Now available on DVD, “The Muppets” brings the creations of Jim Henson back to the big screen for the first time in years, a fact which the present effort plays upon constantly. Having first emerged on the national stage in the late 60s on “Sesame Street,” the puppet troupe has fallen off the popular radar. Puppet lover Jason Segal brings them back happily: he and fellow writer/executive producer Nicholas Stoller rely on the audience’s knowing a good deal about their back story, both the rise and the fall. Hopefully, the movie will bring in a younger audience and keep the franchise going.
As both a sometime puppeteer and a father to three children who benefitted richly from the Muppets, I was pleased to see them in fine fettle. As always, they appeal to both young and old. (I can personally vouch that an 83-year-old enjoyed it.) In fact, if you’re aware of the old Andy Hardy series, that’s all you need to know about the plot. In order to save the Muppet’s old theater, the gang must be re- assembled to ”put the show on right here.” The crisis arises because one Mr. Richman (Chris Cooper) gains control of the Muppets’ contract, which gives him control of their theater and, it turns out, even their names. When they discover he wants to raze the theater and drill, baby, drill for the oil beneath it, they have a pressing motive to reunite.
The agent of the discovery is little Walter, kid brother to Gary (Segal) and Muppet devotee. Walter has never grown up physically; Gary’s psychological growth is stunted. He’s been dating Mary (Amy Adams) for ten years but never seems to have contemplated marriage. Adams and Segal play the lovers as naïve: we’re a little surprised that, when they make a pilgrimage to L.A. to see Muppet Mecca, they stay in the same motel room, albeit with Walter as unwitting chaperone.
All three characters are prone to breaking into song at the drop of a plot point. (“Man or Muppet” won the Oscar for Best Original Song.) Director James Bobin continually reminds us through the characters that we’re watching a film. When getting the gang reassembled goes too slowly, Mary suggests that they do the rest via montage. When Kermit despairs of the project, she opines that this is going to be a really short movie. They gain some speed by traveling by car to France via map—another movie convention parodied. This and other cinematic references (including Charlie Chaplin’s “Oceana Roll”) will keep cineastes amused.
But the central medium, true to Muppet form and ancestry, is television. To raise the money to buy out the contract, they decide to hold a telethon. All they need is the OK of network exec Victoria (Rashida Jones) and, oh yeah, a celebrity emcee. They solve the problem by kidnapping Jack Black (playing himself with gusto), though, of course, multiple other hurdles—and celebrity cameos—intrude, this being live TV.
The current state of television programming, reflecting as it does a “hard, cynical world,” plays against the values that the Muppets have always projected: loyalty, family, and “growing up to become what you want to be.” These may be cliché, but, well, we can always use reminding. “The Muppets” is rated “PG” for “some rude humor” (think fart jokes), but I see no problem in renting the movie and taking a kid (or an older adult) along for the pleasant, nostalgic ride.