The Muppets arrives in Australian cinemas January 12, 2012. In the meantime, enjoy this early review.
The Muppets is the first theatrical adventure featuring Jim Henson’s legendary cast of critters in twelve years. Their last big screen effort was Muppets From Space, and as of its disastrous release in 1999, the brand could have easily been described as a ‘fixer-upper’. But over the past decade, the children of the 70s and 80s grew up, and the nostalgia-factor kicked in. The obsessives voraciously ate up each of The Muppet Show‘s DVDs, breathlessly attended screenings of ‘honourary muppet’ Elmo’s documentary, snapped up indie cover-albums of Paul Williams’ classic tunes, and wept at the video of Henson’s heartwarming funeral on YouTube (I am one of those people). The time for a new Muppet movie is now. Fittingly, The Muppets is a tribute to those aforementioned superfans; it’s about a superfan, and it’s made by a superfan.
Jason Segel plays Gary, the sweet-natured and somewhat deluded human brother of Walter (Peter Linz). Short in stature and, well, a puppet, Walt has never really fit in despite his brother’s efforts to include him in every facet of his life. Gary and his girlfriend Mary (Amy Adams) are headed to Los Angeles for their 10-year-anniversary, and “they” decide to invite the down-trodden Walt along for the ride (Mary is reluctant, but way too polite to question Gary’s brotherly devotion). Eager to meet his heroes – The Muppets – in the felt, Walt excitedly tags along. But LA is the city of broken dreams, and the trio discover the down-and-out Muppets have disbanded; Kermit lives alone in his mansion, Fozzie Bear sleeps on the streets, Animal is at an anger management retreat, Miss Piggy has killed and eaten Anna Wintour (we assume) and become editor of French Vogue and so forth. With evil, rapping baron Tex Richman (Chris Cooper) planning on destroying the Muppet theatre and drilling for oil, Walter takes it upon himself to encourage the Artists Formerly Known as The Muppets to reunite and buy back their beloved stage.
Though directed by Flight of the Conchords‘ James Bobin (and rather peppily at that), this is writer/producer/star Segel’s baby. The film tells of the extreme lengths taken by a devoted kid-at-heart to resurrect his favourite childhood stars and restore them to their former glory. That is basically the plot of Segel’s life since he first debuted his Dracula musical in Forgetting Sarah Marshall. The self-imposed pressure must have been immense, but the screenplay (co-written by Sarah Marshall director Nicholas Stoller) manages to capture the delightfully cornball humour as well as the irrepressible sweetness and uncynical nature that made these Muppets great. The structure recalls the first picture and the TV show at once (a road trip culminating in a big ol’ variety show). Yet somehow, The Muppets feels streamlined, or at least, like an actual movie (The Muppet Movie, for all of its brilliance, is fairly episodic). And the songs! Conchords’ Bret McKenzie serves as musical supervisor, providing a number of memorable tracks (none better than opener Life’s A Happy Song). He’s no Williams – no one else is – but he does just fine.
The cast is charmingly game, and they are joined by numerous celebrities making novel cameo appearances. I won’t spoil the big ones here, though an early dance number features both Feist and Mickey Rooney, which should go a ways to explaining how the makers have decided to appeal to alternative nostalgic fetishists and the old fashioned at once. Also, if you ever prayed for the day you’d see Zach Galifianakis inexplicably sing with Joanna Newsom’s voice, your time is now. Any concerns that this project would be mining our memories for the sole purpose of separating us from our cash can be dissuaded. Financial success may be inevitable (I find it hard to imagine any generation of kids not falling in love with Kermit et al), but regardless, The Muppets is a respectful and endlessly delightful tribute to these iconic puppets and the humans who love them. If you similarly find yourself fighting back tears of joy – even during a sequence in which chickens cluck along to a sanitised (muppetised?) version of Cee-Lo’s F*ck You – know that you are far from alone. The Muppets makes superfans out of all of us.
The Muppets arrives in Australian cinemas January 12, 2012.