Friday, December 02, 2011

It's the return of the Muppets: Yaaaaaaaaay!

It's time to play the music, it's time to light the lights, it’s time to re-meet the Muppets and it is quite the sight. Yes, after a more than a decade-long hiatus from the big screen the Muppets have returned in all their glory in “The Muppets.”

In “The Muppets,” Kermit the Frog and the rest of the gang have broken up and have been largely forgotten by the world. A trio of fans, Gary (Jason Segel), his girlfriend Mary (Amy Adams) and Gary’s adopted brother Walter, who is a Muppet, but doesn’t seem to be aware of that fact, head to Los Angeles to tour the now decrepit Muppet Studio.

Through chance, Walter discovers an evil tycoon (Chris Cooper, in a gloriously campy performance) wants to tear the studio down to drill for oil. Gary, Mary and Walter seek out Kermit and gather everyone together to put on a telethon in the style of the old “Muppet Show.” That's it in terms of plot and that’s really all you need.

Segel, a huge Muppets fan in real life, co-wrote the script with Nick Stoller and their love of the characters comes through in every moment of the movie. This is a joyful tribute to the characters and a throwback to the original show and the first few films. Much like “The Muppet Movie” there is a self-aware tone to the material that is fun. The script is full of real wit and even some heart-tugging pathos.

Jim Henson’s felt friends became an unlikely sensation in 1976 on “The Muppet Show,” which spawned three films from 1979 to 1984, “The Muppet Movie,” “The Great Muppet Caper” and “Muppets Take Manhattan.”

Following Henson’s death in 1990 it was unclear if the Muppets would go on without him, but his son, Brian, continued the legacy in a new series of films from 1992 to 1999 with “The Muppet Christmas Carol,” “Muppet Treasure Island” and “Muppets from Space.”

In 2000 Jim Henson’s children sold the Jim Henson Company to a German company. Shortly after the purchase that company faced financial difficulties and Henson’s children struggled to buy back their father’s company. They did and, in 2004, sold the all rights to Disney.

All this back and forth with the company may explain why in the new millennium the Muppets were relegated to TV movies, commercials and music videos. In the entertainment world, there was much discussion to whether the Muppets were even cultural relevant anymore, and so it is fitting that the new film uses that as a jumping off point.

It was a series of video on YouTube, including the Muppets’ take of “Bohemian Rhapsody,” that helped prove that the Muppets popularity hadn’t waned and paved the way for the new film.

“The Muppets,” as with the previous films, is a musical, and a rather effective one, too. Familiar songs like “The Muppet Show Theme” and “The Rainbow Connection” are recreated, but there are several new songs written by Bret McKenzie, one half of the New Zealand folk comedy duo Flight of the Conchords. His songs are bright, catchy and funny. Highlights include “Life’s a Happy Song,” “Me Party” and, my personal favorite, “Man or Muppet” in which Gary and Walter each ponder if they’re a “Muppet of a man or a very manly Muppet.”

Directed by James Bobin, who worked with McKenzie on the “Flight of the Conchords” TV series, there is an irreverent, but never vulgar tone to the material. This is gentle family friendly material that will appeal to both kids and adults.

All the favorite Muppets are here including Kermit, Fozzie, Miss Piggy, Gonzo, Scooter, the Swedish Chef, etc. Everyone gets their due, even if only briefly. As was the case with “The Muppet Movie,” this new film is full of celebrity cameos. Some are very funny and some are gratuitous, but everyone seems happy to be on screen with these beloved characters.

Segel and Adams as the human stars of the movie are cheery and energetic. They may have too much screen time, after all this is a Muppets movie, but they are good company and play well off the Muppets.

The film is made in such a way as to appeal to fans, but also reintroduces the characters to a new audience. Above everything else this is a genuine feel-good movie that will have you smiling as you leave the theater. I was grinning like a fool from beginning to end.

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