Thursday, December 22, 2011
But the Muppets were a staple of many a childhood (mine included) and although The Muppets is more nostalgia for those days gone past than an exercise in rebuilding a new generation of fans (when I saw it there was surprisingly only one kid in the theatre), a love letter to one of the treasures of those lucky enough to know it in their childhood is welcome in these parts any day.
What The Muppets gets absolutely right, under the loving hands of director James Bobin and writer/star/devoted Muppetaphile Jason Segal, is exactly what Jim Henson gave them in the beginning to render them so timeless: distinct personalities with distinct human characteristics. The Muppets, when they were succeeding, did so not because they were cute and cuddly but because kids and adults alike could recognize a little bit of themselves in each of them.
Kermit the Frog was their noble leader but not above failure, Miss Piggy was vain, Fozzie was sincere but naive and Gonzo just wanted to find his place within a world where no one else like him existed. It’s the difference between pieces of felt with plastic eyes and real characters that make you feel warm and comfortable in their presence. Throw in that Henson was a mad comic genius (I still discover new winks and nods in the original The Muppet Movie all these years later) and you have the perfect family entertainment.
And like The Muppet Movie, The Muppets doesn’t so much tell a story as wrap a lose narrative around a collection of episodes (The Muppets were always at their best within the 30 minute confines of television sitcom). We start with an introduction to a new Muppet, Walter, who lives in a place called Small Town and loves his older brother and best friend Gary (Segal) more than anything. Their bond is touching and pure, but as Gary grows older, gets taller, makes human friends, and such, Walter continues to be the same, always loved and backed by Gary, but not quite fitting in. He finds, as maybe most kids did, refuge in the wonderful world of The Muppets, a place where he feels safe and where he is understood. The other kids may poke fun, but the Muppets give Walter everything he needs.
So when Gary plans on taking his girlfriend Mary (Amy Adams) to L.A. Walter is elated when, despite some reservation from Mary, he is invited along as well. It will be a dream for him to finally visit the famous Muppet Studios and see where all the magic happened.
But the gang arrives in L.A. only to find the studio to be forgotten and run down. And then, when Walter sneaks away from the tour (led by a funny Alan Arkin), he discovers a plan for an evil oil barren (Chris Cooper) to purchase the studio, demolish it and drill for oil. Unless the long forgotten about Muppets band together again, an unlikely prospect, and raise the money to the buy the studio, it’s lights out on the last standing piece of Muppet history.
So in a desperate attempt to not lose the most meaningful thing in his life, Walter tracks down Kermit in hopes of convincing him to put on one last show to raise the money to buy back the studio. The first half of the movie is thus, in a tribute to The Muppet Movie, a hilarious and self-aware road picture as Kermit and his new friends travel around the country to collect the other Muppets and convince them to come back for one last show leading up to, not unpredictably, in a fitting tribute to their original televised form, that one last show.
That’s all there is to The Muppets. Anyone who knows the Muppet world knows that plot description doesn’t even begin to describe the manic comic energy of these characters and indeed, The Muppets is all smiles from beginning to end with several big laughs and some catchy songs littered along the way.
But no matter how clever the sight gags get, how inside the jokes go, how constant the celebrity cameos are and how shameless the lengths the film will go to get a laugh, The Muppets works because it leaves one with a warm and fuzzy feeling. That’s why the Muppets have endured for so long. They are our friends and neighbors who exist in this world without the slightest hint of irony. It’s what Jim Henson worked so hard to create. He couldn’t have asked for a more fitting tribute to his legacy.