Kermit, Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear and friends reunite to save their old theater in The Muppets, a charming reintroduction to the Muppet characters.
Fuzzy puppet Walter (voice of Peter Linz) and his human brother Gary (Jason Segel) have always been inseparable best friends. But being shorter and muppetier than his brother has always left Walter feeling a little left out — that is until he discovers The Muppet Show on TV. Walter becomes a mega fan of Kermit, Fozzie, Gonzo, etc., sensing in part that with them he might finally feel that he belongs. When Gary and his girlfriend Mary (Amy Adams) head to Los Angeles for a vacation, Gary surprises Walter with a ticket to come along so he can check out the Muppet studios and the Muppet Theater from whence their weekly vaudville-esque show used to broadcast. Mary isn’t exactly delighted that it wouldn’t just be Gary and her on this romantic getaway, but she puts on a smile and forges ahead.
When the trio gets to Muppet studios, Walter is disappointed to see how run-down everything is. But when he takes a quick look in Kermit’s old office, he overhears new plans for the old theater. Statler (voice of Steve Whitmore) and Waldorf (voice of Dave Goelz), the balcony hecklers from back in the day, are working on a deal to sell the old theater to Tex Richman (Chris Cooper). They think he’s going to build a museum in the spot. But after they leave, Tex explains to his two (Muppet) henchmen that actually he’s going to level everything and dig for oil.
Walter is horrified by these plans and is convinced that he has to do something. He decides to seek out Kermit to find a solution to the problem — namely, that the land is Richman’s if the Muppets can’t come up with $10 million. At first, Kermit (also Whitmore) isn’t sure that the old gang is willing to get back together. But then he decides to give it a shot, gathering Fozzie (voice of Eric Jacobson), who now performs with a tribute band called the Moopets; Rowlf (Bill Barretta); Gonzo (Goelz), a plumbing supply company owner; Animal (Jacobson), who is currently in anger management with Jack Black, and all the others. Kermit even takes the gang to Paris to try to woo back Miss Piggy (Jacobson), who is currently an editor at Vogue and who harbors feelings of romantic disappointment about the way things ended with Kermit.
Of course, getting the players back is only half the job. The Muppets still have to repair the theater, find a TV that will air their telethon and wrangle a celebrity guest host. Walter pitches in to help get the job done and, because it’s so important to him, Gary helps as well — meanwhile Mary wonders if there will ever be time for just the two of them.
The intersection of slapstick, earnestness, showbiz humor and Broadway-style song-and-dance has always been where the Muppets live. In this movie, we see them — pretty much the same characters they always were, with only slightly different voices — return to that same spot as those original TV shows. I remember loving the show, and the subsequent movies, as a kid and I suspect I’d actually get even more out of them as an adult. I liked the cameos from well-known actors and comedians then (even when I didn’t understand who, say, Joan Rivers was in the comedy universe) and this movie uses today’s equivalents just as well — a single line during a late-in-the-film appearance by Neil Patrick Harris is an example of the kind of quick-hit humor the Muppets excel at. It’s a short, clever joke that will give the grown-ups a chuckle but won’t mess up the flow for the kids. Because for all its showbiz and pop culture savvy, The Muppets doesn’t make references the core of its humor. It works at providing multiple levels of funny — crazy-looking puppets who do wacky things (for the little kids) and tell some goofy jokes (for the older kids) with maybe some connection to something in the general pop culture universe or a nod to a well-known performer (for the grown-ups). Doing all of this at once — as the movie does here — is what keeps it from becoming too slick (ahem, Dreamworks animation) or too cutesy and little-kid-oriented.
Even their songs do a surprisingly good job of bridging all ages and the movie does a good job of mixing classics — we get a little “Rainbow Connection” — with peppy new songs. In particular, Segel and Adams, though humans, are brought into the Muppet fold with these sweet, slightly silly songs — there are both nice visual jokes and moments of real emotion in a song where Walter and Gary each wonder if they are a man or a Muppet.
In the end, I was entertained by the movie but dazzled by the way that it all works. The Muppets stayed true to the characters that people like me grew up with and managed to hit that same sweet spot of big-audience entertainment (something that is quite rare in current movies and TV — think some of the better Pixar movies). Whether you haven’t seen them for a while or have never really watched Kermit, Gonzo and the gang do their stuff, it’s definitely time to meet the Muppets. B+
Rated PG for some mild rude humor. Directed by James Bobin with a screenplay by Jason Segel and Nicholas Stoller (from characters by Jim Henson), The Muppets is an hour and 38 minutes long and is distributed by Walt Disney Pictures.