It’s Time to Play the Music…

After years of mounting expectation, overanalyzing every rumour and leaked tidbit of info on the web, die-hard fans finally got their chance to relive their childhoods. Some waited for hours outside the theatre in costumes or clutching beloved retro toys. The excitement was mixed with fear Would this new movie rekindle the magic of the original 1970’s-1980’s triad of films? Or would it be so disappointing that their love would turn to bitter hatred, forcing them back to the message boards to tear the new annoying characters to shreds.

We all know how it turned out for Star Wars fans in 1999 when the release of ‘The Phantom Menace’ “ruined their childhoods”, making George Lucas, once their idol, more despised than a Sith lord.

Jason Segel, the lovably goofy actor and screenwriter who took on the task of reviving the Muppet franchise, had reason to be nervous. Muppet fans, like their Star Wars equivalents, are paradoxically desperate for new films, yet stubbornly protective of the characters and their fictional world. Which Segel understands, as he’s one of the biggest Muppet fans of all.

The new Muppets movie (simply titled ‘The Muppets’) would not have happened without Segel’s nerdy persistence. After the success of his film ‘Forgetting Sarah Marshall’, Segel met with Disney, which owns the rights to the Muppets, and expressed interest in bringing Kermit, Miss Piggy and the whole gang back to the big screen.

As Segel tells it, Disney wasn’t overly enthused but left the door open, so, to goad them along, Segel hyped the film in interviews as though it was already in production.  Classic three- minute clips from ‘The Muppet Show’, random before ‘random’ was a thing, were tailor-made for Youtube. Disney decided to give it a shot.

The Muppets have been leaderless since Jim Henson, their creator and the source of their soul, died of an extremely rare bacterial infection in 1990. The Muppets were in three later feature films and several TV specials and appearances, but they lacked the zany spark that had made them household names in the late 1970’s. The characters worked best as underdogs; their Vaudevillian theatre on TV was always falling to pieces, and in the early movies they were often a ragtag group of performers who wanted to make it to Hollywood or Broadway to “make millions of people happy,” as Kermit put it.

But in the 1990’s and 2000’s, the characters were already a band of celebrities, inserted into Dickensian or pirate costumes for ‘A Muppet Christmas Carol’ and ‘Muppet Treasure Island,’ just like Mickey, Minnie and company. Fans knew the Muppets were drifting, directionless.

By handing over the Muppets to Segel, Disney gave the keys to the kingdom to a fan. What results is a film not just for and about Muppet fans, but one which symbolically recognizes and atones for the Muppets losing their way.

Muppet fandom is introduced early in ‘The Muppets’. We meet Gary (Segel) and his brother Walter, an adorable yellow Muppet with a face more expressive than most of the famous Muppets we’ll see later. (Perhaps this is why Kermit the Frog was destined to be the most famous Muppet. His flexible felt face shows far more emotional range than the more-structured heads of Miss Piggy and Gonzo.)

No explanation is given or needed for how a human could have a Muppet brother, but that doesn’t stop Walter from being bullied by kids and feeling left out. As they grow up, the brothers bond over late-night viewings of ‘The Muppet Show’. Seeing his own kind on TV makes Walter feel a little less out of place.

Gary and Walter live in a place called Smallville USA which, judging from the candy-coloured costumes and Norman Rockwell street scenes, appears to exist in the mythologized 1950’s. The classic Muppet movies borrowed nostalgic troupes from Old Hollywood (Miss Piggy tap dancing in an Art Deco restaurant worthy of Fred and Ginger in ‘The Great Muppet Caper’ comes to mind) but Smallville’s naiveté seems too deliberate and ironic to be appealing.

No matter. Walter, Gary and his fiancé Mary (Amy Adams) quickly catch the Greyhound to Los Angeles. Walter wants to see the “Muppet studios”, the supposed location of the original Muppet theatre. They find it derelict and vacant, the psychedelic-painted bus from ‘The Muppet Movie’ rusting on the lot. The empty lot becomes a metaphor for the characters and fans alike. The viewer is left to wonder if we abandoned the Muppets, or they abandoned us.

Walter sneaks into Kermit’s old office, which is treated with the awesome reverence of King Tut’s tomb. On the wall hang photographs of the frog with various celebrities, a prominent spot given to one of Kermit with a smiling Jim Henson. The implication is clear: without this soft-voiced, bearded man, the Muppets have been as forgotten as this cobwebbed old room.

