By Todd Allen
While Twilight-mania lapped it at the box office over the holiday weekend, The Muppets relaunched their film career. “The Muppets” (As opposed to “The Muppet Movie”) is a little bit of a departure from previous Muppets flicks in a number of ways. First off, the classic Muppets were not the main characters of the story. It was a very self-referential film, filled with in-jokes for adults who grew up with the franchise. It had more political overtones than one would expect from the Muppets. It also was a lot of fun.
The basic premise is the story of two brothers, one human (star and co-writer Peter Segel) and one Muppet (Walter). Except Walter isn’t technically a member of the Muppets, who are essentially a theater troupe for purposes of the story. Walter is however, a huge Muppets geek. Walter tags along with Segal and his girlfriend (Amy Adams) for their anniversary trip to L.A. (much to the chagrin of Adams), where he stumbles upon a plot by an evil oil company (headed by Chris Cooper’s wonderfully hammy performance) to buy the dilapidated remains of the Muppet Theater and drill for oil underneath it. To get the money to buy the theater back, the Muppets have to get the gang back together and perform a show. Yes, there’s a lot of The Blues Brothers in the plot of The Muppets.
The most important thing to know about this, for all the self-referential touches and in-jokes for adults (big oil as the villain, a certain Cee Lo Green song popping up, etc), there’s no cynicism to the remake. This is the Muppets and it’s still sweet and earnest, with large dashes of naivete from the heroes. There’s liberal breaking of the 4th wall. There’s a particularly amusing reoccurring theme where the singing and dancing really does occur and the music gets explained after the sequence (for the film majors, the non-diegetic sound is always made diegetic to comic effect). There’s also a very strong theme of choosing your identity that plays with a bit more philosophy than you might have expected. Ambitious intentions? Not a bad thing at all.
You still have a fist full of the celebrity cameos you’ve come to expect with a Muppets film, Jack Black getting the most screen time. You have a pretty complete set of the TV cast of Muppets returning. Miss Piggy beats the hell outta somebody. Best of all, there’s an actual episode of the Muppet Show in the movie. Literally, you could cut it out and run it separately.
The stand out performance of the movie is Chris Cooper as the villain. His over-the top Tex Richman stops just short of a corporate Snidely Whiplash and then extolls his henchmen with demands of “Manical laugh! Manical laugh!” to make up for stopping short. Absolutely brilliant.
Had this film not turned out so well, Segel would have been accused of a vanity project. It’s a strange thing to see humans quite so front and center for a Muppets movie. He and Adams pulled it off just fine. The insertion of Walter into the Muppets universe could also be seen as Segel going out of his way to insert himself into the Muppetverse. Again, this works and I expect we’ll see Walter in future films. This is a movie that managed to stop itself before crossing the line into fanboy excess. That said, when the next Muppet film comes out, and Segel deserves a sequel (he clearly loves the Muppets too much not to be up for another), there should be less humans driving the story.
Highly recommended, especially if you need to take small children to the movies.