‘Muppets’ returns joy to the big screen
In unequivocal terms, “The Muppets” is far and away the most charming, touching and entertaining movie you’ll see this holiday season. And for a series that hasn’t had a theatrical release in a dozen years (not to mention the less-than-stellar performances of older “Muppets” movies), that just goes to show , when done right, Jim Henson’s creations are still as magical as ever.
That’s not to say it was an easy feat, though. It’s difficult to feel nostalgia for a show that lost its juggernaut status before you were born (the movie’s core audience), much less resurrect a show held near-sacroscent to Gen X moviegoers. But with a leap of faith, Disney’s “The Muppets” has returned to the big screen with stunning success, thanks in large part to director James Bobin’s (“Flight of the Conchords”) decision to leave the movie conceptually and stylistically alone.
In the latest adventure for the fuzzy gang, Disney brought “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” star Jason Segel and director Nicholas Stoller on as screenwriters. Segal, a longtime Muppet fan, plays Gary, an overgrown child who shares a house with his brother, Walter, a muppet enchanted by his famous counterparts to the point of dreaming of becoming one. The situation soon presents itself, as Gary decides to visit Los Angeles to celebrate his 10-year relationship with his girlfriend, Mary (a delightfully sunny Amy Adams, “Enchanted”) and takes both her and Walter to visit the Muppets’ studio.
But after finding the once-famous theater in disarray and learning that wealthy oil tycoon Tex Richman (Chris Cooper, “American Beauty”) plans to buy it, tear it down and drill for oil, the trio work to locate the roaming Muppets to have them put on show to raise the money to save the theater.
First on that list is ringleader Kermit, found in a Bel Air mansion. Once they persuade him to reunite the old team, they quickly find the others, including Fozzie Bear (working in a Reno dive bar performing with a sleazy Muppets tribute band), Gonzo (a successful plumbing magnate) and Animal (taking anger-management courses). The goal of a reunion telethon, however, hits a wall when no network will host it.
“In this market, you guys are no longer relevant,” says a TV executive (Rashida Jones, “I Love You, Man”). She quickly changes her mind when an emergency leaves a hole in the schedule, and the Muppets are given two days to fill in the gap, given they can find a celebrity host (a captive Jack Black).
The last member of the group, Miss Piggy, now editor of Vogue Paris, is by far the most reluctant to join, still angry at Kermit’s shyness toward her. The group then works to convince her of the theater’s importance and to put on one, last show to save their home.
At every stop along the way (and remember, the Muppets travel by map), the band of fuzzy friends is just as sweet and charming as ever. The movie surprisingly, and humorously, breaks the fourth wall at times (“I can’t believe we had that in the budget!”), winking at itself at others (looking for a host, Kermit tries calling President Carter). It may not be laugh-out-loud funny (which it doesn’t aim to be), but you won’t stop chuckling.
Then’s there the score, which includes the famous “Rainbow Connection,” a rap number by Cooper and Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” arranged as a barbershop quartet, along with a new ballad, “Am I a Man, Or Am I a Muppet?”
The same themes that defined the Muppets in the mid-1970s — crazy slapstick comedy and the payoffs of working together — return in glorious fashion, evoking such nostalgia in pre-production that it eventually wrangled a star-studded cameo cast, including Whoopi Goldberg, James Carville, Neil Patrick Harris, Judd Hirsch, Selena Gomez, Ricky Gervais, Emily Blunt, Zach Galifianakis, Ken Jeong and others.
Believing what the TV executive told him, Kermit sighs, “I guess people sort of forgot about us.” After this week, that will no longer be the case.
Four Muppet stars of five, and a critic’s pick.