Review: The Muppets / Directed by: James Bobin / Screenplay by: Jason Segel, Nicholas Stoller / Starring: Jason Segel, Amy Adams, Chris Cooper, (voices of) Steve Whitmire, Eric Jacobson, Dave Goelz / Release date: February 10
Jim Henson's felt-faced critters are back in their first major movie in years and it's an all-singing, all-dancing extravaganza delivered with gleeful aplomb and a big pair of fart shoes. Co-written by and starring Segel, who demonstrated a nascent flair for puppetry in Forgetting Sarah Marshall, The Muppets drags Kermit & co into the modern age with a touching comeback story that's as big on meta-textual gags as it is on heart.
Muppet aficionados will be aware that the franchise has been on the wane ever since the late nineties, with hits like 1992's The Muppet Christmas Carol giving way to 1999 flop Muppets from Space and a number of lacklustre TV movies. While the beloved characters have been on the ropes rather than dangling from strings for the last few years, this riotous reboot hopes to reignite our passion for Henson's big-hearted Muppet adventures and introduce the gang to a whole new generation of fans.
The clever, self-referential premise sees mild-mannered muppet Walter (voiced by Peter Linz) growing up in a regular human family alongside brother Gary (Segel). Both huge fans of TVs The Muppet Show, the siblings schedule a visit to the famed Muppet Studio in Los Angeles as part of a romantic trip Gary is planning with his girlfriend, Mary (Adams).
While Walter's presence on the sojourn causes tension between Gary and Mary, more heartbreak comes when the young muppet discovers that the studio is practically in ruins and that unscrupulous tycoon Tex Richman (Cooper) is planning to buy the site and raze it to the ground.
Learning that the only way to save the studio is to raise $10 million, Walter tracks down the reclusive Kermit the Frog and convinces him to reunite the original Muppet line-up for an all-star telethon. Travelling the world to locate the likes of Gonzo, Fozzy Bear, Animal and the inimitable Miss Piggy, the gang begins to reform, but Tex Richman will stop at nothing to prevent the Muppets from winning back their studio. Although the main thrust of the plot is charmingly simple 'let's put on a show' stuff, The Muppets neatly touches on some surprisingly emotional themes, in particular the quest for personal identity. Walter's growing realisation that he belongs amongst his fellow Muppets is really quite touching, as is Gary's attempt to come to terms with the fact that he will eventually have to let his brother go. This coming-of-age plot crux is beautifully summed up in a sequence set to 'Man or Muppet', one of a number of pitch perfect songs penned by Flight of the Conchords star Bret McKenzie.
Of course, it wouldn't be a Muppet movie without barnstorming musical set-pieces and Bobin's film has several fantastically choreographed treats. Most notable is the delightfully perky opening sequence set to McKenzie's 'Life's A Happy Song' and a discotastic scene featuring 'Me Party' - an ode to the joys of being stood up - belted out with perfect comic timing by Adams.
Both Adams and Segel are as breezy and amiable as the good-natured script requires and there's a string of cameos to keep celeb-spotters happy. That said, as with any Muppet movie, the real stars are the manic marionettes themselves. Despite reports that original Muppeteers, including Frank Oz, had disapproved of Segel and Stoller's script, there's little here that strays from Henson's benign vision for his characters; although admittedly the inclusion of Fozzy Bear's fart shoes and an impromptu punch up at a therapy session do push the boundaries a little. Anyone worried that the Muppets might have gone blue, however, should rest easy as the non-stop gags are the best kind of inspired silliness and devoid of anything remotely mean-spirited.
In the US, the film has been heavily criticised by right-wing TV channel Fox News for its perceived liberal bias and apparent demonisation of the wealthy in the form of Cooper's broadly villainous Tex Richman. While the accusations are fairly ludicrous, The Muppets may well be a movie of the times, not so much through any kind of anti-capitalist messaging, but through its championing of unabashed optimism and plucky resilience in the face of adversity.
Coming in at a relatively lean 98 minutes, The Muppets does feel a little flabby in its last third and probably could have used an editorial trim to make the last reel as punchy as possible. Nevertheless, it still manages to build to a gloriously triumphant finale and, most importantly, captures the innocence, exuberance and sheer fun that first made The Muppets such an important part of our childhoods.
Expected rating: 8 out of 10