While in the office, Walter overhears the plan of evil oil baron Tex Richman (Chris Cooper) who is notified by Statler and Waldorf that in a week’s time he can buy the theatre and tear it down to pump for oil. (Maybe Cooper’s character should have been a Wall Street banker, but that might have been a bit too political for Disney.)

The plot lays itself out as simply as any Mickey and Judy ‘backyard musical’. The whole gang reunites for one more show to save the theatre. Located in a Norma Desmond-type mansion, the frog leader is reluctant to get involved.

“I guess everybody kind of forgot about us,” Kermit says, and if that doesn’t bring a tear to your eye, his following song to paintings of Fozzie, The Swedish Chef and the Electric Mayhem Band definitely will.

It’s clear Segel is pandering to Muppet fans, but so what? Unlike fans of sulky teenage vampires and dreadlocked pirates, we never get pandered to.

Kermit comes on board, of course, and gets the old gang together, which leads to the movie’s funniest strings of jokes. The humour is obviously indebted to ‘The Simpsons’ and even ‘Family Guy’, with the sort of meta-movie jokes that peppered the original films. “May I suggest,” asks Kermit’s robot assistant, named Eighties Robot, “that to cut down on time, we resort to using a montage?”

Once reunited, our gang of furries faces another challenge. “I’m going to level with you,” Rashida Jones, as a TV producer tells them. “You guys aren’t famous anymore.” A “hard cynical time” needs “hard cynical entertainment,” she says, and shows a clip of the #1 show at the moment, ‘Hit My Teacher’. The Muppets are underdogs again, Kermit forced to give inspirational speeches about believing in oneself and “making people happy”.

Here an interesting split happens. While Walter, Gary and Mary are from idyllic Smallville and still sincerely love the Muppets, LA is apparently in the modern world, where people compulsively text message, Selena Gomez is a star and “hard, cynical entertainment” beats sentimentality to a pulp. Perhaps the Jason Segel sections of the movie would be more relatable if, rather than living in a camp ‘Leave it to Beaver’ fantasy, he and Walter resided in the real world and needed the fuzzy comfort of the Muppets to cheer them up.

As they repair and clean up the Muppet Theatre (“You guys are the Muppets,” Gary says, “You do stuff like this to music!”) we get reacquainted with a bunch of characters not seen since the end of the Muppet Show. Muppet nerds like myself will be pleased to spot crooners Wayne and Wanda, the Beautiful Day Monster and the gigantic blue Thog. You can picture Segel stamping his foot and telling  the Henson company, “No, no, no! I don’t want any new ones! I want all the old, weird monsters that used to be on the show!”

Turns out that the “standard Rich and Famous contract” Kermit signed in The Muppet Movie (for Orson Welles no less) releases ownership not just of the Muppet Theatre, but of the Muppet name itself, which Tex Richman intends to sell to the Muppet tribute band ‘The Moopets’. How hilarious that, in a film produced by Disney, the greedy villain wants to acquire the Muppet name and use it for his own purposes.

Miss Piggy, who at first holds out from the reunion (she’s a big time fashion editor in Paris), eventually returns, complete with Zac Posen outfits and a different hairstyle for every scene. She and Kermit, all their differences resolved, reunite on stage for the finale.

The songs, written by Flight of the Conchords’ Bret Mackenzie, are serviceable, but how can they compete with ‘Moving Right Along’, ‘Together Again’ and ‘The Rainbow Connection’.

The highlight of the new show is Camilla the Chicken singing, or rather clucking, Cee-Lo’s ‘Fuck You’ in showgirls’ feathered headdresses. Catchy, unaccountably funny and with the right level of “WTF?!” randomness, it’s just the kind of number that made the original Muppet Show popular.

For a movie tasked with paying tribute to the original TV series and movies, acknowledging the gap in years and popularity, and reviving the brand with spunky humour and a fresh take, it’s impressive the film doesn’t collapse under its own weight. Rather, it’s as light as a marionette. The audience I was part of was thrilled.

Having captured the viewers and paid tribute to the Muppet fans and creators alike, Segel could move in new directions with a sequel. ‘The Muppets’ could be the start of a new era for Kermit and company. But the film also works as a coda, a fitting farewell to cherished characters who, like Henson, have a “gentle soul and a wicked sense of humour.”