Something like The Muppets really is review-proof. Really, I could tell you the handful of elements that keep it from being a truly great movie, but every time I start thinking of any and all of its shortcomings (and, admittedly, there are a few), I start thinking about how I was bouncing up and down in my seat during the opening number or how I (inevitably) cried during the (inevitable) performance of “Rainbow Connection” and suddenly any thought of actually criticizing this film makes me feel like a horrible demon with a heart two sizes too small.
So, take any and all “criticism” herein with a grain of salt, and know that you’re probably going to love The Muppets even more because it’s not perfect. And, actually, that’s one of the film’s many moral messages — just because something doesn’t go all the way to the top doesn’t mean it isn’t deserving of love, commitment and a sense of victory. Are the filmmakers pulling us a fast one with this approach and, indeed, making their movie review-proof? Who cares? Miss Piggy just karate-chopped Jack Black!
The influence of Disney (the new owner of the Muppets property) is rather apparent in the film’s plot, as the film’s protagonist is Walter, a Muppet who isn’t exactly a MUPPET. He’s (rather inexplicably) the “brother” of a human, Gary (Jason Segel, who also wrote the film’s screenplay), and is starting to experience something of an identity crisis as Gary is now a grown man and he’s stayed the same, taking comfort in old reruns of The Muppet Show and dreaming of being part of that group of legendary entertainers. Gary is taking his girlfriend of ten years, Mary (Amy Adams, once again the cutest thing on the planet) to Los Angeles for their anniversary, and surprises Walter by inviting him to come along so they can take a tour the Muppets’ old theater.
When they arrive in the city that Kermit and the gang dreamed about so many years ago, they find the Muppets’ old haunt to be a run-down ghost town with under-attended tours given by a cynical old guide (Alan Arkin, the one “special guest star” in this who also made an appearance on the original Muppet Show). Walter overhears a conversation between Tex Richman (Chris Cooper), a corrupt oil man, and his minions (Uncle Deadly and Bobo the Bear) involving their plans to tear down the studio in order to drill for oil, which inspires Walter, with the help of Gary and Mary, to track down Kermit and convince him to get the old gang back together and put on a show in order to raise the money to save their theater.
Kermit, Walter, Gary, Mary and ’80s Robot (you’ll see) find the old gang in various spots around the globe, none of them truly happy with what they’re doing now and just itching for an excuse to start performing again: Fozzie’s at a horrible dive bar in Reno, performing an act with a “tribute group” of ruffians known as the Moopets; Gonzo’s sold out and is now a wealthy plunger manufacturer; Animal is now in an anger management group, sponsored by Jack Black himself and trying to avoid all mentioning of his “trigger word” (“Drums,” of course); Scooter’s now working for Google; Sam the Eagle is now a news anchor; and Kermit’s long-lost love, Miss Piggy, is running a fashion magazine in Paris (assisted by a prickly Emily Blunt) and at first refuses to return to her old life — and her old beau. From there, the Muppets convince a bossy network executive (Rashida Jones) to air their reunion gig and they set out to get their theater — and, indeed, their groove — back.
And there’s singing and dancing and big laughs all around. The meta-premise isn’t so much clever as it is expected; the Muppet movies have always had a rambunctious sense of self-consciousness, occasionally breaking the fourth wall as it exists in a world where The Muppet Show was as “real” a variety show as Saturday Night Live, and Segel’s screenplay both salutes and expands on this approach in clever and sometimes unexpected ways. Segel and Adams are adorable and Cooper is fun as he really gets to cut loose for the first time since his comic turn in Spike Jonze’s Adaptation, but they’re background performers at best — the real stars and scene-stealers are the Muppets themselves, with Kermit especially having something of a moving and poignant role in this sweet but occassionally melancholy story that’s all too aware of the years that have gone by.
The film’s shortcomings? Not having Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem perform a song is a pretty jarring oversight, and there was a perfect opportunity for them to do so (instead, the filmmakers, rather inexplicably, use Starship’s “We Built This City”). There’s a weird flourish involving an homage to ’70s martial arts films that’s indulgent at best, extremely awkward at worst. It’s fun to see Uncle Deadly get some decent screentime and Sweetums get a couple of bits, but other characters such as Rowlf and Sam the Eagle kind of get the shaft. And, sure, you could say the screenplay is a bit overly simplistic in terms of plot and there’s never any sense of real conflict or danger, but that’s really kind of okay, because, look, Jack Black is tied to a chair and getting a haircut while a barbershop quartet performs Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit!”
So go spend some quality time with some old friends — it’ll put a spring in your stride and a smile on your face, guaranteed. And, if nothing else, marvel at the fact that it’s truly something of a miracle that The Muppets actually exists in the first place.