Review: ‘The Muppets’ Makes Us Feel as Soft as Felt

By  · Published on November 24th, 2011

Review: ‘The Muppets’ Makes Us Feel as Soft as Felt

Editor’s Note: If you don’t want some of the finer points of The Muppets spoiled for you (uh, including the ending), maybe sit this one out (on a boat somewhere, possibly? with an attractive lady pig and a nearby rainbow?). However, if you’re more concerned with spoilers regarding the film’s copious cameos, you’ve got the frog-green light to read this one.

I am a cynic. That’s not so much a startling admission as it is recognition of the ugly little monster that sits on my shoulder every time I go into any given screening these days. This monster whispers in my ear the titles of all the Hollywood films over the last few years that have displayed a lack of originality, poor acting, and a general lack of heart. It tempts me to predispose myself toward negativity and force the movie to win me over. That same monster was sitting on my shoulder even as I sat down to see The Muppets, a film to which I had very much been looking forward. That monster was there despite how much I loved The Muppet Show when I saw it in rerun as a kid and despite my having worn out my VHS copy of The Muppet Movie many years ago.

Ultimately, this film not only silenced that little monster, but it clobbered it with one of Miss Piggy’s left hooks and replaced it with a familiar singing frog whom I had forgotten how much I truly missed. As it turns out, The Muppets is the cure for the common cynic.

I will say that The Muppets had the advantage of opening with a Pixar short, a Toy Story Pixar short no less. Small Fry showcased Pixar’s signature wit and comedic timing as it tackled the one facet of the toy universe not addressed in any of the three Toy Story films: fast food kids meal prizes. It proved to be another feather in their already-garish cap. But it also meant that, by the time the Disney logo appeared on screen, that familiar castle heralded by fireworks the orchestral reminder of Jiminy Cricket’s timeless song, I was already smiling from ear to ear.

The opening of the film is an endearing, sing-songy introduction to the newest Muppet: Walter. Walter happens to be the Muppets’ biggest fan. From this point forward, it becomes clear that this film is one fan’s personal journey from childhood infatuation to uncorrupted grownup adoration and finally to professional and artistic collaboration. That fan is The Muppets writer and co-star Jason Segel by way of his creation Walter. Segel’s love of the Muppets is well-documented, and his desire to make a Muppet movie first appeared in the press shortly after his film Forgetting Sarah Marshall ended with his own Dracula puppet musical. Segel is so elated to finally get to realize his dream project that he documents his entire love affair within the script.

The prologue informs us of Walter’s discovery of the Muppets themselves, of a shy, awkward boy who was different and found solace in the magic of the Muppets. We see Jason Segel’s character growing up with the Muppets right next to Walter, but their stories are completely inextricable. Walter is almost the Tyler Durden to Segel’s Jack. The moment Segel fell in love with the Muppets is told through his subsequent song, one that espouses that everything is wonderful and perfect, a tribute to how the unflappable optimism of those beloved characters instills the audience with that same uplifting sense of comfort and joy. By the time we get to Kermit’s song “Pictures in My Head,” Segel is addressing his sorrow over the decline in Muppet popularity and the long span of time since the last theatrical Muppet adventure. There is even a song in which he and Walter each ask themselves if they are man or Muppet; equating to Jack’s moment of realization in Fight Club. By the end, Segel’s character is encouraging Walter to go and be with the Muppets, to be a part of their show. He is lending that little part of himself forever to the Muppet legacy. It is a tender, beautiful moment that brings to poignant conclusion this long-held aspiration.

So if this is all about Segel, why doesn’t the movie feel saddled by ego? Because Segel understands every iota of what made us all fall in love with the Muppets and allows us to do so again. He understands every facet, every joke, every fiber (no pun intended) of their appeal. We’re not watching an artist pat himself on the back for the fine job he’s done, we’re watching a fan give entirely of himself in worship of something that has inspired him his whole life. He creates a film that reboots the franchise without neglecting its roots. First and foremost, the creation of Walter as Segel’s human character’s brother is testament to the transcendent quality of the Muppets. They exist in a world wherein their function as entertainers, their long illustrious history and The Muppet Show from when we knew them as kids, is acknowledged. But this is also a world wherein they are not seen as puppets but rather as their own race. As the audience, our history with these characters – our deep-seated connection with them – allows us to fully accept this weird discrepancy. There are also little in-jokes about montages and traveling by “map” that speak to their own past as well as play into the current narrative. Segel allows the preexisting tone and spirit of the Muppets to shine and take the lead, playing along with every unapologetically silly beat without a scrap of ego.

Even the music, possibly even especially the music, in The Muppets is informed by their legacy. Going back to Kermit’s song, it isn’t just Segel lamenting the fact that we haven’t seen a Muppet film in ages. Much like any other song from any other Muppet film, it’s a pretty melody that communicates a simple, universal theme. In the case of “Pictures in My Head,” the theme is the pain of growing apart from good friends. This is the moment I found most touching and where I am not ashamed to say I teared up in much the same way I do now whenever I hear the surprisingly haunting “Rainbow Connection,” which played like a giant, warm embrace when it appeared near the end of the film. Kermit’s speech just before the finale reminds us all that whether or not this particular film achieves critical or box office success, the Muppets and their storied, largely unaltered identity will persevere; waiting for the chance to make us laugh again. This declaration, a renewed commitment to their celebrated optimism, then greatly invigorates and makes triumphant the climactic reprise of the opening song. By the end, I didn’t feel like this was Jason Segel’s Muppet Movie, I just felt fortunate to, like him, have had a personal relationship with these characters since childhood and enjoyed getting reacquainted with them.

I will admit that not everything in The Muppets worked for me. Amy Adams, adorable and in keeping with the spirit of the Muppets as she was, did the film no favors with her song “Me Party.” Granted, this wasn’t her fault, as she did not write the song into the film, but it just feels like filler; a tenuous bridge to her already well-established emotional state. It actually runs counter, tonally, to the rest of the film. She complains about being alone and then celebrates her isolation from her boyfriend who she then wants to marry? I also thought the second act dragged a bit with not enough Muppetocity for my taste. At first, I also wanted to chastise the film for its musical renditions of current songs and the inclusion of cameos by contemporary television stars and pop singers. Surely, I thought, this will inexcusably date the film. But then I remembered the original Muppet Movie and its inclusion of a guest appearance by Paul Williams. Touche, The Muppets, touche.

The Upside: A loving, personal tribute to all things Muppets that celebrates the longevity and emotional relevance of the characters.

The Downside: A song or two may not work for you and it drags just a bit near the middle.

On the Side: The 80s robot character is actually a reference to Segel’s hit sitcom How I Met Your Mother.

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Longtime FSR columnist, current host of FSR’s Junkfood Cinema podcast. President of the Austin Film Critics Association.