Movie Review: ‘The Muppets’ return beautifully to life

HitFix has a full, talented roster of film writers (and that’s not even counting when Drew gets his adorable son to adorably interview Kermit and Miss Piggy) and my schedule doesn’t usually give me much time to either see or write about movies. But for some films, I make an exception, and “The Muppets” is one of those. Drew already wrote his own review, and I have a lot of thoughts on the film – meant, like most of my TV reviews, to be read after you’ve seen it, so don’t click through if you don’t want to know about the cameos and various jokes – coming up just as soon as I travel by map…

“The Muppets” is, to put it simply, the greatest work of fanfiction I’ve ever seen. And I mean that only as a compliment.

This is a movie made by, and for, that generation that grew up on “The Muppet Show” and “The Muppet Movie,” who know all the lyrics to “Rainbow Connection,” who have an instinctive response to the sound of “manamana,” who hear any reference to Swedish food and think (or say) “Bork! Bork! Bork!” It’s a kind of classic Mary Sue fantasy, in which one of those kids who grew up adoring Kermit and Fozzie and the rest gets to hang out with his favorite characters, gain their approval and even save the day and set them up for future adventures(*). For that matter, the fact that Jason Segel, Nicholas Stoller, James Bobin, Bret McKenzie and a bunch of other Muppet fans got to grow up and make this movie (with Segel also playing Walter’s best friend Gary) makes it a fantasy within and without.

(*) Walter’s not perfect, but not all Mary Sues are perfect; their insertion into the narrative is enough to qualify.

And I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. Most popular fiction involving long-running characters becomes fan fiction on some level. The guys writing Superman today do it because they were fans as kids and dreamed of telling Superman stories of their own. Jim Henson’s been gone for more than 20 years. Jerry Juhl died six years ago. Several other original Muppeteers and writers have either retired or significantly scaled back their work. Frank Oz is active – and has publicly expressed his displeasure with this project(**) – as are some of the other inner circle members (Dave Goelz is still playing Gonzo, Zoot, etc., all these years later), but for the most part, if you want these characters to continue, it’s going to have to be second and third-generation people who do it. And if the new people happen to be fans who have spent absurd amounts of time studying these characters and this world and figuring out what makes it tick – and who want this movie to be a passionate, giddy argument for why their childhood favorites are still relevant in 2011 – then that’s just fine with me.

(**) Either much of the material Oz objected to was deleted in later drafts, or he simply didn’t want to accept that a group of outsiders were taking over these characters he had helped create and protect for so long, but the finished product in no way supports his objections, either about it being a Jason Segel vehicle with the Muppets as supporting characters, or about it being disrespectful of and misunderstanding the characters.

In fact, as I left the movie theater last night with a broad smile on my face, the work I found myself comparing “The Muppets” to was, of all things, Aaron Sorkin’s “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip.” I always looked at that show as a Mary Sue fantasy, too – Sorkin (as played by Matthew Perry) gets to take over “Saturday Night Live” and restore it to its glory days – but the problem was that it was a bad bit of fanfiction. Sorkin may have loved “SNL” as deeply as Segel and company loved the Muppets, but he never seemed to understand its inner workings, and he certainly couldn’t create a plausible facsimile of a (good) “SNL” sketch.

“The Muppets,” on the other hand, feels like a Muppet movie. If you had a time machine and could insert “Life’s A Happy Song” into, say, “The Muppets Take Manhattan,” it wouldn’t seem the slightest bit out of place.(***) We get a “live” recreation of “The Muppet Show” opening credits, and a running subplot involving the host, the kidnapped, reluctant Jack Black. Kermit is still decent and patient and kind, but also too reserved and polite at times. Piggy is still driven by ego, but her temper and guile comes in handy. The Muppets don’t all get along, but did they ever? “The Muppet Show” was five seasons of backstage calamity driven by egos, anxieties and the kind of arguments that only close friends and family can have with each other.

(***) Given how much of the Flight of Conchords catalog consists of loving, note-perfect pastiches of different musical styles that Bret and Jemaine Clement enjoyed, I can think of few young musicians who would have been more appropriate to compose songs for this movie. And I was glad to see that Bobin (who directed and co-wrote most of the HBO “Flight of the Conchords” episodes) brought Kristen Schaal in, even for a brief scene as Animal’s anger management counselor.

