Jim Henson created the Muppets in the mid-1950s, and they gradually made their way to success, gaining widespread recognition on Sesame Street, but also making frequent appearances on the first season of Saturday Night Live. Their apotheosis occurred in the late 1970s with The Muppet Show, a bizarre faux variety show that saw everyone from Bob Hope to Alice Cooper guest-star1. It led to a very successful Muppet Movie.
Several lesser films followed, along with music, other series, and merchandise.
They've been out of the limelight since 19992. This 2011 film gives them another shot at fame. It's not perfect, but it has been made by people who understand why the Muppets succeeded in the first place.
Directed by James Bobin
Written by Jason Segel and Nicholas Stroller
Jason Segel as Gary
Amy Adams as Mary
Peter Linz as Walter
Chris Cooper as Tex Richman
Steve Whitmire as Kermit / Beaker / Statler / Rizzo / Link Hogthrob / The Newsman
Eric Jacobson as Miss Piggy / Fozzie Bear / Animal / Sam Eagle / Marvin Suggs
Dave Goelz as Gonzo / Dr. Bunsen Honeydew / Zoot / Beauregard / Waldorf / Kermit Moopet
Bill Barretta as Swedish Chef / Rowlf / Dr. Teeth / Pepe the Prawn / Bobo / Fozzie Moopet
David Rudman as Scooter / Janice / Miss Poogy
Matt Vogel as Sgt. Floyd Pepper / Camilla / Sweetums / 80′s Robot / Lew Zealand / Uncle Deadly / Crazy Harry
Rashida Jones as Veronica Martin
Jack Black as himself
A tonne of celebrities as a tonne of cameos.
When three small towners uncover a plot to destroy the Muppets’ old theatre and replace the retired troupe with "edgey" contemporary namesakes, they get Kermit and the gang together to stand for Muppetry.
How did Henson and company do it? The Muppets combined two things that were hopelessly out of date—-puppets and vaudeville— told dumb jokes, engaged in silly slapstick, and somehow out-hipped the hipsters.
In any case, the new creative team has repeated that success. They understood that changing the essential core Muppetness of the characters wouldn't work. Kermit, Piggy, Gonzo, and the others continue to engage in the old shtick, vaudeville by puppets filtered through someone's hallucinations. Getting the old act together, begging the network for another chance, and, of course, putting on a show, they get laughs far more often than they should.
Take Fozzie the Bear. He has always told bad jokes. Everyone around him trips over themselves to highlight that his jokes are, in fact, not especially funny. Somehow, this manages to be funny. It's still funny. In this film, he even redeems that bane of contemporary kiddie movies, the fart joke. Trust me on this. They have allowed themselves one fart joke, and Fozzie makes it funny.
The Muppets, of course, inhabit a universe somewhere between us and the Loony Tunes. They eat plot logic for breakfast. Things happen because they're funny, not because they're believable. If elementary physics or realistic story-telling gets sacrificed, so much the better. Walter, for example, a Muppet, is brother to Gary, a human being. No one in the film finds this especially odd. Then again, it doesn't bother anyone that Kermit is a frog, or that a fashion magazine has hired a pig as an editor. Characters call attention to tired film conventions; heck, they use tired film conventions to their advantage-- traveling, for example, by dotted line on map to save time. Felt creations can get away with anything. And, while their humor contains a certain comic irreverence, they stop short of being offensive (Jack Black makes one borderline crude crack, and it feels out of place). The Muppets remain earnest in their ridiculousness.
In case we miss the point about keeping the characters basically clean (if cartoon-violent) and silly, we get a subplot (less developed than it should be) about the villain's replacements for the Muppets. Called the "Moopets," their forced edginess and "street" trendiness parody what lesser talents would have done with the franchise.3
The Muppets entertains, but it's very much pop culture, and transitory. For example, Jim Parson's cameo appearance gets laughs, much of them from the actor's performance—but quite a few simply because he is Jim Parsons, echoing (though not slavishly imitating) his Big Bang character.
The film ends with, essentially, an in-joke.
So what? The kids will love the slapstick and shenanigans. Old fans will recall why they liked the Muppets in the first place. The film breaks no new ground (and breaks into one too many musical numbers), but it's an enjoyable family movie, and I laughed out loud a number of times.
And, of course, Kermit reprises "The Rainbow Connection." You are not allowed to be cynical when Kermit sings "The Rainbow Connection."
1. Not to mention John Cleese, Debbie Harry, Johnny Cash, Christopher Reeve, Spike Milligan, Lena Horne, Mummenschanz, Sylvester Stallone....
2. Yes, they had two made-for-television, straight-to-DVD releases in the early 2000s. Hands up if you saw either.
3. Kermit dresses hip in one scene. He wanders Paris in the absurdly out-of-date look of a mid-twentieth century Left Bank bohemian. This looks even funnier than it sounds.