I can’t stress enough how badly I wanted to love “The Muppets.” Like many, I grew up watching “Sesame Street” and “The Muppet Show.” Over the years, I only found more reasons to love pretty much everything that came out of the astoundingly imaginative Jim Henson Studios. It seemed impossible not to. There was a Muppet for every personality. The positive messages of friendship, cooperation and determination were uplifting, without being saccharine. Disney bought Jim Henson Studios in 2004 and they are now attempting to reboot the franchise with “The Muppets.” This film, which marks the first time these characters have been on movie screens together in twelve years, poses the question, “Does the world still need the Muppets?” The answer is, “Yes… but not like this.”
James Bobin (“Flight of the Conchords,” “Da Ali G Show”) directs the reverent script by Jason Segel and Nicholas Stoller. Essentially a big-budget fan film (which Segel wrote himself into), it uses a new puppet, named Walter (Peter Linz), to introduce the Muppets to a new generation and to reminisce about them with the old one.
“The Muppets” is actually two movies. One, as you might have guessed, follows the Muppets as they put on one last show in order to save the Muppet Theatre as well as the Muppet name. The other is about a super nice, but somewhat clueless, small town boy named Gary (Segel), who is in a “poop-or-get-off-the-potty” situation with his equally chaste girlfriend of ten years (Amy Adams).
The Muppet movies always had human supporting characters but support was all they were there for. They didn’t need a story of their own because the Muppets were the draw. But if the humans must have their own subplot, the writers could at least make it interesting. After creating some very well realized characters in “Forgetting Sarah Marshall,” I’m profoundly disappointed in Segel for writing a plot that has all the depth of an Archie comic. Clueless boy is clueless. Long-suffering girl suffers because she doesn’t have a ring on that finger and is feeling neglected. Other than that, everything is peachy keen. It’s boring as hell when it’s not perpetuating gender stereotypes.
The element that connects these two stories is Walter, Gary’s felt brother from (presumably) the same mother. Gary and Walter are both Muppet Super Fans. But Walter feels a particular kinship with them. Thus, Gary invites Walter to tag along on his and Mary’s anniversary trip to Hollywood, so that Walter can make a pilgrimage to Muppet Studios and maybe find himself in the process. Meanwhile, Mary feels like the third wheel in her own relationship.
Gary and Mary’s story has very little to do with the familiar fuzzy faces that Walter, and the audience, have come to see. It’s Walter who discovers the evil plot to demolish Muppet Studios to get at the oil that flows underneath it. Walter is the one who suggests tracking down Kermit. And it is Walter who ultimately convinces Kermit to get the band back together. After they remodel the Muppet Theatre, Kermit rightly tells Walter that none of this would have happened without him. Gary and Mary barely do anything significant other than offer words of encouragement that could have come from anyone. The movie doesn’t need them, and neither does Walter.
Perhaps the filmmakers tip their hand in the form of the TV exec (Rashida Jones) that agrees to air the Muppet Telethon. Concerned that the Muppet name is no longer “market relevant,” she stipulates that they attach a star to the project. There must have been a real executive who made similar demands because there are probably more famous humans in the movie than there are Muppets. Every Muppet film has cameos, but they managed to fit the encounters neatly into the plot without feeling gimmicky. Here, they shotgun cameos like it’s Rush Week. Even in a movie called, “The Muppets,” they don’t trust the titular puppets to be the main attraction.
The music is another of the film’s many problems. With Bret McKenzie (“Flight of the Conchords”) behind them, the musical numbers should have been a high point. He manages to encapsulate contemplative Kermit with “Pictures in My Head,” and “Muppet or Man” recalls some of the best Conchords songs. However, McKenzie falls flat with the Mary and Piggy duet “Me Party,” which pegs the female leads as two-dimensional women who don’t know how to enjoy themselves without a boyfriend. While the opening number, “Life is a Happy Song,” has the catchiness of an instant classic, as an introduction to the film’s characters, it doesn’t tell us anything that we can’t glean from the poster.
The most cringe-worthy moments in the film belong to a character that is integral to the Muppet plot. An over-the-top villain can be a lot of fun. Unfortunately, as oil baron Tex Richman, Chris Cooper chews the scenery like it’s a pouch of Big League. One of his more annoying qualities is to say “maniacal laugh” in place of laughing maniacally. It was probably in the script, but because of this little character quirk, Cooper is completely upstaged by his puppet henchmen (Uncle Deadly and Bobo the Bear). Nearly every moment he is on screen is excruciating.
Particularly painful is Tex Richman’s solo number, “Let’s Talk About Me,” which makes Brian Doyle Murphy’s “Noah’s Arcade” rap in “Wayne’s World” sound like “Straight Outta Compton.” It’s embarrassing to watch in a “my dad is trying to look hip” kind of way. Chris Cooper, take note: Just because you’re in a Muppet movie does not mean you have to act like a Muppet. There’s something to be said for playing it straight in an insane world. Just ask Dabney Coleman.
But, as I said, “The Muppets” is really two movies. And one of those movies is quite good, albeit awfully similar to previous films. If you’re going to rehash a Muppet plot, it might as well be “The Muppets Take Manhattan.” Among the familiar elements: Kermit rallies the troops and goes against the odds to put on a show, whilst clumsily navigating his relationship with Miss Piggy. Fozzie tells endearingly bad jokes. Animal struggles with his violence issues. Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem rock the roof off the joint. Statler and Waldorf complain about everything. The ensemble tear-jerks their way through “The Rainbow Connection.” The gang even stack themselves into a Muppet Man suit to con their way past an ironclad reception desk, for old-time’s sake. They may not be original, but these moments are a lot of fun.
On the other hand, it was always so disappointing when a TV show would pass off a clip show as a new episode by stringing them together with a flimsy through-line. Sure, they were compiling some of the best scenes of the series, but they were way better in their original context. When it was time to play the music and light the lights, I got chills. But, at the end of the day, it was just a clip show.