Review: ‘The Muppets’ is a big-hearted star-packed slice of awesome

Nostalgia is a funny thing, and I’ve certainly written here at length about the way I think it can often blind people to quality, or the lack thereof.  And when you’re talking about nostalgia, The Muppets loom large for at least one generation, and it would be easy to assume that any praise you hear for the new film is based on a long-instilled affection for the characters.

The thing is, if that were true, then everything the Muppets have ever appeared in would be praised highly, and that is absolutely not the case.  I don’t care for many of the feature films that the characters have starred in over the years, and their last theatrical outing, “Muppets From Space,” was fairly wretched, as was their “Wizard Of Oz” riff for television.  I spent many years convinced that the spirit of the Muppets had died along with Jim Henson.

I was wrong.

You know where it turns out the spirit was hiding?  Inside the kids who grew up with “Sesame Street” and “The Muppet Show,” who were still soaking up culture when the Muppets were at the height of their cultural currency.  One of those kids was Jason Segel.  Another was James Bobin.  Yet another was Nicholas Stoller.  And Bret McKenzie, he was one.  And I’d wager that Amy Adams, Rashida Jones, Emily Blunt, Jim Parsons, Kristen Schaal, Sarah Silverman, and more were Muppet kids, too.  And while it might be enough to make a few jokes, have some celebrities interact with the Muppets, and make a few nods to the past, that’s not what Segel and his collaborators have done here.

Instead, they reached deep, and the result is a film that asks the question, “Has the world become too cynical for The Muppets?”  If the answer is yes, I’ll be shocked, because this is a reminder of exactly why we loved these creations in the first place, and it’s so full of the same rich, warm sense of humor that fueled the best work they’ve ever done that for people who have never seen a single frame of their work, this will still entertain and enchant in equal measure.

You could argue that this is a direct sequel to “The Muppet Movie” and “The Muppet Show,” intentionally ignoring most of what’s come since, and what’s impressive is how even with almost every character played by someone other than the person who created the character, the single greatest thing about this film is how dead-on accurate it all is.  The screenplay by Stoller and Segel may have been criticized in the press by Frank Oz, but as much as it pains me to say this, Oz was wrong.  He’s said now that he thought the script disrespected the characters, but this may be a case where passing the torch to first-generation fans proves to be the best possible move they could have made.  This film doesn’t just respect the Muppets… it reveres them.

I’m 41 years old, and while much of what I write here is shot through with what I hope is a positive, heartfelt love of film and a generally optimistic view of the world, I have certainly been worn down by life as much as anyone else.  I have plenty of dark days.  I have plenty of self-doubt.  It is a struggle to keep looking forward when I feel myself weighed down by regret.  It would be easy to let life turn me sour, but I struggle to keep that from happening because there are people who depend on me, who need me to keep getting up each morning and pushing through the day.  My life is given meaning by the people in it, and I have learned that I am only as strong as the people I surround myself with, in life and in business.  That idea is the heart of this film, and it’s articulated right from the start with the preposterously catchy “I’ve Got Everything I Need.”

This film, although silly and filled with terrible puns and bright cheery music, is shot through with melancholy and a sorrow over a world that has moved on, and I think that’s a pure expression of how Jason Segel feels as a hardcore Muppet fan in a world where they are simply Disney product now, relegated to cute toys and merchandising opportunities.  What makes the film special is the way it starts in a world that has moved on, where Gary (Segel) and his brother Walter (a new Muppet performed by Peter Linz) are still active fans, but they’re pretty much alone.  They live in Smalltown America, where they’ve grown up together, depending on each other.  Walter has never felt like he fit in anywhere, and Gary feels very protective of Walter.  As Gary prepares to celebrate his anniversary with his girlfriend Mary (Amy Adams) in Los Angeles, he surprises Walter by inviting him along.  This is Walter’s dream, because he’s always wanted to visit the Muppet Studios, where he hopes to meet the Muppets.  Even when Gary warns him that it’s been a long time since the Muppets put on a show together, Gary believes.

