Oh, how we needed this.
Awash in CGI, 3-D and digital projection, our brave new movie world is a technologically advanced place, but also, often, a cold and sterile one. We could use the warmth of felt.
We get that and more with The Muppets, a lovingly crafted, amusingly self-referential and deliriously silly revival of the Muppets franchise that’s about, well, the revival of the Muppets franchise (remember that the Muppets were meta long before Charlie Kaufman and the Scream movies).
Jason Segel (Forgetting Sarah Marshall, I Love You Man) co-wrote, produced and stars as Gary, a cheerful, small-town guy who lives with his Muppet brother Walter. No one remarks on this much, though a photo from the brothers’ high-school prom catches Walter’s date in a hilarious double take. Now grown, Gary and Walter, along with Gary’s girlfriend Mary (Amy Adams), embark on a road trip to visit the now-closed Muppet studio in Hollywood. When they learn of a nefarious developer’s plan to take over the property, Walter convinces Kermit the Frog to come out of retirement to put on a studio-saving telethon.
Segel, a curious if promising figure to lead a Muppets resurgence, is clearly thrilled with the opportunity. He stands alongside his puppet costars as naturally as any of the celebrity hosts during the 1976-1981 run of the television variety show. During an opening production number, he exudes one of the key Muppet attributes: gleeful abandon. When you’re a large man in an ill-fitting, powder-blue suit and a short tie, you don’t really need to know how to dance. Your enthusiastic participation is enough.
Adams has some more polished musical moments, while Chris Cooper, as the evil developer, nearly steals the film with an impromptu rap (and his regular requests from his henchmen for a “maniacal laugh”). But this is, appropriately, the puppets’ show. Walter is a sweet addition, physically and temperamentally in the mold of Kermit the Frog, his hero. (Both have that wonderful ability to express multiple emotions via a perfectly timed crumple.) We also get Animal in anger management training, Sam the Eagle as a Fox News-style anchor and Segel in another number, “Man or Muppet,” which serves as a reminder that director James Bobin previously helmed episodes of the exquisitely odd HBO series “Flight of the Conchords.”
This is all nonsense, of course, and that’s the point. Moralizing and sterile family values have never been a concern of the Muppets, something that should have been clear ever since that early episode featuring the tale of the grasshopper and the ant, in which the grasshopper moves to Florida and the ant gets stepped on. That anti-tradition is carried on in The Muppets. Although Kermit is given to inspirational speeches, it’s notable that during one of them he’s flattened against the wall by an opening door.
Don’t mistake such irreverence for meaninglessness, however. There’s something deeply moving – in both a palliative and inspirational way – about the joyful absurdity of the Muppets. They’re a counter to the mundane dreariness of our lives and a hope for a future filled with frivolity, not strife. Walter sums up this sort of transcendence via ridiculousness by telling Gonzo, “When I was a kid and saw you recite ‘Hamlet’ while jumping your motorbike through a flaming hoop, it, well, it made me feel like I could do anything.”
In this way, The Muppets is more than a nostalgic throwback. It speaks directly to our cheap, cynical, computer-generated age, when family films usually resemble something like Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chip-Wrecked. In contrast to that sort of calculated techno-tripe, the Muppets offer creative chaos and liberating silliness. All wrapped up in felt.