The Muppets (****)

Oh, I talked it up. I showed everyone the brilliant parody trailers numerous times. I told anyone who would listen that The Muppets was my most anticipated film of 2011 (not completely a lie, but perhaps a slight fib of sorts…). And in an honest moment, I did think that Jason Segel, as lead actor and co-screenwriter of this reintroduction of the beloved Muppets characters of days gone past, would likely deliver a film that would be some kind of a success. Truth be told, I have memories of the Muppets, but they did not define my childhood all that much. I have my favorite characters, moments archived in my mental Rolodex. Moreover, I just always like seeing these Muppets pop in and out from time to time and I have often chuckled over YouTube clips, one-off appearances, and even enjoyed Sesame Street’s Muppets with both of my daughters through the years. Yes, I have laughed out loud watching Elmo. Don’t judge.

Film reviewers and writers are rightfully mocked for dropping quotable absurdities such as “_________ is the Best Film of the Year!” for a film coming out in March or May. I also love the constant hyperbole which accompanies declarations that we, as critics, make when we declare a male or female actor’s work as “the greatest ever!” or they have given “a performance to define their career!” Ugh. Lastly, I cringe when reviewers use the loathsome, “If you see one movie…see this!” line, ignoring one of the first rules in the “Please Don’t Say or Write These Words Ever!” chapter of the movie reviewer’s handbook.

My point with all of this is that when I talked up The Muppets to people, I championed these same types of cliches because it felt alright to tell people that this will be the best film ever and the Muppets are the greatest and there will be no movie better ever than this one. I was kidding. But, you know what. The joke is on me. So…(ahem)…let me memorialize these words in print.

If you see one film to share with the entire family, which features characters you have come to know and love appearing better than ever before, and you want to experience one of the year’s best films, see “The Muppets.”

With all the sincerity I can muster, I mean every last word.

Jason Segel and Amy Adams play Gary and Mary, an unmarried couple living in Smalltown America, set to share their 10th anniversary together. Gary’s brother, Walter (a Muppet…don’t ask because it doesn’t matter), has been invited along, even with Mary’s unspoken misgivings, as the couple travel to the famed and historic Muppet Studios in Los Angeles to have a whirlwind adventure centered around Gary and Walter’s favorite childhood (and adult) obsession, The Muppets. Goofy and glowing, Gary has convinced Mary that this will be an awesome vacation and anniversary and he promises to spend the night of their anniversary, without Walter, together with Mary for a nice dinner with just the two of them.

With their arrival in Los Angeles complete, the trio arrive at Muppet Studios for their tour. To their immediate dismay they find the building in complete shambles, with portions of the lot condemned and other areas bathed in cobwebs, dust, and inhabitable conditions. Apparently there are still abbreviated tours provided and the tour guide (Alan Arkin) stumbles around half-heartedly and robotically, offering pointless tidbits that mean nothing to anyone at all. Walter steps away from the tour and uncovers Kermit’s old office and cowers when he hears the arrival of oil tycoon Tex Richman (Chris Cooper). Richman and his two Muppet henchman (don’t question it, it just is…), reveal that the recent discovery of oil beneath the famed Muppets Studios could reap a massive financial reward for the oilman. Walter overhears his plans to raze Muppet Studios and then, you know, drill, baby, drill. When safe, Walter rushes out to Gary and Mary and tells them everything he heard.

Gary (Jason Segel), Mary (Amy Adams), and Walter in "The Muppets" (Walt Disney Pictures)

Naturally, Gary, Mary, and Walter lock in on the first plan they can think of – find The Muppets, convince them to get back together and hold a telethon to raise the $10 million necessary to save Muppets Studios and, in turn, reintroduce the iconic characters to a whole new generation of fans. Finding Kermit The Frog living in a gated and dilapidated mansion is exciting for the trio, but his lukewarm reaction to their plan is understandable. Essentially, Kermit believes that time passed The Muppets and their variety show by years ago and no one has any real interest in having them return. After much convincing, Kermit acquiesces to Gary, Mary, and Walter and the obligatory road trip begins to get the band back together. So, yes…it may very well indeed be time to play the music and light the lights just one more time.

The Muppets is brilliant for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the screenplay that Jason Segel and Nicholas Stoller have concocted. Segel and Stoller also wrote Segel’s star turn in 2008’s raunchy, ribald, but endearing Forgetting Sarah Marshall and the enthusiasm found in that film is manifested tenfold here. Excitement and entertainment radiates off of the screen from the first moment to the last and even when this film’s opening number, “Life’s A Happy Song”, surges in front of you unexpectedly, the lyrics, the punny comedy, the images, all the cameos, and the feel of the song-and-dance numbers which follow, in this context, work better than expected.

While Amy Adams strikes surprising chemistry with Segel, playing sweet and down-to-earth, there is more going on here than meets the eye. This is not the original The Muppets Movie and certainly not The Muppets Take Manhattan. Rather, this is an elegy of sorts to youthful days long passed. Unexpectedly, Segel and Stoller have transitioned from making a film about The Muppets and have carefully orchestrated, along with director James Bobin, a film which deals with some surprising emotional depth.

What becomes very clear is that for Segel and Stoller, “The Muppet Show” and the Muppets themselves meant everything to them as kids. You can see it in every moment, hear it in every song – the influx of more and more characters, the exuberance in which scenes crash into one another, and the care taken in making sure that those Muppets important to this story have logical narratives we can relate to.

Often times, life is much simpler when you are young but as adults we are conditioned to have to matter in some way, shape, or form. Watching The Muppets you may become enamored with the goofy charms unfolding before you, but be warned – because there is a tenderness and a frailty at the heart of this film which may startle you. These moments are never more profound than in the scenes watching The Muppets prepare for their telethon. I can’t specifically put this into proper words, but watching these Muppets work hard in renovating their theater, and then anxiously questioning whether or not the only thing they know how to do well would still have relevance, is profound and affecting.

Mattering, staying relevant, and summoning up the courage and self-esteem necessary to put yourself out there, shedding the comforts of hiding in the shadows…I guarantee you did not expect that to be found in this silly little Muppets movie did you? Neither did I.

I was smiling huge watching this play out and will defiantly stand up for how great a film this truly is, if need be. In a flash, Segel, Stoller, director James Bobin, these Muppets, and even songwriter Bret McKenzie (Flight Of The Conchords) took me right back to my childhood, bathing me in nostalgia. My mind raced back to my youth, wondering that if I had the opportunity to make everyone love that one special thing that I held on to from my childhood, then how awesome would it be to let others experience that memory and potentially love it as much as I did. The Muppets accomplishes all of that and more and this film is an absolute treasure.

What do you think?

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