Review: The Muppets

“It’s getting kind of hard to believe things are going to get better.”

Those were the opening words of Dracula’s Lament; Jason Segel’s song from his puppet rock-opera, A Taste of Love, in 2008’s Forgetting Sarah Marshall. Ironically, those sombre lyrics sounded out like a rallying call to puppet-lovers everywhere, and were enough to convince viewers (and Disney) that Segel was the right man to reintroduce the world to a beloved institution – the Muppets. Things were going to get better. Much, much better indeed.

For Muppets fans (that’s the lovers, the dreamers, and me) it has been hard not to get excited about the return of Kermit and co ever since. Everything we learned about the film sounded promising. Jason Segel and Amy Adams as the human leads, Brett McKenzie (Flight of the Conchords) writing the songs, Segel’s assertion that the tone would be aiming to emulate the first three classic Muppet movies, the excellent parody trailers… The list is endless. But then, horror of horrors, there was a release date disparity. Some cruel, cold-hearted person had decided that UK audiences must wait nearly three whole months longer that the US for our Muppet fix. It has been tough, but we’ve just about made it through.

So, 35 years after The Muppet Show first aired, and over a decade since Jim Henson’s creations last graced the big screen, how exactly do the old gang get back together? Well that task falls to Muppet super-fan Walter; the puppet brother of Gary (Segel) who overhears the villainous plans of a rich oil baron (Chris Cooper) to tear down the legendary Muppet Theater. The only way to stop him is to raise $10million by convincing Kermit to seek out his friends and put on one last show.

The result is sensational, inspirational, celebrational, muppet-ational. It is pure joy committed to celluloid. From the first blasts of the Oscar-worthy Life’s a Happy Song, to the very last refrain playing out over the closing credits, The Muppets will have you grinning from ear to ear. Brett McKenzie deserves particular credit, for every song is perfectly judged and fitting for a Muppets movie – even if you can almost hear his voice in the likes of the excellent (Oscar-nominated) Man or Muppet, or Tex Richman’s hilarious Let’s Talk About Me. Even the choices to include old pop songs or reprise a few classic Muppet tunes are well made, and make purchasing the soundtrack album a must.

After the first act sets up the extremely slight plot – find the rest of the Muppets, put on a show – Segels’s Gary and his girlfriend Mary (a delightful yet disappointingly underused Amy Adams) wisely step back and let the stars of the show take centre stage. It’s a selfless decision on Segel’s part – even if it does sell his other half short – but it pays dividends for the Muppets. To start with all the main characters get their own mini vignettes which serves as a nice re-introduction to characters, who themselves admit (in a classically Muppets fourth-wall breaking fashion) are a faded memory in terms of the cultural zeitgeist. After that they’re let off the leash and it’s a case of throwing a melee of jokes, set-pieces, and celebrity cameos out there and seeing which ones stick.

Not everything quite works. That flimsy plot allows for self-contained sequences and seemingly pointless divergences, and inevitably as a result there’s a significant portion of the second act that feels aimless. Much of that time is also spent building up to one huge celebrity cameo, a presenter for The Muppet Show, and although in practice their choice kind of works, the eventual reveal can’t avoid feeling like a massive anti-climax. It’s also a puzzle how the script seems to do a disservice to the most basic of sub-plots, and even seems to make a meal of the main resolution come the finale.

But the thing is, these are all problems that only become an issue in retrospect. While they’re occurring on screen there’s too much fun to be had to notice, and besides, the first act is so flawless that the subsequent deficiencies are easy to forgive. By the time The Muppet Show is inevitably re-staged things are firmly back on track and it’s hard to resist either singing along or standing up to applaud after each individual act.

A rousing rendition of the classic song Rainbow Connection from The Muppet Movie perfectly encapsulates why, despite those apparent flaws, The Muppets is an unequivocal success. For old fans of the Muppets there’s a constant sense of nostalgia evoked – a perpetual stream of moments that recall just why you fell in love with this ragtag bunch to begin with. But there’s also that timeless quality about them, that uniqueness that lends them the ability to ride out changes in trends and advances in technology to still appeal to new audiences whenever a television or movie studio deems fit to revive them. They’re entertainers. They sing, they dance, they tell jokes. Generations of children have grown up with their close relatives over on Sesame Street, and so is it really such a huge leap to presume that if Elmo, Bert, and Ernie can still entertain toddlers, then Kermit, Fozzie, and Piggie can still prove a draw for kids a couple of years their elder? I think not.

Walter’s the perfect ‘in’ for newcomers and old fans alike. He’s been a lifelong fan of The Muppets, but in a way he’s also getting to know them for the first time. But put simply he’s a lovely little character and welcome addition to the group – hopefully it isn’t too long until we see them all together on the big (or small) screen again. Rarely is there this much unadulterated fun to be had at the cinema, and it just goes to show that life is a happy song when there are Muppets by your side to sing along.

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