The Muppets have returned to theatres for the first time since 1999. Anticipation has run very high for this movie. It’s the first film since Disney acquired the Muppets in 2004.
Unlike the earlier films, the beginning of this film doesn’t contain any of the original Muppets. Instead, we are introduced to Walter who’s destined to be a Muppet and his twin brother, Gary, played by Jason Segel. Gary’s girlfriend, Mary (Amy Adams), often finds herself the third wheel because of their close bond. Walter is very empathetic and cute. However, as further evidence how this isn’t your average Muppets film: Walter and Gary represent the audience. Not only is the audience referred to with self-aware jokes, but we find ourselves being the lead. Walter and Gary have grown up loving the Muppets just as we have and who hasn’t wanted to join Kermit on his lily pad, Animal on drums or Gonzo on one of his adventures?
The audience is reminded how the Muppets have not always been able to stay in the spotlight. Their studios are out-dated, falling apart in fact, the Electric Mayhem bus is dusty and the Muppets have gone their separate ways. The world is such a different place than 1979 when the first film premiered and almost unrecognizable from 1956 when Jim Henson first coined the term “Muppet” that characters repeatedly question whether the Muppets could even still have a place in this world.
Naturally, Walter, Gary and Mary, along with the audience, believe the answer is “yes” but they will have to round up the old gang to prove it. This has been a common theme before, both in The Muppet Movie where they first meet and in The Muppets Take Manhattan when they briefly part for other jobs. However, it has never been sadder than this film. Fozzie is essentially homeless, the Electric Mayhem are reduced to playing in the subway for change and Sam the Eagle appears to be an anchor for a network suspiciously similar to Fox News. None is more disturbing than Kermit and Miss Piggy who are no longer even on speaking terms. They may have had their ups and down but it was always assumed they would be through it all together.
Indeed, the troubles of Kermit and Miss Piggy are actually mirrored in the human relationship of Gary and Mary which is an interesting concept. Still, it’s odd to find such emphasis on romance and relationships in a Muppet film. It almost seemed on the verge of fanfiction about what Miss Piggy and Kermit are really like when the cameras aren’t rolling. The script was written by Segel and Nicholas Stoller with additional script doctoring by John Lasseter. All three have been Muppets fans for all or most of their lives. More fan service is paid by giving Animal his own sub-plot where he struggles with his anger management issues.
Although Muppets in Space featured no original music, The Muppets features seven new songs. They’re written by Bret McKenzie, well-known from Flight of the Conchords. They’re enjoyable but do pale compared to the new rendition of “Rainbow Connection” contained in the film although it is priceless to experience Chris Cooper rapping.
The Muppets contains many of what we have previously enjoyed and held dear: celebrity cameos, puns and lessons that feel so much more important when watching as adults than we were children. “Sooner or later you’re going to have to believe in yourself, that’s part of growing up.” This is not the only lesson. There is also the hard truth that growing up can mean growing apart from others to discover what you really want and the person you’ve been destined to become. Combined with the bittersweet realization that the Muppets have grown up just as we have, The Muppets is not the laugh a minute romp you may have expected and children might be better off with the older films but it will be worth your time.