The Muppets (2011) / Comedy-Musical
MPAA rated PG for mild rude humor
Running time: 103 min.
Cast: Jason Segel, Amy Adams, Chris Cooper, Jack Black, Rashida Jones, Zach Galifianakis, Kristen Schaal, Jim Parsons, Sarah Silverman, Emily Blunt, Whoopi Goldberg, Selena Gomez, Rico Rodriguez
Voice: Peter Linz, Steve Whitmire, Eric Jacobson, Dave Goelz, Bill Barretta, Matt Vogel
Cameo: Alan Arkin, Bill Cobbs, Ken Jeong, James Carville, Dave Grohl, Neil Patrick Harris, Judd Hirsch, John Krasinski, Mickey Rooney
Director: James Bobin
Screenplay: Jason Segel, Nicholas Stoller
In this return after over a decade to the big screen by Jim Henson's much beloved creations, the long mothballed Muppets Studio in Hollywood becomes threatened with destruction at the avaricious hands of a greedy oil tycoon, Tex Richman (Cooper, The Kingdom), looking to exploit the crude he knows is in the ground underneath the famed Muppet Theater. In order to save their beloved old stomping grounds, it is up to Kermit and company to round up all of the old Muppet Show characters to put on a telethon and try to come up with enough money, $10 million, to thwart Richman's scheme from going forward before it is too late. Assisting the felt fellows are major fans of their show from Smalltown, USA, Gary (Segel, Bad Teacher), his longtime girlfriend Mary (Adams, The Fighter), and Gary's puppet (and possible Muppet) brother Walter (voiced by Peter Linz).
It's the old artists vs. corporation storyline, ensconced in the old "getting the band back together" plotline (The Blues Brothers comes immediately to mind), followed by the old "let's put on a show" climax, The Muppets is pretty tired as an idea, made somewhat fresh through enough funny bits to overlook the lackluster storytelling. Taking the old Muppet family idea and wrapping it up with today's comedic penchant for pop culture references, the screenplay by co-star Jason Segel and Nicholas Stoller (Yes Man, Fun with Dick and Jane) delivers clever ideas within the tried-and-true construct, and enough in-jokes and forgotten characters from the old show to keep Muppet fans waxing nostalgic throughout. It's also a musical, like the original Muppet Movie from 1979, so fans of song-and dance numbers, some inspired and some forgettable, should find many things to smile about. First-time feature film director James Bobin does a respectable job keeping all of the mayhem together without losing much in the comic timing, similar in tempo to his own time spent directing "Flight of the Conchords" for HBO.
The Muppets is also refreshing in its old-school approach to family entertainment, contrasting with the CGI and 3D endeavors that populate much of the entertainment that might appeal to the youth of today. Throughout the piece, there are many references to just how antiquated the Muppets are, exemplified by a robot butler/chauffeur that is still stuck with old technology (such as a landline modem), and old terminology, too far removed from the advancements of today to even begin to grasp the changes -- he offers the guests cans of Tab and New Coke. Such humor will likely not be understood by many kids, but the adults that bring them to the theater will likely chuckle at the knowing references to the late 1970s and early 1980s, the period TV's "The Muppet Show" ran on television. Teens might laugh while their parents are oblivious as Camilla and the Chickens 'bawk' a rendition of Cee Lo Green's "F*ck You".
Stars Segel and Adams take a back seat for most of the antics once the Muppets take over the screen (not a bad thing in a film called The Muppets), but they do get their chances to shine, particularly in the aforementioned song and dance numbers. Chris Cooper's maniacal villain performance does steal many scenes, even busting into a so-bad-it's-good rap during one sequence. Like the original show, much of it transpires in a series of sketches, and while not all of the scenes elicit laughs, there is always a funny bit lurking just a minute or two later, enough to keep the sporadic momentum dips from turning into full-scale lulls. There's even a nod to the laborious nature of the formula, as one of the characters, after picking up Fozzie Bear and Gonzo, suggests picking up the rest of the Muppets in a montage. The cameos are superfluous, and many of the mostly minor celebs are head-scratchers (James Carville?) but their inclusion is in keeping with prior Muppet endeavors.
All in all, it's a welcome return for fans, and solid introduction for the unfamiliar, who really should seek out the original shows on video if that's an option, as much of it holds up quite well to this day. It's a love letter to the Muppets, written by fans, for fans, and, given the critical and commercial success of this film, certainly not the last time we'll see them on the big screen.
©2012 Vince Leo