In the early-appearing song, “Pictures in my Head,” Kermit the frog ponders the concept of the Muppets getting back together to put on a show and poignantly asks, “Would anybody watch or even care?” It’s a good question. A decade has passed since the felt creations last appeared on the big screen, and over twenty years have passed since Jim Henson, the creator of the Muppets passed away. Even the Walt Disney Company, who finally got their hands on the iconic franchise in 2004, has been slow to do much with Kermit, Piggy, Fozzie, and friends. The question is asked in the context of the film, but it also serves as a sly moment of self-doubt about The Muppets as a whole: is there even an audience for a new Muppet movie in the CG-laden landscape of family entertainment?
As if bringing the Muppets back to the screen wasn’t risky enough, The Muppets is the first film in the franchise to be developed without the aid of Henson associates like Frank Oz, Jerry Juhl, or Paul Williams. Instead, the film comes from the imagination of a self-proclaimed superfan of Hensons’s creations: Forgetting Sarah Marshall star Jason Segel, who co-wrote the script (with Sarah Marshall director Nicholas Stoller) and stars in the film. Of course, most of the iconic characters are now performed by new players (Jim Henson and Richard Hunt have passed away, while others like Frank Oz have retired from puppeteering), so few of the behind-the-scenes players are the same from previous Muppet endeavors. Even riskier a move is the addition of a new Muppet, Walter (performed by Peter Linz), who serves as the movie’s true protagonist and cements the plot together. As if creating a new film without the old players isn’t challenging enough, the picture centers around a character who could easily be rejected by audiences who grew up with Kermit and friends and prefer their beloved favorites.
For those keeping score, we’re now talking about a new entry in a decades old franchise with some nostalgic presence that makes little use of the people who helped create the franchise, instead coming from the mind of a big fan and centering around a new character instead of fully focusing on the beloved Kermit. How’s that for a negative Statler and Waldorf recap? And yet, despite all of the odds against it, despite all of the risks and challenges, The Muppets excels. Much like the characters themselves, the new film rises above all of the obstacles thrown against it and provides solid entertainment for the family, joyful tears for long-time fans, and, most significantly, the third most important gift: laughter.
As evidenced by Kermit’s lyric, the movie is well aware that time has passed and that the Muppets haven’t remained in the spotlight. The movie finds the famous company has gone their separate ways as time has left them behind. Kermit is a Hollywood recluse, Fozzie is performing in Reno (alongside a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo by Dave Grohl), Piggy is a fashion maven in Paris, etc. While their popularity may have waned, there are still fans, as evidenced by Walter and his brother Gary (Segel). When Gary plans a romantic trip to Hollywood with his girlfriend Mary (Amy Adams), he agrees to bring Walter along so the trio can visit the famed Muppet Theater, the performing grounds highlighted in The Muppet Show. What Walter finds is a run-down building in jeopardy of being torn down by oil baron Tex Richman (Chris Cooper). The Muppets can stop the destruction of their former home by raising ten million dollars, so Walter, Gary, and Mary set out to reunite the performers and put on one more show – what may very well be their last show if they don’t succeed.
The plot is, no doubt, an allegory for The Muppets potentially being the last Muppet film if it doesn’t perform well, another self-referential acknowledgement of the film. Of course, that’s part of why The Muppets works so well. The franchise has always been self-aware, from the story proceeding in The Muppet Movie by the characters following the script or the acknowledgement that “It’s plot exposition. It has to go somewhere,” in The Great Muppet Caper (an acknowledgement that is almost 100% mimicked in a scene here). Segel’s script makes similar references, both about this movie and the others in the franchise, building strongly on what came before.
While the introduction of a new character might be a risky move, Walter serves his purpose well. He is the superfan of the Muppets. For those of us who grew up with these characters, Walter represents our own love and admiration for the characters. For those who are new to the Muppets, he helps provide the emotional base that may be lacking by not having decades of emotional investment in these characters. Using Walter as the focus helps the audience look at the traditional characters from the outside, a desperately needed perspective in order for the breakup and reunions of the Muppets to hold the emotional weight they do. Most importantly, Walter serves as the outsider – a character who doesn’t fit in with humans but isn’t one of the Muppets. His predicament allows the story to continue Jim Henson’s messages of self-worth, self-acceptance, and the strength and power brought about by simply believing in another person. Walter serves as an important window for the story, but his existence doesn’t remove any of the beloved Muppets from the story, with both familiar faces like Kermit, Fozzie, Gonzo, and Animal, and more obscure figures like Papa Deadly, Lew Zealand, and Thog (plus 100 Muppet points if you don’t have to look that last one up).
Perhaps the biggest challenge with a new Muppet film is on the musical side. While songs from the first few movies have become time-honored classics, the last film, Muppets from Space, didn’t try to tackle new material, having the Muppets cover classic R&B songs. Segel’s script brings a mix of covers and new material from Flight of the Conchords’s Bret McKenzie (McKenzie’s Conchords partner James Bobin serves as The Muppets director). The new songs perfectly capture the essence of the Muppets, with excellently choreographed musical sequences, from the upbeat “Life’s a Happy Song” to the ominous “Pictures in my Head” to the conflicted “Man or Muppet.” While the new songs are awesome additions to the Muppet repertoire, there’s just no denying the power of Kermit and Piggy singing “The Rainbow Connection” in a very “Mitch and Mickey” fashion (A Mighty Wind). The new songs are excellent, but you just can’t beat the classics, and Segel’s script acknowledges that by giving room for both.
So, we have a script that builds strongly on the foundation of the previous Muppet films, great musical numbers, and strong performances both on the human side (Amy Adams throws herself just as strongly into this role as she would any Oscar considered part) and on the Muppet side (Steve Whitmire has grown into Kermit’s part very nicely). But we still don’t have an answer for the question: “would anybody watch or even care?” The answer, both in picture and in the real world is a resounding yes. If my showing is any indication, long-time fans of the Muppets are flocking to theaters, bringing a new generation along with them. This can be attributed to the power of nostalgia; the desire to see our childhood favorites on screen again. More importantly, this is a testament to the strength of The Muppets. Every inch of the movie shows Segel’s love for this franchise. We might care because they are the Muppets, but Segel makes that easier by creating a tribute we can care about. As a result, The Muppets proves itself to be the strongest of the non-Henson Muppet pictures: a film that captures the chaos and love of the Muppets and packages it for fans old and new. Die hard fans will find themselves fighting back tears during some of the movie’s more poignant moments, while younger members of the audience will find something to love that isn’t created within a computer. Most importantly, however, everyone will find that third most important gift: laughter.