Hey, remember when I used to write movie reviews here because I had time and money to see movies in the theater? Man, those were the days.
In today’s cynical world, I rarely (if ever) hear about something and think, “That’s going to be great.” But that was exactly what I thought when I heard Jason Segel would be writing and starring in The Muppets. Actually, I didn’t just think, “That’s going to be great,” but rather, “That’s going to be perfect.” I know there was some freaking out because he’s been involved in some raunchy stuff and how dare they affiliate the Muppets with that trash; but anyone who watched raunchy comedy Forgetting Sarah Marshall was thrown for a loop by the finale, which consisted of a three-minute Segel-produced faux-Muppet production called “Dracula: The Musical,” which was a spot-on distillation of The Muppet Show‘s pop-culture parodies. And the one common factor in Segel’s performances ever since that one episode of Alias where he played a hapless exchange student who found himself bewildered at being dragged into Syndey’s Bavarian escapade is the impression that he’s not exactly innocent or naïve, but he is sincerely earnest. And that is exactly what the Muppets need to be….especially in today’s cynical world.
To my delight, the movie didn’t let me down. It was perfect. I never doubted; my faith paid off.
Well, OK, not 100% perfect. A cynic (living in today’s world) could make the case, and with some justification, that a little too much of the spotlight was given to the trio of Mary, Gary, and Walter (Segel, Amy Adams, and some new Muppet) — though this is largely justified by the fact that the soul-searching musical number that serves as the climax of Gary’s tale is one of the funniest bits of the movie. Really, the only thing that felt off was that Walter’s performance was the grand climax of the flick, relegating a profoundly moving performance of an essential, classic Muppet number to penultimate status.
But maybe even that’s not such a bad thing. The Muppets traded heavily in nostalgia, but that wasn’t the film’s only strength or offering. It deftly wove a path between old and new, between pop culture references and actual jokes. There was a trailer for a dreadful-looking Chipmunks sequel before the movie began, after which my wife leaned over and said, “That movie looks like nothing but pop culture jokes.” I’m pretty sure that’s exactly what it will be; as Family Guy has taught us, riffing on celebrities and movies is easier than writing real jokes. The Muppets had its share of those, too, iterating on everything from Nirvana to a C-Lo cover that could only possibly be called “Cluck You,” but those weren’t the soul of the film. They’re simply part of the package; the Muppets helped pioneer pop culture satire, after all. But most of the humor in the film came not from seeing goofy puppet-men performing familiar songs in a surreal fashion or even seeing Emily Blunt reprise her bitchy fashion magazine receptionist role from The Devil Wears Prada but rather from the relationships between the characters, terrible (wonderful) puns, and a barrage of fourth-wall-breaking jokes that almost (but not quite) go a little too far.
The result is a movie that somehow manages the feat of being nostalgic without wallowing in it: Capturing the essence of classic Muppets, but not without offering anything new. While Walter, Gary, and Mary toe the line occasionally and make you wonder if perhaps there’s a silent “Sue” at the end of Mary’s name, their addition to the movie provides more than just a motivating force for the plot and its resulting Muppet reunion; they also provide new material to keep The Muppets from being simply a matter of, “Hey, remember how great the Muppets were when you were a kid? Here, have those jokes again!” So while a few jokes are pilfered wholesale from earlier Muppet productions — Sweetums chasing a car full of Muppets, that sort of thing — those instances are few and far between, and instead the writers have come up with new material that feels true to the spirit of the thing but aren’t exactly the same. “Traveling by map” is the new “fork in the road.” It works.
The movie isn’t afraid to poke fun at itself and its history, too. There are even a few subtle jabs at the disappointing Muppets Tonight series. But never mean-spirited ones! Nothing in The Muppets is mean-spirited, except of course the bad guy, who delivers the most hilariously terrible white-guy rap ever committed to film (at the end of his brief number, his glamoured-up chorus girls are ushered into a side room where you can see them looking bored at the whole production, brandishing their mostly empty iced latte cups). The entire premise of the film is that the Muppets aren’t salable and have largely been forgotten, which is painfully true; even in San Francisco, the movie was only showing at a handful of theaters. Most of them were dominated by the latestTwilight. But I hope this film changes that.
Of course, a movie like The Muppets — one part revival, one part reprisal — can only happen once. If the series is to return, they’ll have to come up with entirely new ideas for the future. I feel like the people running the show are up to it, though. The most heartwarming parts of the movie were the callbacks to classic Muppets; Kermit musing on the old days in song in a hall full of oil paintings got me right there. But the funniest parts were the new material. And the best part was how it all fit together.
The Muppets is a nostalgic film, but it transcends that, because the Muppets themselves mean so much to so many people — and that includes folks like Segel. They treat the characters and material with respect (but not reverence, outside of Walter’s fanboyishness) because the Muppets were a part of their lives in their own way, just as they were for me. The most affecting part of the entire film for me was actually a poster in the theatre’s backstage area. “The Muppets,” it read, “See them Sundays at 7:30 p.m.!” The tagline suddenly took me back to my childhood and how my family would go over to my great-grandparents’ duplex after Sunday evening church services nearly every week. The adults would talk while my brother and sister and I would sit in front of their giant wood-framed floor-based television and watch The Muppet Show. I couldn’t tell you a single act that I saw on the show itself, but I perfectly remember the apartment, the sense of warmth and family and belonging that kids take for granted. The Muppets weren’t the source of that safe intimacy, merely an incidental element, but I associate them with places and people lost to time. The new movie could have coasted along on that, content to remind people of their fond memories of an old TV show, but it doesn’t.
Instead, it uses the past as a launching point for something new, relevant, and, in its sincerity, very different from most contemporary entertainment. The Muppets have always blurred the line between the reality and fiction of performance, and I hope this is one case where the fiction — a reinvigorated Muppet crew adored by countless fans — bleeds over into fact.