WFTB Score: 12/20
The plot: Brothers Gary and Walter head off to Los Angeles, ostensibly with different itineraries: Gary’s going to spend quality time with his long-time love Mary, whilst Walter only cares about visiting the studios once owned by his beloved Muppets. However, the studios have fallen into disrepair, the stars are nowhere to be seen, and what Walter learns turns their vacation into a working holiday – much to Mary’s chagrin.
Gary and Walter (Jason Segel and the voice of Peter Linz) are pretty alike; well, allowing for the fact that Gary’s over six feet tall and his suspiciously fabricky brother Walter stands at barely two. They’re certainly both huge Muppet fans, so when Gary announces that he’s taking girlfriend Mary (Amy Adams) on a trip to L.A. for their anniversary, it’s only natural – despite Mary’s murmured misgivings – that Walter comes along to take in the Muppet Studio tour. Unfortunately, the studios are all but abandoned; worse, Walter eavesdrops on cynical magnate Tex Richman’s (Chris Cooper) plans to tear down the studios to drill for oil. The only way to rescue the studios is to reunite The Muppets, convince a network to broadcast a telethon and raise $10 million by putting on The Greatest Muppet Show Ever, all whilst Gary tries to keep Mary sweet and Walter decides whether he’s got what it takes to join the Muppets on stage. Simple enough, except that Miss Piggy is running Vogue in Paris, The Great Gonzo has gone into the toilet business, Fozzie Bear has been reduced to appearing in a lousy tribute act called the Moopets and your main frog Kermit (voiced by Steve Whitmire) is a sad recluse who believes it’s all too little, too late. Will Gary and Walter man – or muppet – up sufficiently to do what they need to do? Or will Richman and his cronies be drilling under the studios come midnight?
As fans and writers, Jason Segel and Forgetting Sarah Marshall cohort Nicholas Stoller had to negotiate a tricky path when bringing The Muppets back to the big screen, tempering their nostalgia for Jim Henson’s marvellous creations with an acknowledgement that Kermit and Co. had been quiet since Disney ‘acquired’ them in 2004 and for some time before that, a whole generation growing up in blissful ignorance of Kermit, Fozzie, Miss Piggy and the rest (though their interpretation of Bohemian Rhapsody had been a big online hit). By tackling the problem head on, the film gets to both revisit and explain the past at a single, masterful stroke, all the while treading a fine line between telling a tale and winking knowingly at older members of the audience. The trials and tribulations experienced by both Gary (Segel, nicely toned down) and the utterly delightful Walter (the disparity between his and Gary’s appearance is never questioned) add greatly to the fun, bolstered by Adams who puts a petulant spin on her good-natured Enchanted persona as the overlooked Mary. It almost goes without saying that the performers who bring the Muppets to life all do a great job – you always believe these wonderful pieces of cloth are real, living characters, even if there’s a certain truth to the famous Family Guy joke about their voices (it’s a shame Frank Oz declined to voice any of his characters, but he had his reasons). Alan Arkin, Emily Blunt, Whoopi Goldberg and a funny turn from Jack Black as the show’s (kidnapped) human star all help to maintain the viewer’s interest, while a number of smart Bret McKenzie songs (including the feted Man or Muppet?) compliment performances of modern tunes like Forget You and old classics like Mahna Mahna and (of course!) The Rainbow Connection.
But before we surrender ourselves to the fuzzy/Fozzie warmth of the good old days, it’s only right to mention some of the things that don’t work so well. I’m not mad keen on the idea of the Moopets, even less struck by Zach Galifianakis’ pointless cameo, and while Chris Cooper puts everything into the role of pantomime baddie Tex Richman – “maniacal laugh” and all – he’s actually pretty poorly served by the machinations of the script. I’ll pass over his rapping to concentrate on the climax to the story, which ties itself in further knots during the denouement: on the one hand, the scene out on the street suggests the Muppets are incredibly popular, yet the telethon is ultimately shown to be a massive flop. Moreover, the plot has the gang thrown out of their own theatre and robbed of the Muppet name, yet still optimistic in their renewed togetherness; but someone must have wobbled over this ending, because even as the credits are rolling the film sees Tex undergoing a miraculous conversion and swiftly undoing all his evil works.
You might even argue that The Muppets doesn’t achieve what it sets out to do; for whilst it effectively dusts off Kermit, Piggy, Gonzo, Animal and a hundred more weird and wonderful creatures – even adding a few more like the charming 80s robot – the variety show they put on is pretty corny stuff, suggesting that there’s not too much mileage in sending The Muppets out on the road again for further adventures. Still, there is going to be a sequel, so what do I know? Regardless of how that turns out, for all its faults The Muppets is a sweet, generously-spirited film which should send you away with a smile and a song in your heart, regardless of whether or not your childhood was shaped by Jim Henson’s furry friends. All the same, it’s no Christmas Carol.
NOTES: It’ll be apparent that this review was written before the appearance of Muppets Most Wanted and the relatively new TV show. Neither, as far as I can tell, have done much to disprove the sentiments of the last paragraph.