I once had a dream where I was working on a show as a puppeteer. Myself and a group of dream-stranger people were trying to control this big dragon puppet, and we kept having trouble. Suddenly, a man walked out of the shadows to offer some assistance. As he neared, I identified him as Jim Henson, and through the rest of the dream he gave me tips and advice on puppeteering from the heart. When I woke up from the dream, I found that I had been crying. This is how much Jim Henson and his world of Muppets has affected my life. I grew up watching the show, which I still watch here and there. I watch at least one of the Muppet movies once a month. I have rooms (yes, plural) full of Muppet memorabilia, including life-size Kermit and Gonzo replica puppets. I even once sent my resume to Jim Henson’s Creature Shop, knowing it was a long-shot, but it didn’t hurt to try.
I say all this so you understand how excited I was for The Muppets. Each successive preview hinted more and more that this new film would be like the good ol’ days. As much as I enjoyed Muppets From Space and Muppets Treasure Island, they were missing the magic that was so prevalent when Jim Henson was involved. In the new film, while the magic isn’t there, the spirit of the magic is, which I think is the closest we can get to the Muppet glory days without raising Henson from the dead. In fact, following Walter (the new Muppet) on his journey from small-town fan of the Muppets to being instrumental in reuniting them and bringing them back made me connect with Walter and wish that his journey was my own. I’m pretty sure at the very least we have the same bedroom.
Early revisions of the script had Walter as basically a ventriloquial figure, with Jason Segel being his ventriloquist. Thankfully this changed and Walter is actually the younger brother of Gary (played by Segel), both of whom are huge Muppet fans. Gary is taking his girlfriend Mary (Amy Adams) to Los Angeles for their tenth anniversary, and Gary surprises Walter by telling him he can come along. Upon arrival to the city, the three visit the now-defunct Muppet Studios. It is here that Walter learns of the plot by evil oil baron Tex Richman (Chris Cooper) to tear down the studio and drill for oil. The trio find Kermit living in Bel Air and convince him to get the group back together and put on a Muppet Telethon to raise the $10 million necessary to buy back the studio, as well as to save the Muppets name.
While the Muppets are reuniting and planning the telethon, Gary and Mary have their own tribulations as she feels he is concentrating too much on the Muppets and Walter, but not enough on her. This sub-plot is like an annoying fly that buzzes around in front of your television screen. Just when you’re getting into the movie, oh great, there goes Gary and Mary again. Jeez, I wish someone would swat them out. As much as I love Segel and Adams, they really did not need to be in this film, or at least could have taken more of a back seat. I feel like this was one of the problems with films like Muppets’ Wizard of Oz; there’s no need for human main characters in a Muppets movie. The Muppets as stars, plus cameos and extras played by celebrities, were very successful from the start (see The Muppet Movie and Muppets Take Manhattan). The characters of Gary and Mary were two-dimensional and took screen time away from Walter’s story and the rest of the Muppets. I would have given anything to see Gonzo, or any of the other Muppets, get more screen time in place of them.
Other than that, everything in this movie was back to Muppets basics, including the songs. Muppets, in their show and in the movies, would do original songs and covers of popular songs or old standards. They continued this tradition in The Muppets. Bret McKenzie (half of the hilarious Flight of the Conchords) wrote most of the songs for the movie, and you can definitely feel the Conchord-iness of them. This isn’t a bad thing for me as I love the kind of whimsy he puts in his songs, and it was perfect for the Muppets. Two of the songs especially stood out with the Conchord voice: “Me Party” sung by Mary (Adams) and “Man or Muppet” sung by Gary (Segel) and Walter.
Some of the songs were so spot-on that I had tears running down my face; especially the song “Pictures in My Head” sung by Kermit. This song comes right after Walter, Gary and Mary approach Kermit about reuniting the Muppets. He walks through his old empty house, passing pictures of the Muppets, who come alive and join in the song as Kermit walks by. This stirred up great emotion in me because Kermit and the gang have always been such a huge part of my life, to see him sad and missing the good old days, and wondering what happened to the glory of the Muppets, completely wrenched at my heartstrings. I want the Muppets to last forever, and to see them as forgotten, fading icons was almost too much to handle.
Thankfully the rest of the movie not only made me laugh, but also gave me hope that perhaps the Muppets can not only be reunited and saved within the movie, but in real life the franchise can be saved and reborn through this movie. When I mentioned the spirit of the magic earlier, it was most apparent in the last third of the movie when the Muppets Telethon is actually taking place. The telethon was like watching a new episode of The Muppet Show; it could easily have fit within any of the earlier seasons. Jack Black as the unwitting celebrity host of the telethon was brilliant (actually he was brilliant throughout the movie, even though he’s uncredited). The skits stayed true to the style of humor and entertainment that could be found nowhere else, even the final performance by the new Muppet Walter as he reveals his talent. And it seemed like all the Muppets were there; not just the ones that casual observers will recognize (Kermit, Gonzo, Miss Piggy, etc.), but even ones that true fans know and love (Wayne & Wanda, Beauregard, Marvin Suggs and the Muppaphones, and more).
I truly hope that this film revitalizes the franchise enough to cause Disney to continue the tradition of self-referential, witty, wholesome, tongue-in-cheek, slapstick, just plain awesome entertainment. Segel and his writing partner Nicholas Stoller, with the help of director James Bobin, have shown that the Muppets can still be magic when done right. It was interesting to see the Pixar short Small Fry (with familiar Toy Story characters) precede the film. Here you have an entirely computer-generated world, and then with the Muppets you get real interaction and substance that can’t be faked. Both sides of the spectrum, when done right, are amazing and, well, simply magic. I know I keep using that word, but what else would you call it when a singing/dancing/talking frog, a joke-telling bear, and a stunt-performing-chicken-loving- well – whatever Gonzo is, steal your heart? I give The Muppets 5 out of 5 Nerdskulls.