By Bill Wine
KYW Newsradio 1060
Kermit may be green with envy, Fozzie may find it hard to bear, and Miss Piggy may still be waiting for the oink to dry on her contract, but the missing Muppets haven’t missed a beat.
The big news is that those little assisted-acting thespians are back. Yep, they’re a throwback: puppets on the big screen whose line readings are, well, deeply felt. Who’d-a thunk it? But for a seventh time, The Muppets pop up on the movie screen in The Muppets.
Among their first six theatrical outings over the two decades between 1979 and 1999 (The Muppet Movie, The Muppets Take Manhattan, The Muppet Christmas Carol, The Muppet Christmas Carol, Muppet Treasure Island, Muppets from Space), there’s not a bad movie in the bunch.
And there is considerable fun to be had at The Muppets as well. For that, each Muppet deserves a big hand — although, come to think of it, each has already got one — for contributing to a Muppet flick that not only holds its own with its predecessors, but exceeds the recent Muppet sequels for sheer cleverness and delight.
When The Muppets last appeared on the big screen, it was a very long time ago — 1999. When we catch up with them here, they are, like everyone else, in the midst of a major financial crisis. And their film poses the question: has the world changed in a way that makes The Muppets and their brand of unbridled optimism irrelevant? The answer the film ends up giving is: not by a long shot.
Walter, a puppet who’d love to be a Muppet and is currently the world’s biggest Muppet fan, is on vacation in Los Angeles from Smalltown, USA, along with his brother Gary and his girlfriend Mary, played by Jason Segel and Amy Adams.
The gloriously silly script — which Segel co-wrote with his co-executive producer, Nicholas Stoller — keeps the jokes, gags, and bits coming and although a few tank, most of them soar. The best involve muttered asides that break the fourth wall and slyly send up familiar movie conventions.
Then they learn that oily oilman Tex Richman (Chris Cooper) plans to demolish the Muppet Theater in order to drill for oil that’s been discovered beneath the Muppets’ former home base. So they need to raise lots of money, at least ten-million bucks. Fast. Ah, time for an old-fashioned telethon. A major telethon. A reunion telethon. And they’ll need all the Muppets to come put on this show.
That means they’ve got to help Kermit the Frog round up all his furry, fuzzy, felt-tipped friends — including Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear, Gonzo, Animal, Rowlf, and the others — who have all dispersed to who-knows-where.
There are cameos galore in this musical comedy, including Jack Black, Rashida Jones, Zach Galifianakis, Emily Blunt, Neil Patrick Harris, Alan Arkin, Whoopi Goldberg, James Carville, John Krasinki, Jim Parsons, Sarah Silverman, Judd Hirsch, and Mickey Rooney. As well as musical numbers that may not be especially memorable, but are effectively amusing and/or emotional in context.
This refreshingly low-tech enterprise does have a few too many moments of cornball let’s-put-on-a-show zealousness, but the upbeat energy on display remains infectious anyway. Credit debuting director James Bobin, a Brit who has a television background with Flight of the Conchords and Da Ali G Show, for honoring Muppetmaster Jim Henson’s legacy by eschewing state-of-the-art effects and letting the puppetry carry the day without any CGI help.
Segel, the Muppet-maniac and prime mover behind the project, intended to restore the Muppets’ place in popular culture by appealing to a new generation of children as well as their nostalgic parents. And he’s done just that by letting his affection for the Muppets shine through while simultaneously entertaining wide-eyed, innocent children and the knowing, nostalgic grownups who brought them.
The film is warm, funny, PG-rated (for “rude” humor), low-keyed, unironic, and uncynical, a comedic stew of wordplay, slapstick, vaudeville, soft satire, and absurdist craziness. And it entertains from first frame to last.
So we’ll have a hand in 3 stars out of 4. As puppets for more than just moppets, The Muppets offer snippets of unadulterated joy.