It’s been a long time since The Muppets were relevant. Like, a long time. One of my earliest memories is Kermit the Frog introducing John Denver as the guest host of a Muppet Show episode – that’s how long we’re talking.
So, needless to say when word got out that the Muppets were coming back, as a child of the 80s I was giddy with excitement. As an adult of the 2000s, I was also enthusiastic about the idea of Jason Segel running the project, as he seemed the perfect mix of grown-up humour and surprising heart needed to make the project click.
And click it does.
The movie centers around new Muppet Walter, who lives in Smalltown, USA with his human brother Gary (Segel). Walter has long been a fan of the Muppets despite how uncool they’ve become, and in spite of the mockery he receives for loving them so much, he remains a dedicated fan.
When Gary takes his girlfriend Mary (Amy Adams) to LA for their anniversary, they invite Walter to come along so he can see the Muppet Studios. He’s pretty excited about the idea.
Once they get there though, the studios are in disrepair and the Muppets have disbanded. Walter eventually hears of a plot by the evil Tex Richman (Chris Cooper) to dig for oil there, and becomes distraught. The only way to save the studio is for the Muppets to reunite and raise $10M.
The movie works so well because it approaches its subject with no disillusionment as to what the Muppets have become.
With the help of Gary and Mary, Walter sets to work collecting Muppets and getting them back on stage for a big telethon to save the studio. All the old favourites are there, including Kermit, Gonzo, Fozzie, Miss Piggy, and Animal. Some impressive cameos also pop up, with Dave Grohl of the Foo Fighters, Emily Blunt, Neil Patrick Harris, and Whoopi Goldberg only scratching the surface of those involved.
The movie works so well because it approaches its subject with no disillusionment as to what the Muppets have become. The whole thing relies on the idea that, in today’s world, the Muppets aren’t cool anymore and time has passed them by. Segel and co-writer Nicholas Stoller (Forgetting Sarah Marshall) approach that real-world truth openly, by setting the entire backdrop of the film against it, and it’s a huge success.
What makes the Muppets so enjoyable as characters is the ability to find heart in something that is so objectively silly. As Homer Simpson once put it when queried on Muppets: “it’s not quite a mop, and it’s not quite a puppet. But maaaaaaaaaaannnnnnnn…”
That really says it all.
To feel for little felt puppets that are quite explicitly held up by rods or being operated by a man’s hand speaks volumes to the job Jim Henson did years ago, and Segel and Stoller have done now, to make them relatable. It’s not about how they look, it’s about what they represent, and to most people who grew up in the 80s they probably represent a simpler time filled with no worries outside of candy and ice cream.
That’s the appeal to an adult today, however there’s plenty for the kids as well. The Muppets are a naturally charming group, and the host of musical numbers coupled with Walter’s genuinely noble quest to save his heroes are the perfect things for a family audience.
Overall, there’s something in The Muppets for everyone. The only complaint a more cynical viewer like myself might have is the distinct lack of Statler and Waldorf, who are the best hecklers in history and deserved more face time.
Even so, this is a movie about making something old into something new again. On that level The Muppets is a home run, and one can only hope its success re-establishes the franchise as culturally relevant. Maybe it will also give Hollywood the confidence in puppet humour to bankroll Segel’s incredible Dracula musical, which is among the best undeveloped ideas of our time.