Jim Henson’s treasured puppet creations The Muppets are back on the big screen after a 12 year absence, following the disappointing 1999 outing Muppets From Space. This reinvention, simply titled The Muppets and directed by James Bobin (Flight of the Conchords), has finally hit international theatres following a brilliant and seemingly endless viral campaign. It’s the first Muppets release since Disney acquired the rights from the Jim Henson estate in 2004, and should prove successful in rebooting the franchise for a new generation.
The Muppets stars Jason Segel, who can not only sing and dance, but proves himself a more than capable writer, reuniting with Forgetting Sarah Marshall director Nicolas Stoller on the film’s script. Segel plays Gary, an overgrown child who shares a house in Smalltown, USA, with his Muppet-obsessed brother Walter, who happens to be a puppet. The film begins as a mock small-town musical, with Gary planning a trip to Los Angeles to celebrate the 10th anniversary of his chaste relationship with girlfriend Mary (Amy Adams). Walter is also invited, which causes Mary to doubt Gary’s commitment at times, but she decides to go along with their plan to visit the Muppets’ studio.
Alas, the formerly thriving studio has fallen into severe disrepair, as they discover on a tragic tour of the lot guided by Alan Arkin. A dejected Walter wanders off and overhears an evil scheme by oil baron Tex Richman (Chris Cooper), who plans to tear the place down and drill for oil. Cooper makes a wonderful archvillain, chanting “Maniacal laugh! Maniacal laugh!” to Uncle Deadly and Bobo the Bear, two minor Muppets he has turned to the dark side. The trio set off to warn Kermit the Frog, who is discovered in a lonely Bel Air mansion. Kermit decides they can raise the $10 million needed to save the studio the old-fashioned way: by putting on a show!
A roundup of the rest of the Muppets begins, starting with Fozzie Bear who is found in a third-rate Reno casino, performing with a dreadful Muppets tribute band called The Moopets, which features a rather manly Miss Poogy and Dave Grohl on drums. Gonzo is now a plumbing magnate, and Animal is taking a course in anger management. Eventually it is suggested that they collect the rest of the characters “by montage”, which certainly saves time, and travel to France “by map” to convince a reluctant Miss Piggy (now an editor at Paris Vogue). The reunited Muppets are met with indifference when they attempt to pitch their comeback show to the networks. “In this market, you guys are no longer relevant,” says Rashida Jones’ TV executive, echoing what must have been expressed by many prior to The Muppets release. As luck would have it, a spot opens up on her schedule, and the Muppets are given two days to put together their fund-raising special on one condition: they must have a celebrity host.
Cue the inevitable telethon special, hosted by a kidnapped Jack Black, featuring classic Muppets numbers (the ukulele rendition of ‘The Rainbow Connection’ is a highlight) and almost too many cameos to mention (Sarah Silverman, Kristen Schaal, Neil Patrick Harris, Emily Blunt, Mickey Rooney, Whoopi Goldberg, Zach Galifianakis and Selena Gomez make appearances) – all of which is very much in the spirit of Henson’s franchise. Despite the abundance of human talent, the true stars of the film are The Muppets, who still have the same remarkable presence and distinctive personalities that have endeared them to audiences since the 1970s.
The film’s soundtrack, supervised by Flight of the Conchords’ Bret McKenzie, features several excellent numbers including Gary and Walter’s introspective ‘Man or Muppet’, and the wonderful ‘Life’s a Happy Song’ which serves as the film’s theme song. Both tracks were written by McKenzie, and they fit nicely between classic Muppets numbers like ‘The Rainbow Connection’ and ‘Mahna Mahna’ as well as parodies of ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ and ‘Forget You’. In one of the film’s most unexpected moments, Chris Cooper even gets a chance to bust out a maniacal rap!
The Muppets plot is episodical, with some parts working better than others — Mary’s pouting over Gary’s preference for the Muppets’ company bogs down the story at times, and the somewhat confused finale could have done with a rewrite. But the film is an otherwise superb return to form for these felt heroes and certainly justifies The Muppets’ existence in 2011. The decision to have The Muppets played by real puppets rather than some ridiculous new technological rendition of them is something to be applauded, and will no doubt please Gen X viewers who regard these characters as sacred.
Jason Segel, James Bobin and co. have not only restored a beloved franchise to its former glory – they have also delivered one of the funniest and most purely enjoyable films of 2011. The Muppets is an utterly charming, gleefully nostalgic and hilariously self-aware tribute to these iconic characters which should please fans of all ages, both old and new.
Watch the theatrical trailer for The Muppets below.
As if any extra incentive is required to go see The Muppets at the cinemas, the film is preceded by a new eight-minute Toy Story short! Small Fry features a tiny, fast-food meal version of Buzz Lightyear who yearns for a better life and decides he can achieve it by kidnapping the real Buzz. Hilarity ensues when Buzz attempts a daring escape only to end up having to sit through a group therapy session for discarded Fun Meal toys, lead by Neptuna (Jane Lynch). Directed by Angus MacLane (Burn-E), it’s another excellent Toy Story short — following the enjoyable Hawaiian Vacation which screened before Cars 2 — but then I would expect nothing less from Pixar.
Watch a sneak peak of Small Fry below.