The movie’s plot fits my friend Adam Bonin’s Grand Unified Muppet Theory that only “The Muppet Movie” – in which Kermit and the others signed Lew Lord’s “standard rich and famous contract” – is “real,” and that the show and the other movies are all projects that the Muppets made after hitting it big in Hollywood. But it’s also a pretty basic “Let’s put on a show!” narrative (with obligatory Mickey Rooney cameo), which is what “The Muppet Show” and the best of the early films(****) were.

(****) Not to mention 2002’s “It’s a Very Merry Muppet Christmas Movie,” one of the few bright spots in that very dark period that the 21st century has been for the Muppets until now.

It spends a good deal of time with Walter and Gary and Mary – both Segel and Amy Adams are, I would say, among the closest things we have to flesh-and-blood Muppet performers these days – but never so much that they’re in danger of taking over the movie. (Whereas when I go back and watch “The Great Muppet Caper,” there are times when it does feel like a Charles Grodin comedy guest-starring Kermit and Fozzie and Gonzo.) The focus is mainly on characters and stories from “The Muppet Show” and “The Muppet Movie” – Pepe (the breakout character from “Muppets Tonight”) only has a couple of lines, and I’m not sure Rizzo (who became more prominent as the movies went along) speaks at all – but there’s room for all parts of Muppets lore. Tex Richman’s lackeys, for instance, are Uncle Deadly, a relatively obscure “Muppet Show” character, and Bobo the Bear, the “Muppets Tonight” security guard. And in addition to Walter, the film gives us another memorable addition to the group in the form of ’80s Robot.

All the discussion of how the Muppets are still great and relevant today is a case of preaching to the converted, I think. If the theater I saw it in was any indication, the movie’s audience is going to be 2/3 people who grew up on the Muppets and 1/3 the kids they’re trying to raise them on now. But I still nodded and smiled as Kermit and Walter and Gary made those arguments, and I was still so pleased to see the theater fill up with both audience members and celebrity telethon workers. (Neil Patrick Harris agreeing with a caller that he should have been the host was a nice touch.)

The moment that really got to me, unsurprisingly, was Kermit and Piggy’s duet of “Rainbow Connection,” with all the other Muppets holding hands to watch and then join in. That’s a song from my childhood, and it’s one I’ve sang hundreds of times to my kids at bedtime, and it’s the one I associate more strongly with these characters than any other. (“Bein’ Green” is Kermit’s signature song, but it’s from his “Sesame Street” days.) So as I listened to it, all these memories of childhood and parenthood flooded through me, while at the same time, I thought – more seriously than I have at any point in the past 21 years – “Jim Henson’s gone, but Kermit lives on.”

And that made me very, very happy.

I loved most of the cameos (the ways they used Jim Parsons and Emily Blunt were particularly clever) and other than Eric Jacobson’s erratic Fozzie voice, all the second-generation Muppeteers continue to do terrific work carrying on the legacy of Henson, Oz and company.

Is it a great movie in its own right? I don’t know. I think it’s a very good movie, and among the more joyful experiences I’ve had at a movie theater in a long, long time, but a lot of its success leans on its ability to mimic the Muppets’ greatest hits. It does what it sets out to do in re-establishing the characters as a worthy big-screen presence – and hopefully those kids of the Gen X/Y parents have bought in, too – and it’s the movie I think everyone had to make at this juncture to give them the abilities to make future, forward-thinking Muppet films. Based on the early box office returns, I’m guessing they’ll get to do that now, and I’m really looking forward to those. Recapturing Henson’s spirit isn’t easy – if it was, we wouldn’t have gotten abominations like “The Muppets’ Wizard of Oz” – but now that they’ve done that, I want to see where these people can take the characters beyond our own nostalgia for the good old days of Sandy Duncan, Loretta Swit and Mr. Dom DeLuise.

What did everybody else think? Did you feel the old Muppet magic again? Did you have a favorite celebrity cameo? Do you want whistling Walter to play a prominent role in the franchise going forward, or has he already served his purpose in bringing the gang back together?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at