wall acknowledgment is throughout The Muppets, which adds to the general pleasantness.
The film takes a sharp turn once the Muppets come aboard. For the first act, it’s a Gary and Walter movie, but once Kermit’s quest begins, the Muppets take center stage and the Smalltown residents hit the literal back seat.
Full credit goes to to Jason Segel, whose growing star power was one of the driving forces to get this movie off the ground. Segel co-wrote the script, but he generously steps into the background once the Muppets enter; this is much more The Muppets with Jason Segel than it is Jason Segel and the Muppets.
As an actor, I like Segel well enough; he has a sense of clumsy earnestness about him which makes me want to root for him. Amy Adams is completely endearing, and Chris Cooper seems to relish his one-note villain role.
There are plenty of guest stars, too, popping in for quick appearances. Co-writers Bobin and Segel give everyone in the audience someone to recognize, but the emphasis is definitely on the geeky-yet-hip set that is in favor on TV right now. When a popular singer shows up and admits to Kermit, "I don’t really know who you are,” the same could be said going in the other direction, too.
With all those hip comedians running around, it’s a pretty clear sign that Muppets fans from back in the day are the smart, in-the-know ones, but the film makes a point to bring in a wide range of celebrities to remind us that the Muppets are for everyone.
The Muppets convince a TV exec to let them host a telethon as long as they can get a celebrity guest host. That leads to a semi-sad moment where Kermit goes through his rolodex looking for that needed celebrity, but he’s so out of touch with the landscape that he calls celebrities such as President Carter and Molly Ringwald.
After he almost gives up for the 80th time, when Kermit tells the Muppets that they tried and that what’s important, it’s an incredibly touching scene.
There are several scenes like this in the movie which are surprisingly emotional and I’m not ashamed to say I could feel some tears starting to swell a few times. If The Muppets was simply nostalgia, it could be played just for laughs, because the thing about nostalgia is it comes with a recognition that those times are past. We might recapture faded glories for a moment or two, but they’re not coming back.
The Muppets is so much more than that because it’s not just an ode to what used to be, but an admission that important things were lost. The Muppets really isn’t about making the Muppets popular again (that’s the understandable and external goal of Disney); it’s about scolding you for letting go of loved ones, and giving up on dreams.
There’s a reason this film is out during the holiday season. It’s much easier to forget about disconnected friends and family in May or August, but not so easy during the Thanksgiving to New Year’s run. The Muppets invites the Muppets back for one last nostalgia ride, but also demonstrates how to get the important things in life back into your own life.
There’s plenty of laughs and gags on the surface, but deep down The Muppets is a film about recentering the self and the soul.
And fart shoes.
The cultural critique is there if you want to see it, but it’s perfectly easy to let all of the heavy stuff slide right past and enjoy Kermit’s mix of self-doubt and optimism, Piggy’s egocentrism, Fozzie’s bad jokes, and the mere presence of all these Muppets back on screen. Gonzo, Rowlf (I’ll tell you about my Rowlf nightmare some day), Scooter, and the rest might not get as much screen time as you’d like, but they’re here and they’re contributing and it simply feels good to see them doing their thing again.
This movie is clever, touching, and funny. There won’t be many movies all year that make me leave the theater with a bigger smile on my face and spring in my step than The Muppets.