A frisky new film showcasing some old pals made out of felt, charm and some kind of genius, the Disney release The Muppets overcomes a jaded streak reflecting its makers’ nervousness about selling Kermit the Frog, Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear and the gang to an audience unfamiliar with Sesame Street (a Muppets chapter conspicuously left out of Disney’s production notes) or The Muppet Show or the best of the earlier feature-length films, The Great Muppet Caper being my favorite. Hence, The Muppets deploys a bit of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and a string of ’80s jokes about Molly Ringwald.
The film’s naive, sincere streak, happily, is wider than its subversive one. It’s fun to spend time with these characters again. And in the nicest way, the Muppets’ human co-stars, Jason Segel and Amy Adams, are sort of Muppety themselves, especially when they’re wide-eyed and grinning.
A clever idea holds this reboot together, as simple as making one brother (Gary, played by Segel) human and the other (Walter, voiced by Peter Linz) a Muppet in love with the Muppets legacy. (He sports a Kermit wristwatch.) The locale is Smalltown, USA, which Gary and Walter introduce to us in the opening number, “Life’s a Happy Song.”
Gary, his schoolteacher sweetheart, Mary (Adams) and Walter journey to Los Angeles for a vacation. Touring the old Muppet Studios facility, the trio learns of the plan to raze the historically significant and sentimentally priceless structure. There’s oil under the ground, see, and the weasely millionaire (Chris Cooper) after it doesn’t give a Gonzo’s patoot about nostalgia.
To preserve the old homestead the visitors must gather together the Muppets from various locales and raise $10 million in a save-the-Muppets telethon. Written by Segel and Nicholas Stoller, and directed by The Flight of the Conchords alum James Bobin, The Muppets positions its marquee nonhuman stars in a place of early-21st-century cultural irrelevance. Over and over, Kermit and others say things like “People forgot about us.” One song lyric laments: If we had “another chance to entertain, would anybody watch? Or even care?” Cooper’s dastardly oilman sneers: “You’re relics, Muppets. You’re dead!” I’m a sensitive fellow, I admit, but a little of this bring-down goes a long way.
At its best, though, The Muppets cuts back on the ’80s-flashback self-consciousness and believes in the dream. By the time we’re treated to straightforward versions of “The Rainbow Connection” (written for the first Muppet movie more than 30 years ago) and the fantastic end-credits ditty from further back, “Mah Na Mah Na,” those of us who’ve had Muppets in our memory since childhood will find ourselves in a state of contentment.
Walter learns his true calling; Gary learns to let go; Mary learns that patience is indeed a virtue; and Kermit and company reassert their worth as pop cultural giants. Also: Rashida Jones, playing a tightly wound TV executive, proves her comic timing is as good as anyone’s on the scene these days, human or Muppet.