Although Muppets have been around since Jim Henson’s first creations in the 1950s, for most people the core idea of Muppets comes from the variety television show that ran from 1976 through to 1981. The Muppet Show, a vaudeville-style show hosted by Kermit the Frog, saw a parade of celebrity guests, parodies and musical numbers, and was so popular that they had their own spin-off in The Muppet Movie which launched the characters into the stratosphere, and earned them their first Oscar nomination for Best Song, “Rainbow Connection”. Despite five theatrical sequels, TV specials and a late night variety show, it has been 12 years since we last saw Kermit and the gang on the big screen. We didn’t know how much we were missing them until The Muppets.
Walter (performed by Peter Linz), who for all intents and purposes is a Muppet, lives in Smalltown with his brother Gary (Jason Segel). Walter is the biggest fan of the Muppets, and is looking forward to going to Los Angeles with Gary and his girlfriend Mary (Amy Adams) on their tenth anniversary, despite Mary’s conflicted feelings over Walter distracting Gary from their relationship. When they arrive in LA, Walter is disappointed to find that Muppets Studios is in a state of disrepair, and all of the Muppets have disbanded. When he discovers the evil machinations of oil tycoon Tex Richman (Chris Cooper) to destroy the theatre and drill for oil, Walter looks for the one person who can help him: Kermit the Frog. In order to raise the $10 million needed to save the theatre, Walter must help Kermit get the gang back together to put on one more show.
The plot might be familiar, and indeed shares more than a passing similarity to the 2002 television special It’s A Very Merry Muppet Christmas Movie, but that is because Jason Segel and Nick Stoller’s screenplay is a tribute to all things Muppets and is well versed in Muppet lore. Their earlier collaboration on Forgetting Sarah Marshall saw Segel’s character working on a Dracula puppet rock musical, A Taste for Love. Working with the Henson Company clearly left a lasting impression on Muppets fan Segel, who pitched this film shortly afterwards. As each of the characters is found throughout the film, Muppets in-jokes and Easter eggs can be seen scattered around the world, but nostalgia is only part of what carries The Muppets into instant classic status. The rest is hilarious storytelling and a plethora of wonderful new songs.
The film is self-aware enough to know that the Muppets are out of step with current trends in reality entertainment, parodying this with their biggest competition being a violent show called “Punch Teacher” (played by The Hangover‘s Ken Jeong). Yet there is never any attempt to update the Muppets or somehow make them more appealing for a new generation. The real joy of the Muppets is that the world may have moved on, but the Muppets are just as entertaining as they were in their first film way back in 1979. Their counterpoint is the caricature villain that Chris Cooper seems to relish playing, complete with his own rap song (“I got so much gold I gold plate my gold”), and while he might be missing a cat to stroke, he is part of the rich tapestry that is over four decades of Muppet history. Cameo appearances from Alan Arkin, Emily Blunt, Zach Galifianakis, Feist, Whoopi Goldberg and even Mickey Rooney are all aware of this, and just turn up to lend a hand to the Muppet machine.
The songs, mostly written by Flight of the Conchords‘ Brett McKenzie, are one of the strongest elements of the film, and are the best example of this balance between new and old. Throwbacks to the golden era of musicals but also thoroughly Conchords in sensibility at other times, the tunes swing from joyous, to heartbreaking and just plain rob-tickling. The opening number, “Life’s A Happy Song”, sets the tone for the rest of the film, and is accompanied by a massive dance sequence involving all of Smalltown. Lyrically, it is parts old-school musical and self-aware meta parody. After all, everybody seems to be aware that they are in a dance sequence. “Man or Muppet” could have stepped straight out of Flight of the Conchords, while “Pictures in My Head” would fit in with the 1980s Muppet movies. Parodies of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” (featuring Beaker!) and Cee-Lo Green’s “Forget You” (by chickens!!) are intentionally cringe-worthy, but you’ll laugh despite yourself.
As the film builds to its emotional conclusion, including a tearjerker of a Kermit and Miss Piggy duet of “Rainbow Connection”, it will be impossible to wipe a smile from your face and maybe a few tears to boot. Like last year’s Toy Story 3, what might surprise you is just how much emotion you have invested in these simple creations of fabric and fur. Refreshingly free of any technical wizardry, modern cynicism or a requirement to wear 3D glasses, The Muppets is a loving piece of nostalgia that might just win over a few new fans in the process. It might just be the most fun you’ll ever have inside a cinema.
The Muppets is released in Australia on 12 January 2012 from Disney. You can also check out our exclusive interview with Jason Segel, the co-writer and star of The Muppets.