It’s interesting to see how the film both creates a heightened reality and also acknowledges the way the world has changed in the 20 years since Jim Henson passed away.  I remember hearing the news about his passing and the impact on me was overwhelming.  I moved from Tampa to Los Angeles less than two weeks later, convinced that if someone who had put as much good out into the world could die as stupidly and randomly as Henson did, then I wasn’t going to waste another minute of my life waiting for things to begin.  When I got to LA, I was quickly disabused of many of my beliefs about the way things worked, and the film gets that right.  When Walter and Gary and Mary go to the Muppet Studios, they are shocked by the condition of things.  I had some friends who got married at the Henson Studios on La Brea, and while they’re in better condition than they’re presented in the film, the underlying truth is the same.  Whatever dreams Jim Henson had for his company and his characters, those went with him, and for almost 20 years now, Disney and the other corporate entities that have owned the characters, including the actual Henson family for a time, have been clueless about how to use them.  In the film, the Muppets are little more than a corporate asset, and the owner of the studio, oil magnate Tex Richman, has plans to demolish the theater and the studio and replace the real Muppets with imposters, destroying not only their history but their future as well.  Walter overhears Richman talking about his plans, and he tells Gary and Mary about what he heard.  They realize that they need to find the Muppets and warn them and somehow help them raise the $10 million they need to buy Richman out and save the theater.

I love “putting the band back together” movies.  When they work, it’s because we know the personalities that are being assembled, and we care about the stakes.  We want to see them together again, and we want to see them recapture whatever it was that made them special in the first place.  Here, no one believes in the mission that Gary and Walter and Mary are on because, as a television executive (Rashida Jones) tells them, no one cares about the Muppets anymore.  Even when Gary and Mary and Walter find Kermit the Frog, he has trouble imagining the old gang working together again.  In the most nakedly emotional scene in the film, Kermit finds himself walking down a hallway lined with pictures of all the other Muppets, singing a song called “Pictures In My Head,” and it is from the grand tradition of Muppet Songs That Make Me Weep.  There is something so direct about the lyrics, as if Kermit (played here by Steve Whitmire, who does a remarkable job of capturing not only Henson’s vocal style but also the small details in performance that always made Kermit feel so real) is speaking directly to the audience:

“If we could do it all again
Just another chance to entertain
Would anybody watch or even care
Or did something break we can’t repair?”

It is an act of faith for Kermit to hit the road with Gary and Mary and Walter, and for Walter, it’s a chance to give something back to the people that entertained him his whole life.  One by one, we get a chance to see where Fozzie, Animal, Beaker and Dr. Honeydew, Rowlf, Gonzo, and of course Miss Piggy are now, and one by one, they start to reconnect.  The film makes use of some familiar music as well as some great new songs, most of them written by “Flight Of The Conchords” star Bret McKenzie, and it also reaches deep into the roster of familiar faces so that we get to see Sam Eagle, Statler and Waldorf, Rizzo, Zoot, Beauregard, the Swedish Chef, Dr. Teeth, Pepe the Prawn, Scooter, Janice, Floyd, Sweetums, Lew Zealand, and even Uncle Deadly.  As with the best of the Muppet projects, the human storyline is given far less attention than the Muppet story, and that’s exactly as it should be.  There’s a little bit of business about Gary not paying enough attention to Mary because of their quest to help the Muppets, but it’s not overdone.  Besides, it gives Amy Adams and Jason Segel a chance to perform some pretty great songs.  In particular, there’s an existential duet between Walter and Gary called “Man Or Muppet” that is kind of amazing, and which gives Segel a chance to live out his greatest fantasy.

This being a Muppet movie, I’m fairly sure you can guess how things end, but it’s the little touches along the way that elevate things, and I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a movie that made me laugh through tears quite the same way that this one did.  James Bobin’s affection for the characters and his deep understanding of their iconography is evident in every scene, every shot.  The film has a lovely candy-colored palette, and Bobin gets in close enough that you can see the material used to make the Muppets, giving them a tangible texture, a reality.  The sense of humor here is warm and playful and occasionally surreal, and there’s not a mean bone in its body.  By the end, I think I finally have a different understanding of nostalgia and its value.  I think it’s weird that my generation wallows in their childhood, but then I look around at the world we’ve inherited, and I think back to the promise of what things would be like when we were young, and I realize that people reject the present in favor of the past because of disappointment and disillusionment.  “The Muppets” is spilling over with an optimism that is uncommon in our pop culture today, and beyond that, there is a pure joy at the act of entertaining others that reaches some place inside us that most movies or TV shows never even acknowledge.  “The Muppets” is not just one of the best films of the year, it is an affirmation that we can indeed occasionally find our way home again, and that some things shouldn’t change.

“The Muppets” opens everywhere on November 23, and I can’t imagine a better way to celebrate with your family this holiday weekend.