While The Muppet Show ran only for 5 years on television, from 1976 to 1981, it was a seminal show. Jim Henson’s Muppets had become widely known with the advent of Sesame Street 7 years earlier. With The Muppet Show, Henson created a “kids” show that appealed to the child within all of us, whatever our physical age. It pulled off a mix of outrageous humor with sly innuendo similar to the classic Warner Brothers cartoons in the 1940’s and 1950’s, and it attracted the top line talent of its day as guest starts. (Who can forget Baryshnikov performing Swine Lake with a man-sized pig Muppet?) Then the Muppets moved into the movies, with the classic The Muppet Movie. But as time went on, the movies became tired. Jim Henson passed away, Frank Oz moved on to directing regular movies, and the Muppets were sold to Disney, who didn’t quite know what to do with them except for merchandising. Fans could only get small slices of Muppetmania, like the Muppet version of “Bohemian Rhapsody” on YouTube.
Now, thanks to Jason Segel (Forgetting Sarah Marshall, How I Met Your Mother), the Muppets are back on the big screen in The Muppets. Segel co-wrote the screenplay and executive produced the film, along with staring as small town boy Gary.
Gary’s brother, Walter, is a Muppet who had self-esteem issues until he discovered The Muppet Show. He’d watch the programs over and over on videotape, never realizing the Muppet star had set. When Gary and his long-time girlfriend Mary (Amy Adams) take a trip to Los Angeles, Walter comes along so he can take the Muppet studio tour. He’s shocked to find the studio all but shut down. After he leaves the tour and sneaks into Kermit’s old office, Walter overhears evil oilman Tex Richman (Chris Cooper) and his Muppet henchmen plotting to get their hands on the studio to drill for oil that’s located beneath it.
Gary, Walter and Mary track down Kermit the Frog to warn him of Richman’s plans. Kermit’s now retired and living in a Beverly Hills mansion with one companion, 80’s Robot. It will take ten million dollars to regain control of the studio property, and the only way Kermit sees to make that kind of money is to (surprise) put on a show. But to do that, they’ll have to reunite the Muppets.
The movie showcases the best aspects of past Muppet productions – sly digs at movie conventions, breaking the fourth wall, and fun musical production numbers. The use of “Traveling by Map” takes off on one of the oldest movie visuals (brought back in the Indiana Jones films), while after a supposedly huge explosion that happens off screen, Kermit’s comment is “I didn’t know we had that in the budget.” The first musical production in the film combines all of these factors.
As with the previous movies, there are a slew of appearances by celebrities, sometimes in roles, sometimes as themselves. When Gary and Walter perform a number wondering whether they’re man or Muppet, Gary gets to sing with a Muppet version of himself, while Walter gets to see who his inner man is (a perfectly cast cameo). What other movie could bring together Alan Arkin, Sara Silverman, Emily Blunt, James Carville, Whoopi Goldberg, Selena Gomez, Judd Hirsh, Neil Patrick Harris, Zach Galifianakis, Rashida Jones, and Mickey Rooney? (A favorite is having David Grohl of the Foo Fighters playing drums in a Muppet tribute band.)
As she showed in Enchanted, Amy Adams is a true triple-threat with singing and dancing as well as acting. The film glows when she’s on screen, and the chemistry between Segel and Adams works well. Anyone who’s watched movies in the last ten years knows that Chris Cooper is an excellent actor, but who would have guessed he had a rapper within him just waiting to break out. But as fun as it is to see the human actors, it is a joy to once again see Kermit, Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear, Animal and all the other characters.
Director James Bobin keeps the movie moving right along, until the end when it does drag a bit. Still, he’s a worthy successor for Henson and Oz. He’s had experience with blending comedy with music before, having written, directed and produced Flight of the Conchords.
This movie is a feast for your comedy senses. They have more zingers delivered as throwaway lines than most comedy movies have in the entire script. And you never know – maybe by watching, you’ll discover your own inner Muppet.