Dir. James Bobin
(2011, PG, 103 min)
In Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Jason Segel played a lovesick TV composer who longed to stage a puppet musical version of Dracula. We were shown a bit of that musical, which made me want to see the whole thing, and also made me believe no one would be better suited to spearhead a modern Muppet movie than Segel, who wrote Marshall‘s screenplay and penned a song for the Dracula tuner. He showed the right balance of unabashed whimsy and fresh wit.
It seems I wasn’t the only one; now comes The Muppets, which has been co-written by Segel and Marshall director Nicholas Stoller. Joining them are another unconventional but inspired pair: director James Bobin and songwriter Bret McKenzie, both from HBO’s offbeat sitcom/musical hybrid Flight of the Conchords. But the creative team doesn’t try to reinvent the wheel. This is the first big-screen Muppet venture in twelve years, but it’s less a reboot than a reminder. They let the Muppets be the Muppets.
I, like many others of Generations X and Y, grew up on them – from The Muppet Show, to Fraggle Rock, to the ongoing Sesame Street – but in the last decade, during which they were bought by Disney, they have been limited to sporadic TV specials and commercial advertisements. Can felt and foam still compete in the Pixar era? Segel and Stoller build their script around that question of cultural relevance. It’s set in the present day, when the Muppets have been all but forgotten and must rescue their legendary Muppet Studios from oil tycoon Tex Richman (Chris Cooper) by putting on one last show.
Helping to reunite the gang – Kermit, Miss Piggy, Fozzie, Gonzo, and the rest – are Gary (Segel), Mary (Amy Adams), and Walter (voiced by Peter Linz). Gary and Walter are brothers, and the fact that one is human and the other is a Muppet is never addressed, which is more entertaining than trying to explain it. All of that is setup for Muppet business as usual: musical numbers, celebrity cameos, and life lessons. There’s not much you haven’t seen before if you’re a Muppets fan, but it’s bright and funny and brings back fond memories. It’s also lightly tinged with melancholy. The Muppets in their old-fashioned charm are fighting against obsolescence; life’s a happy song, they sing, and they hope we still want to sing along. I’ll sing to that.