Jason Segel has been passionate about getting the Muppets back together for a long time. Using his breakout film Forgetting Sarah Marshall as an audition of sorts (that film features a vampire puppet show), Segel teamed with Sarah Marshall director Nicholas Stoller and successfully pitched the concept to Disney. The result is one of the most heartwarming films of the year: an old school Muppet adventure for the modern world.
Gary (Segel) and his brother Walter have been best friends since childhood, but because Walter is a Muppet, he’s always been a bit of an outcast. When Walter discovers The Muppet Show on television, he becomes their biggest fan, obsessing over the famed Muppet Studios in Los Angeles and dreaming to visit one day. Years later, when Gary and his girlfriend Mary (Amy Adams) decide to celebrate their tenth anniversary by taking a vacation to Los Angeles, they leave Smalltown, USA – in keeping with the classic Muppet charm, “Smalltown” is actually the name of their town – and they bring Walter along for the ride. But they’re shocked to discover the Muppet Studios have been abandoned for years, about to be bought by oil baron Tex Richman (Chris Cooper). Walter overhears a secret plot to destroy the theater to dig for oil underneath, and the movie really gets started as our trio attempts to reunite the Muppets so they can rejuvenate their old act to make the $10 million necessary to save the theater.
It’s no coincidence that the only other film that’s given me this much pure joy in a theater this year is another one that’s related to Jim Henson: it’s called Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey, a documentary about Kevin Clash, the guy who voices and “plays” Elmo on Sesame Street. (Read my review of that film here.) I guess that means I’m a sucker for Muppets, and I’m OK with that label. We recorded a podcast a few months ago in which we discussed The Muppet Movie, The Great Muppet Caper, and The Muppets Take Manhattan (listen here), and Segel’s newest take on the material has elements from all three: it has a touch of the sadness found in Manhattan in the “everyone’s gone their separate ways” storyline, has a similar “brother” joke to the Fozzie/Kermit relationship in Caper, but overall it’s mostly reminiscent of The Muppet Movie (my favorite of the series). Segel and Stoller really nailed the tone, and they did a great job of bringing this brand of nostalgia back to the big screen in a way that makes us feel as if the Muppets should always be in the zeitgeist.
The comedy is pitch-perfect, from the celebrity cameos, to Fozzie’s awful-on-purpose one-liners, to the sight gags this series is known for. My favorite of these moments involves Kermit’s intro, in which he approaches our heroes bathed in light with a choir of angels singing in the background, and then the camera pans out to reveal Kermit was just in the headlights of a passing bus full of singing choir members. I don’t want to give away the best gags of the film, but if the promise of Academy Award winner Chris Cooper rapping isn’t enough to get you in the theater, I don’t know what is.
As is typically the case for Muppet productions, the music is fantastic. Flight of the Conchords’ Bret McKenzie wrote many of the songs, including the highlights “Life’s A Happy Song,” “Me Party,” and “Man or Muppet?” The dance numbers work wonderfully, and the song-and-dance aspects of it add to the timeless feel of the movie. With the exception of an unnecessary Cee Lo Green parody near the end, this could have been made any time in the past ten years.
If you’re even remotely interested in Henson’s loveable creatures, The Muppets is a must-see. Its unbridled enthusiasm and genuine heart provides a stark contrast to dark material like The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo coming up this holiday season, so if you’re looking for a family-friendly option that will please kids but has more jokes for adults, look no further than Kermit and Co. as they come back for one last hurrah. Let’s hope there’s more where that came from. Until next time…