The giddy goof-fest The Muppets is a Disney production, but actor Jason Segel, who was born in 1980, is the person most responsible for bringing Jim Henson’s puppets back to the big screen. He shares credit for the screenplay with Nicholas Stoller and stars as Gary, a small town innocent whose “brother,” a Muppet named Walter, has no idea that he is a member of the Henson family he worships from afar. The movie reunites the far flung Muppets for a telethon after their old studio and good name is threatened. But it’s also a reunion of sorts for Segel. His past and present colleagues, including Rashida Jones, Neil Patrick Harris and Emily Blunt, fill supporting roles and make cameos.
Segel has played the droll and decent man in enough projects — on television on How I Met Your Mother and Freaks and Geeks and in the movies Forgetting Sarah Marshall (which he also co-wrote with Stoller) and Bad Teacher — to leave the impression that he is the actor you’d most want your niece to marry. This Muppet business cements it; Segel must have the kindest instincts in Hollywood. He’s written his own character as a fellow who still sleeps in a twin bed in his childhood bedroom (which he shares with Walter) and though their meeting with the Muppets is precipitated by a trip to Los Angeles to celebrate his 10th anniversary with his girlfriend Mary (Amy Adams), it’s entirely possible this man child has done no more than kiss her cheek.
Who wants to criticize this guy’s best efforts? I must, just a little. That’s not to say that I didn’t have a lovely time at The Muppets, or that I don’t recommend it as a good time for families over the holidays. I absolutely do. At least half of my critical thinking went out of the window, overwhelmed by sheer nostalgia. Throw Statler and Waldorf up in the balcony to grumble, and perch Kermit on a rock to sing “The Rainbow Connection” afresh and I melt. During the movie’s best moments, I recalled exactly what my long-gone father’s roars of laughter sounded like. Was it the joyous lunacy of “Mahnamahna” that used to set him off? I no longer remember, but the sweetness of the movie coupled with memories of those times when he sank into a chair to watch the television show with me made me tear up several times.
But nostalgia tends to come in waves, and in between the peaks, there are troughs. This is a singing and dancing musical. Yet other than a song in which Gary and Walter wonder, separately, insanely and hilariously, whether they are Muppets or men, the catchiest song in the film is a new version of “Mahnamahna” that plays over the credits. The rest are a schmaltzy blur, songs of reflection and loneliness without enough jazzy numbers to provide a counter weight to the angst. “Is there something more I could have done?” warbles Kermit, who Gary, Walter and Mary find hiding out in a Beverly Hills mansion. Nobody has seen him in years and he’s out of touch with the old gang. “Or did something break we cannot repair?”
Here I wanted to rise up shouting “Lies!” The Muppets transcend. They are of special genius. They don’t need to slink back insecurely back into the frame of fame (although their last project, the television film The Muppets’ Wizard of Oz, released a mere six years ago, was not well received). Witness the rapid increase in the movie’s pace as soon as there is critical Muppet mass. Kermit finds Fozzie Bear singing in a seedy club in Reno, Gonzo is a plumbing magnate and Scooter works at Google, and is snatched as he’s headed off to the TED conference. Segel and Stoller’s writing shines in these goofy bits. On learning that Miss Piggy is living in Paris, where she’s the plus-size editor for Vogue (as if) the gang decides to “travel by map,” driving their car right out of the ocean and onto French shores. That is classic Muppet style, gently mocking the whole business of moviemaking while still participating in it.
But Segel and director James Bobin, who knows something of weird fun from his role in creating Flight of the Concords, wade in and out of their new Muppet story almost apologetically; the colorful characters are allegedly passé, forgotten. “Nobody cares about your goody-goody, hippie-dippie, Julie Andrews, Dom DeLouise-loving act anymore,” sneers oil baron Tex Richman (a hilarious Chris Cooper), who buys the old Muppet studio to tear it down and drill for oil. He’s the reason for the telethon; the Muppets need to raise $10 million to buy back the studio. But they’re no longer ready for prime time; Jones plays the executive who gives them a spot only after her reality show Punch Teacher has to be pulled for legal reasons.
Everyone likes to be catered to, but this felt too skewed to my demographic, to the people weaned on Sesame Street and the The Muppet Show. If you are five, you care nothing for this backstory. You have not been wondering, ‘Where are those Muppets?’ Instead you are in the same camp as Selena Gomez in her cameo (“My agent told me to show up”) — clueless but willing. Soon enough, though, she’s under their sway. That’s what happens; the Muppets are irresistible. The telethon itself, hosted by a major comic star they’d kidnapped, sparkles with zany energy and intelligence. Even Walter, somewhat generic to this point, has a dazzling moment. So don’t apologize, Muppets. Now that you’re back, please stick around.
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