The Muppets have always been a curious relic of a bygone era of entertainment, much like Bugs Bunny and the rest of the Looney Tunes gang. They still carry the torch for vaudeville, only in the case of the Muppets it’s a show about putting on a show. The “Muppet Show” regularly broke the fourth wall in a way that only stage performers can, but that meta-awareness has since become rote in the age of hyper-media saturation. Can the Muppets still be relevant in the Internet era?
“The Muppets” wisely doesn’t try to update the titular puppets so much as resurrect them, reintroducing Kermit (Steve Whitmire) and company in a “get the gang back together to save the show” plot. It works, because it’s the Muppets, and cheesy is what they do.
Less successful are the dual narratives at the center of the film. Gary (Jason Segel) and Walter (Peter Linz) are brothers with one important difference: Gary is a human and Walter is a Muppet. Gary has grown up and has a girlfriend Mary (adorable Amy Adams, who looks like she was pregnant through most of the film). Walter has…his obsession with the Muppets. These two worlds are destined to collide on a fateful road trip Hollywood.
The abandoned Muppet studio is in a sorry state, and it soon becomes clear that Kermit and Miss Piggy (Eric Jacobson) have broken up. With the rest of the Muppets scattered, it’s up to our heroes to convince Kermit to reunite with his beloved, get the band back together (literally), and put on a show that will raise $10 million before villainous oil baron Tex Richman (Chris Cooper) can get his hands on the plot.
What ensues is a series of madcap homages to other films, subtle references to Muppet canon, and lots of plot-bending gags like “traveling by map.” These jokes aren’t so much funny as they are ironic, which is what the Muppet always excelled at. Jack Black, playing himself, demonstrates the brilliance of the Muppets when Fozzie Bear (Eric Jacobson) begins a lame routine and Black reacts by mocking him. The audience eats it up, and we do too – not because the Muppets are always funny, but because they’re always game, often lame, and in on the joke.
Different plot points resolve at their own pace, and to Segel’s writing credit, almost all of them resolve in a satisfactory fashion. Villains are defeated, romances rekindled, and our beloved Muppets play all the songs we remember best. The funniest gags comes from a new Muppet, 80’s Robot (Matt Vogel), who is there exclusively to keep us Gen Xers entertained.
Unfortunately the weakest link is central to the film. Walter is a generic Muppet with almost no character development other than his adoration of Kermit. When he is called upon in the eleventh hour to find his talent, it feels as fabricated as his body.
But I can’t be too harsh on the Muppets. Although the movie’s not really for kids, the secret to the Muppets was that it never was. This is the best resurrection a fan could ask for.
Want more? Subscribe to this column; follow me on Facebook, Twitter, Google+, and the web; buy my books: The Evolution of Fantasy Role-Playing Games, The Well of Stars, and Awfully Familiar.