The Muppets have been around for so long, I cannot recall when I was first introduced to them. As a child I was taken to see the occasional movie, but by this point (1992-2000) the Muppets franchise had become stale and suffered from the death of the creator, Jim Henson. It was only as I got older that I was introduced to their full body of work. I felt an instant connection to the loveable characters from films such as The Muppets Movie and Muppets Take Manhattan. The Muppets were, and are, a loveable group of misfits, each of whom found a place to belong despite their weirdness. Even one of the characters, Gonzo the Great, is of species “Weirdo.”
As an adult I began to search deeper into The Muppets’ works. This was inspired in part by a high-school teacher’s in-class recitation of Sam The Eagle’s discourse on nudity (“Why, did you know that underneath their clothing the entire population of the world is walking around completely naked?”). The natural place to begin was The Muppet Show, a television series that aired from 1976 – 1981. The Muppet Show was a variety show, not unlike Saturday Night Live or The Ed Sullivan Show. Led by Kermit the Frog, the Muppets would produce a sketch comedy show each week complete with celebrity guests ranging from Elton John to Buddy Rich. At the same time, The Muppet Show was a meta-commentary on show business, as Kermit continually had to deal with censorship (Sam The Eagle) and poor critical response (Statler and Waldorf). This format would attempt to be recaptured in the new film The Muppets.
Jason Segel wrote and acted in this tribute to the Muppets (I say tribute since it is obvious from the writing that Segal admires and idolizes the Muppets). The film attracted Amy Adams and Chris Cooper in key roles, along with a myriad of other guests, but it would be wrong to suggest that Segel or Adams starred. After the premise is set, it is clear that the focus is on the real stars, the Muppets themselves. There is an opening musical number introducing the human characters and the new Muppet, Walter, but after the introduction the real plot develops. The Muppets must save their beloved Muppets Studio, but the only way to raise the cash is to put on another show. In this way, The Muppets most closely follows the formula set by The Muppets Show. Near the end of the film, the original plot between Adams and Segel is revisited and tied up in a hurried fashion as it is obvious that the real heart of the movie is not with the humans, but with Kermit and company.
I mentioned the opening musical number above, but I must make note of it again. The music in The Muppets is, in typical Muppets form, truly spectacular. In particular, the song Life is a Happy Song will surely be a top contender for the Academy Award this February. Other great songs pepper the film, including redux versions of the Muppets Theme, Rainbow Connection, and a surprising and hilarious barbershop quartet rendition of Smells Like Teen Spirit.
Not everything with the new film is a hit though. The movie’s villain Tex Richman, played by Chris Cooper, is cartoonish and over-the-top, even for the Muppets. He performs a rap that is equal parts awkward and absurd, while his biggest gag is that too evil to laugh. Neither of these things provoked much more than an awkward chuckle from the audience.
The slight failings aside, The Muppets is a perfect family movie. Segel was able to introduce the Muppets to a new generation while reminding the older viewers why we loved them in the first place. They show us that there is a place out there for the weirdos and outcasts.