The new Muppets movie is completely enjoyable, but it’s joy with a shadow side: At the same time as the sight of the Felt Mob singing, dancing and headbanging their way through a story that is utterly true to itself is beyond welcome, it’s easy to realize how much the Muppets were missed – how could the world have been without them for so long? Wocka wocka.
The true-life story of how The Muppets came about is a warm and fozzy one: Jason Segel, star of Freaks and Geeks and How I Met Your Mother, achieves fame and box-office blessings for his writer/actor credits, especially Forgetting Sarah Marshall. The first thing he does with his newfound fame and studio clout is begin work on the project that’s closest to his heart: a brand new Muppets movie, since the puppets had been on ice for more than a decade in the Disney cryo vat.
Four years later, here he is with an updated Muppets movie that he scripted, and in which he stars with a dreamboat cast, including Amy Adams as his love interest and a villainous Chris Cooper (rapping), as well as cameos by the likes of Feist, Ricky Gervais, Dave Grohl, James Carville and so on.
In interviews, Segel has proclaimed that not only is this by far his most personal film, but that the Muppets were important to him in his formative years because they taught him what kind of comedian he wanted to be. (He has also gone on the record as saying that the film’s theme song, Man or Muppet?, deserves an Oscar nod – and he’s absolutely right. More on this in a minute.)
The story is completely self-referential – fun for newbies, maybe, but a complete joy for anyone whose Muppetry was of a certain age. Segel plays Gary, a real boy whose brother, Walter, is a puppet (as well as the world’s biggest fan of the Muppets). They grow up happily together, but as Gary matures and enters an unconsummated 10-year relationship with his girlfriend, Mary (Adams), Walter, who’s a puppet, never grows up.
The situation comes to a head when Gary takes Mary on a romantic trip to L.A., and Walter comes along – L.A. being, of course, where Muppet Studios is located. But when they visit, the site is in disrepair, and it’s enough to break a Muppet-lover’s heart. What’s worse, there’s an evil plot underway by demonic oil baron Tex Richman (Cooper) to destroy Muppets Studios and drill for oil unless he’s paid off with 10 million dollars in two days. Well, it’s obvious: a reunion is in order! It’s up to Gary, Mary and Walter to gather up the old gang and put on one doozy of a show.
Of course, the Muppets are in diaspora mode: Kermit is still kind Kermit, but he’s a hermit now, living Hollywood Boulevard-style in a musty mansion in Bel Air. Miss Piggy is long gone, now the editor of French Vogue. Fozzy is in Reno heading up a Muppets tribute band (don’t ask). Scooter works for Google, Animal is in court-ordered anger management class, Waldorf and Statler, the musty naysayers, are the only ones who’re intact – an inspiration to film critics everywhere.
The rest of the film is one thrill after another, packed with a surprising amount of pathos as the old gang gets back together, one by one. By the time they’re ready to put on their show, we’ve realized that the stakes are really quite high back in real life; when we hear the first notes of the Muppets theme song, sounding across the empty stage, it’s like the world was empty and somehow wrong without them: “It’s time to play the music!/ It’s time to light the lights!”
The Muppets have shown themselves to be crucial cultural icons that represent a simplicity and virtue and inventiveness that are all but lost from mainstream pop culture now. If we’re to believe it’s important to make the point that goodness can stand the test of time, that great writing and well-rounded, complex characters are what makes a story great – not 200 million dollars in CGI budget – then we need the Muppets now more than ever. If you think that there’s magic in felt and glue and funny voices, and that Kermit is a steadfast lover, and that Piggy will stick around no matter what, and that Animal should play the drums even if he makes a mess, and Fozzy should tell his vaudeville jokes even if they’re not funny, then how can we live without them?
It’s obvious now that we’re all grown up that the Muppets have something fundamental and enduring to say about the human condition, and the point can also be made that they’re not really (or not only) for kids. You’ll notice that there isn’t a single kid in the movie (except in a couple of scenes), and at the preview screening I went to, it was the grown-ups who were riveted and the tykes who were restless. If that’s not proof enough, the barbershop quartet version of Smells Like Teen Spirit performed at the big Muppets reunion show should be enough to convince you.
The song-and-dance numbers, composed by Bret McKenzie of Flight of the Conchords, are destined to become classics, especially the soulful theme song, which should indeed get its “Best Song” Oscar. Sung by Segel and his Muppet alter-ego, it’s clear to see that the Muppets can teach us something fundamental about what it means to be human: “Am I a man or am I a Muppet?/ If I’m a Muppet, then I’m a very manly Muppet/ Am I a Muppet, or am I a man?/ If I’m a man, that makes me a Muppet of a man.” Truer words were never sung.
The Muppets opens in theatres today