For the first time in twelve years, Jim Henson’s iconic puppet characters return to the big screen, but does anybody care? This is the question at the heart of James Bobin’s new film, written by comedian Jason Segel (who also stars) and Nicholas Stoller, and proves the masterstroke of this shamelessly nostalgic exercise. By their very nature, The Muppets have no place in today’s world, cinematic or otherwise, where ground-breaking computer animation and 3D technology have become almost de rigeur for films aimed at a younger audience. Instead of trying to compete with the likes of Pixar and DreamWorks, instead The Muppets embraces the obsolescence of its characters and tells its story around that very notion.
Gary (Segel) has always done right by his brother, Walter (a muppet – though this is never mentioned). As Gary grows up, Walter has remained two feet tall and when the big boys become too large to play with, seeks solace in televised re-runs of The Muppet Show. Eventually Gary agrees to take Walter to visit his friends at Hollywood’s Muppet Studios, on a trip that will double as a romantic getaway with Gary’s fiancée Mary (Amy Adams). Once there, they discover the studios have closed down long ago and Kermit the Frog lives a hermitic life in his dilapidated mansion.
The plot kicks into gear when Gary & Walter discover that The Muppet’s Theatre is going to be sold to an evil oil baron (a delightfully game Chris Cooper), leaving them no choice but to hit the road, get the old gang back together and put on a telethon show to buy back their home. And thus the film adopts the blueprint of the original 1979 movie, and facilitates any number of gags about struggling has-beens, celebrity cameos, not to mention a barrage of fantastic new musical numbers provided by Flight of the Conchords’ Bret McKenzie.
The beauty of The Muppets is that, while many of the original voice actors have passed on, including original creator Jim Henson, Kermit, Miss Piggy, Gonzo, Fozzie and the rest of the gang remain exactly as we remember them from the foggy memories of our childhood. Segel and Stoller understand this sentiment precisely, ensuring that familiar routines and gags are referenced without merely being rehashed, and reward their audience with, for example, a genuinely tear-jerking rendition of Rainbow Connection.
Adults of a certain age may find themselves quite unprepared for the emotional journey on which the film takes them, with a big-hearted earnestness that is so-often sneezed at in this overly cynical age. There is plenty for younger viewers to enjoy too – this is a broad comedy about goofy puppets after all – but the truth is that The Muppets is a film for the original fans, and it works to absolute perfection. This is not only the first muppet movie in over a decade, The Muppets might be the best muppet movie ever.