Over a decade since their last cinematic outing, Jim Henson’s iconic, comedic felt creations face a tough dilemma. Do they put on a spectacular show at the old Muppet theatre to restore their name and glory or do they slip away into the night; icons of a less complicated and cynical time? Whilst that may describe the plot of the movie itself, it also sums up the real world that the Muppet franchise finds itself in at present. Kid’s entertainment is mostly cyclical and yesterday’s fad creates indifference if not complete ignorance. However the care of craft is crucial and it seems to have paid of hugely. After a terrific Thanksgiving opening in the States, James Bobin’s reboot arrives on these shores. As someone who always liked and enjoyed The Muppets yet not a die-hard fan, I approached this with a certain sense of trepidation. Thankfully I was rewarded with one of the smartest, funniest and simply joyful mainstream family films of recent memory.
The central plot revolves around young Muppet Walter and his human brother Gary (Jason Segal, also the films co-writer). Growing up as the only Muppet in the ridiculously idyllic Smalltown, Walter finds comfort and joy through the Muppet Show on television. All grown up the two head to LA with Gary’s girlfriend Mary (Amy Adams in full on charm mode) in tow to see the Muppets Studios. However they find the studio empty and in decline, the Muppets broken up and etching out meagre livings and worst of all an evil oil baron literally named Tex Richman (a game Chris Cooper) planning to tear down the studios and dig up the black gold he has found beneath. It’s up to Walter and his friends to band Kermit and his Muppet companions together for one last show in order to raise funds and save their precious theatre. To be honest it’s a fairly tired and tested plot device yet the creators crucially realise that the journey is what counts and not the destination. For a film that is primarily aimed at a youth market, it’s a surprisingly melancholic experience as the central Muppet characters are forced to face their redundancy. These issues are raised on a more direct level with Walter and Gary who must confront the inevitable distance that grows between them.
As brave a move this is for a kid’s movie, only a fool would believe this would take the route of a Shakespearian drama. Bobin and Segal clearly understand the nostalgic appeal of the characters and play it wonderfully with a firmly tongue in cheek sense of humour that at once ridicules the characters flaws yet is clearly on their side and delights in their antics. Fozzy tells his bad jokes, Gonzo will perform death defying stunts and Animal will be unable to resist the drums. They’re aware their living in a movie world and there are several witty and well placed jokes referencing the confines of the films narrative that work well for both old fans and newbie’s alike. The human cast rise to the task with equal aplomb noticeably during the films playful song and dance sequences penned by Bret McKenzie of HBO’s brilliant Flight Of The Concords. The piece ‘Man or a Muppet’, drifts effortlessly between melancholy and mirth with a great visual pay-off. There’s also the bizarre sight of an Oscar winning dramatic actor rapping about his wealth with dance backing.
Everyone’s up for a laugh in the film, a clear fact from the celebrity cameos associated with the Muppets from their early days. The likes of Alan Arkin and Emily Blunt send up their own images in brief but well timed spots but perhaps in some of the later scenes there seems to be a wary degree of redundancy in the appearances, as though the makers just tried to get as familiar faces in as they could. This is particularly noticeable at the films climax; could they really have not found anyone else to ‘co-host’ the show. It’s one of a few niggling flaws that slightly undermine the film such as particular favourites such as Rolfe and Beaker getting only limited screen time (though understandable due to the brisk running time) and a only creeping sense of infantile humour that feels at odds with the all generations aspect of the original show. But no mind, these are only small flaws with what is otherwise a genuine gem of family entertainment and a glorious return to form for a set of beloved characters. Hell, ever Waldorf and Statler would be cheered up by it.