It's difficult not to get swept up by the hype of the first theatrically-released Muppet movie in 12 years. The preview trailers have been going viral since this past summer, and the Muppets & their human co-stars have been hitting the talk show circuit like never before. Audiences who don't catch on to this Muppet fever will be missing a refreshingly entertaining movie.
"The Muppets" lives up to most of its hype. It's a solid, stand-alone movie with a great storyline. While the film may be considered a tribute, which in many ways it is, very rarely does a tribute make a great movie. Any TV show can put the Muppets on proverbial pedestals using archive footage. "The Muppets" succeeds by breathing new life into characters we've known for years, and bringing them back down from their high pedestals so they're easier to see.
It really takes a Muppet fanatic to reintroduce these classic characters about whom the movie alleges everyone forgot. In the movie, that fanatic is Walter, who is himself a Muppet that the world treats like a human being, albeit a very short human being. When Walter accompanies his best friend and roommate Gary (Jason Segel) and his longtime girlfriend Mary (Amy Adams) to Los Angeles, Walter's ultimate goal is to take a tour of the famed Muppet theater. He soon finds that the theater's glory days are long gone, and the Muppets themselves have since gone their separate ways.
In reality, it's Jason Segel who is the Muppet fanatic. Segel co-wrote the screenplay with Nicholas Stoller (director of "Forgetting Sarah Marshall" (2008)), and also served as executive producer. He does a good job acting in the movie, knowing precisely when to take a step back and have the film's real stars take center stage. As a screenwriter, he also allows virtually every classic Muppet to have their screen time, as the Muppets are brought together the same way Jake and Elwood reunited the old band in "The Blues Brothers" (1980). Each character's appearance reminds us why they were so revered way back in "The Muppet Show" days.
While the plot about a Texas oilman wanting to demolish the Muppet theater because they're oil underneath has been done before, but Chris Cooper, as villain Tex Richman, lives up to his clever name. He's funny while also being a convincing villain. He performs a rap number (yes, Chris Cooper raps) that is desultory, but amusing if only for its randomness.
If the thought of Cooper rapping alone makes you cringe, there are plenty of other highly original songs that will wash out that memory quickly. All the songs, most of which were written by Bret McKenzie (one half of the band/comedy duo, Flight Of The Conchords), are well-written. My favorite was "Life's A Happy Song.
"Pictures In My Head", sung by Kermit, is also surprisingly touching, with Kermit's walking through a hallway of Muppet paintings adding to the sentiment. It could rank as the best Muppet movie song since "Together Again" from "The Muppets Take Manhattan" (1984). The aforementioned songs, and perhaps even "Life's a Happy Song", have strong possibilities to be nominated for Best Original Song at the upcoming Academy Awards.
With all these original tunes, it's a wonder why they wasted precious royalty money on the terrible Starship song "We Built This City". Alas, this is the chosen song the Muppets sing while renovating the Muppet theater.
While the songs add heart to a movie that makes the term "franchise reboot" seem too myopic, the movie would not be worth watching if it was not funny. Fortunately, most of the Muppet gags are gut-bustingly hilarious. Some gags are self-referential with characters breaking the fourth wall without even have to look at the camera. Others are the zany gags you'd expect from seeing "The Muppet Show", but are clever and hilarious too.
While the trailers had their share of recent movie parodies, the film fortunately eases up on them. There's one reference to "Kill Bill", but it's slight and capricious. I also laughed at the 80's Robot.
All the classic Muppet characters make their mark in ways they haven't done since "The Muppet Christmas Carol" (1992), the last great Muppet movie. The few newer Muppets that are allocated screen time happen to shine, fortunately. Walter is a great new Muppet, and has a lot of heart of which the late Jim Henson would whole-heartedly approve.
Dozens of celebrity cameos abound here, but the film's strength is knowing who the real stars of the movie are and why we love them. I just hope younger audience members get the same message.