Director: James Bobbin
Starring: The Muppets, Jason Segel, Amy Adams, Chris Cooper
Review: 3 stars (of five)
Jason Segel’s Muppet movie (he drove the project, and cowrote it) is a deepy affectionate, modestly entertaining tribute to Jim Henson’s classic characters that doesn’t really succeed at making its central argument: That on an entertainment horizon blighted by soulless digital glamour and mean-spirited programming, we need the Muppets more than ever.
The movie is not without moments of unalloyed charm. The first musical number is a glorious gem, in which Segal, a small town cast and one new Muppet character sing with complete joy and innocence, in a way that acknowledges its own cheesiness without cynically undercutting it. The subtext isn’t the hipster motto of “We’re better than this,” it’s a deliberate “We don’t want to be better than this.” It’s a bunch of adults kicking off their business shoes and running through the sprinklers.
(Catch the song, “I’ve Got Everything I Need,” just warmin’ up in this clip.)
Similarly, a number toward the end, “Man or Muppet,” rises to similar heights, and it’s telling that two of the film’s inarguable high points are the ones that involve the new characters rather than Henson’s beloved theater troupe. It ain’t easy recapturing that genius, and it’s fortunate that the filmmakers supplement the old with some compelling new.
Case in point: The film introduces an endearing everyMuppet, Segel’s brother, “Walter,” who is apparently a human but, clearly, is a felt puppet. (The movie mercifully doesn’t try to explain these things.) Walter doesn’t fit in. For one thing, he’s perpetually frozen as a small boy, which no one seems to mind, but makes him feel left out. As his brother, Segel seems equally stuck in boyhood, but he’s got a girlfriend, Amy Adams, and they’re gettin’ serious, so one of the film’s main story threads is Walter finding his place in the world—that place, of course, being the Muppet theater.
Which brings us to where things start to sag. Though the Muppets have been an active commercial property since “The Muppet Show” closed down in 1981, the film portrays them as long disbanded, all the beloved characters having gone their separate ways and living mostly unsuccessful, and always unsatisfying, lives. (Early bits with Fozzie performing in Reno are especially harrowing.) If your idea of a Muppet movie is to spend the first third not really seeing any Muppets, and then spending the second third watching them mope, this is your movie. Me, I could’ve used more Muppets and less moping.
In the final act, the Muppets put on a telethon to save their theater from a perfect villain—oil billionaire Chris Cooper, who is mustache-twirling classic that won’t scare children—and we start to see a bit of the old magic. Literally, in the case of some famous bits that are quickly reprised. It’s only as the script keeps veering back to its story of middle-aged depression and the idea that the Muppets are somewhat a group of losers that the fun flags.
The Muppets has its heart in the right place, but it doesn’t deliver the laughs that half an hour searching “Muppets” on YouTube would deliver. It’s worth your kid’s time, and when it’s not creating new fond memories, it certainly allows the older viewer to remember the old ones. If Segel and crew don’t hit it out of the park, so what? It’s still a really nice park to be in, even if it seems a little run down at times.