Nearly everybody loves the Muppets. They’re expressive and adorable, and manage to main broad appeal with intelligent, benign humor. Even without films or a television program, the felt troupe maintained a presence in the cultural consciousness into the new millennium. Best of all, they have an endless parade of quirky ensemble characters, led by the ever-earnest Kermit.
So when the seventh Muppet movie, simply titled “The Muppets,” came out last year after a 12-year hiatus from the theaters, a new generation had the chance to experience the group at their zaniest. Not even their variety-show format can pack in the jokes as densely, or the plot as sentimentally, as a feature-length production. The advertising was clever and satirical, and was able to sell relative star power in Amy Adams and Jason Segel, a co-writer. Bret McKenzie, of Flight of the Conchords fame, wrote the film’s goofy musical numbers.
The plot centers around Segel’s character Gary and his Muppet-bodied brother Walter, literal “Smalltown” fans of the original Muppet show. Gary and Walter are inseparable, even for Gary’s long-time sweetheart Mary (Adams); when the couple plans a 10th anniversary trip to Hollywood, Walter tags along to see the Muppet Studios. His curiosity leads him to witness the machinations of Tex Richman (the indomitable Chris Cooper), who plans to tear down the famous MuppetTheatre for the oil underneath. To save the theatre Walter and his brother find Kermit, who attempts to reunite the Muppets for a telethon to stop Richman. Hilarity, as one might expect, ensues.
Of course, the film’s live-action puppetry dazzles. Segel and his writing partner Nick Stoller also turned in a script with plenty of laughs, which unfold steadily right into the credits. No Muppet venture would be worth watching without such old-fashioned silver screen magic, and despite a few modern tweaks the formula still works as nicely as it did nearly 40 years before.
The film’s strangest facet, then, is its lack of confidence in its own stars’ charms. One of the main plot points of the movie is the insistence of the ABC executive — an all-business Rashida Jones — on a celebrity guest host for the Muppet reunion, scoffing at Kermit’s suggestion that his star power alone can carry the telethon.
Ultimately, the group manages to forcibly secure Jack Black, thanks to Miss Piggy, and it is his hilarious discomfort that generates the donations from home viewers. The implication, of course, is not that they find the program itself enjoyable, only its effect on Black.
Unfortunately, it seems that Disney et al. view the franchise in the same way; though they are the focus of the story and the reason everyone saw the film, the Muppets are largely subordinated in the story to the flesh-and-blood stars. Cameos are everywhere, as they tend to be in Muppet affairs, but the relentless focus on Gary and Mary — and Walter’s growth into full troupe member — evidences a lack of confidence in the pull of an all-Muppet film.
A sense of fun, the most valuable aspect of the original “Muppet Movie,” has also transformed into a gag-based focus. Frank Oz, the revered former Muppeteer, complained about the lower-brow humor, insisting a flatulence joke should be completely out of the question for the Muppet oeuvre.
Though he may have been nit-picking, an overwhelming need to be funny stunts “The Muppets,” most thoroughly in the songs. McKenzie is an accomplished musician and a really funny person, but the songs aren’t as enjoyable through the characters’ mouths– with the notable exception of the Oscar-winning “Man or Muppet“.
The carefree contentedness of a song like “Moving Right Along” isn’t in this film. When they revive “Rainbow Connection” as a duet, cutting away to a scene backstage, it feels cheap. The pathos-inducing power of the Muppets on film, one of the most expressive and vital parts of the film franchise, doesn’t grip the viewer as it did in the other films. As a person who cries literally every time the original “Rainbow Connection” scene plays, I was truly disappointed in the lack of sincere moments this time around.
That said, “The Muppets” is worth watching, mostly because it gets the characters flexing their movie muscle for the first time in many years. Modernizing might be tough for a franchise so thoroughly rooted in simpler times, but the disappointments in this film didn’t entirely overshadow the sentimental value of a new Muppet adventure. Hopefully the forthcoming sequel continues to move the group in the right direction.