It’s be hard to find another film as awash in enthusiasm for its subject as The Muppets. Written by Jason Segel and Nicholas Stoller, who directed Segel’s previously produced screenplay Forgetting Sarah Marshall, the movie is really just Segel’s extended love letter to the creations of Jim Henson and company that the actor routine cites as his first comedic influence. Whereas previous cinematic forays of the Muppets have tried to position them in plots that were dramatically separated from the syndicated nineteen-seventies series that truly elevated the characters to the height of their fame, Segel wants to embrace that old legacy. The plot of the film centers on Kermit the Frog, Fozzie Bear, Miss Piggy and the other fleet, fleecy performers reuniting to put on a show with the intent of saving their old theater, and, presumably, learning to again embrace their destiny as modern vaudevillians. Segel desire doesn’t stop at reviving the beloved characters for modern audiences; he wants to put them back in the context that won his heart in the first place. It’s less of a revival that a full-blown attempt at restoration.
By and large, he succeeds, and if the film trades on just a touch more crudeness and frenetic business that previous Muppets outings, it certainly doesn’t go as far as many of the competing “family” films in the multiplex. Besides, I may be Frank Oz’s side in being grumpily persnickety about the idea of Fozzie wearing “fart shoes,” but the little kid behind me laughed like he was being mercilessly tickled (he specifically proclaimed the joke “hilarious”). Segel and his collaborators clearly believe in the magic of the Muppets, and that’s what they default to most often: Kermit’s quiet leadership, Gonzo’s unhinged joy, Fozzie’s sweet desire to entertain and Miss Piggy’s bravado. They may be Muppets, but the makers of this film understand that it’s their collective humanity that has made them iconic.
James Bobin directs with a happy verve and is especially good when it comes to interlacing the musical numbers, unsurprising given that he had steady employment as director of the HBO series The Flight of the Conchords. One half of that band, Bret McKenzie, wrote most of the new songs for The Muppets and they’re marked by a deadpan ingenuity that will be familiar to anyone who watched the show or downloaded a track or two. Surely, it’s hard to argue with the film bounding down a musical path that causes Chris Cooper, playing an evil oil baron, to deliver a spirited rap song all about his loathsome plans. Cooper’s energetic turn as the movie’s bad guy is characteristic of everyone in the cast. All the major players are remarkably game, including Segel himself and Amy Adams. There’s even a robust cameo from Jack Black, who probably hasn’t been better (and better used) in a film since The School of Rock.
Given that the film represents a rare case of creators from outside the greater Muppets family blazing a creative trail for the characters (it is strange and even a little sad to think that this is the first Muppets feature that doesn’t have Oz performing his signature Muppets), it’s impressive how much it plainly feels right, even if Segel’s sense of story structure is still be as floppy as Kermit’s arms at the height of a celebratory “Yayyyyyyy!” His heart is clearly in the right place, though. He doesn’t just want to share the Muppets with a new generation; he wants to share exactly why he found them so wonderful in the first place. He’s as much of an advocate and a creator, and if he sometimes falters in the latter role, his sincerity is unassailable in the former.