The Muppets franchise gets a thorough dusting off and a major makeover in “The Muppets,” but it’s probably the parents, and not the kids, who will most appreciate the effort. This is the first Muppets movie to come out since “Muppets From Space” in 1999, and such a lot of water has gone under the bridge that the Muppets themselves are acutely aware of how times have changed, how old friends are gone and how their shelf-life has long since passed.
Kermit the Frog, that master philosopher who had always combined compassion with soulful self-pity (“It’s not easy being green”), is the first to admit it; he’s a relic of the past. He lives alone in a rundown Hollywood mansion, and his needs are catered to by a creaky “’80s robot” carrying drink cans on a tray. “I haven’t seen the old gang in a long, long time,” sighs Kermit wistfully. “I guess people sorta forgot about us.”
And there’s a lot of evidence to support Kermit’s pessimism. Fozzie Bear is working at a third-rate casino in Reno, heading tribute band The Moopets with a horrendous drag queen named Miss Poogy. The real Miss Piggy is the “plus size” editor at Vogue Paris, ensconced in an all-white office while her receptionist (a hilariously snooty Emily Blunt) fields her calls. Uncle Deadly and Bobo the Bear have hooked up with an evil oilman named Tex Richman (Chris Cooper), who is unable to laugh and cues these Muppets to do it for him. “Maniacal laugh! Maniacal laugh!” he orders whenever he’s about to pull off some evil scheme, and they do obligingly. The Muppets have truly and officially disbanded, and Kermit hasn’t seen his old buddies or his beloved girlfriend, Miss Piggy, in years.
But the screenplay (penned by Jason Segel, who also stars, and Nicholas Stoller) is not just about nostalgia and pining for the Good Old Days. It may scatter 1980s in-jokes all over the place and pay frequent tribute to 1980 classic “The Blues Brothers,” but the Muppets themselves live totally in the present. Piling into Kermit’s derelict old Rolls, they drive all around the United States and then to Paris (to cover the long distance, there’s a gag based on that old movie trick of drawing lines across a map) to round up the old gang and get together again.
Their objective? Raising $10 million to save the old Muppets Theater in Los Angeles from the clutches of Tex, who wants to drill for oil under the floorboards. To this end, they will hold a telethon, their first show in years. The problem is that the Muppets’ musical skills are rusty, and Tex is intent on wrecking the show. And Miss Piggy, when she finally deigns to join the act, throws hissy fits that cause Kermit to recede into his own little shell. These Muppets are a lot more complicated than you may think.
On the sidelines are the real people — from numerous celebrity cameos such as Whoopi Goldberg, Dave Grohl and Selena Gomez (“I don’t really know who you guys are; my agent just told me to show up”), to Muppet-loving couple Gary and Mary, played by Segel and Amy Adams. Gary has a special soft spot for the Muppets, having grown up with a “brother” Muppet called Walter. Through the years, as Gary grew to adulthood and is about to celebrate a 10th anniversary with Mary, Walter has remained exactly the same height (“three feet tall”) and appearance. Understandably, Walter feels a little out of it, and longs to be a part of The Muppets.
So far, so achingly whimsical? Maybe so, but “The Muppets” never ventures into the swamplands of sap, or comes off looking outdated, or even turns silly. And the musical numbers, one of which bagged an Oscar, are filled with humor and warmth.
The filmmakers have kept Muppets creator Jim Henson’s spirit of gentle self-deprecation intact, as well as celebrating the wondrously analog world of the Muppet puppets. They still move and speak via a bevy of Muppeteers, and their occasional awkwardness is incredibly refreshing. No amount of computer effects can compete with the distinctive moves of a hand-operated Muppet, but even better is the sight of a hand-operated Muppet conversing with a Hollywood star (very much in the Muppet tradition) and looking so completely natural about it.
Director James Bobin said in an email interview with The Japan Times that his all-time favorite Muppets movie is 1992’s “The Muppets Christmas Carol,” which featured Michael Caine as Ebenezer Scrooge. “There’s something really special about seeing a serious actor of his caliber interacting with the Muppets,” he said. “I suppose that’s one of the fun parts of the Muppets movies — you get to see all these great actors giving their best performances surrounded by a bunch of Muppets!” Hear, hear.