There’s a moment in the new Muppets movie, where a television executive shows Kermit, Fozzy, Gonzo and their Muppet brethren a diagram depicting their current status in pop culture.
As the Muppets watch in growing dismay, the exec unrolls foot after foot of the “fame” map, showing the Muppets to be at its furthermost point, barely existing in the same universe as other, more contemporary and “relevant” icons.
“I’m gonna shoot straight,” she says. “You guys aren’t famous anymore.”
“Yeesh,” says perpetual bad-jokester Fozzy Bear. “I wish she’d shot a little more curvy!”
Although played for laughs, the scene is an indirect reference to the once-mighty Muppets’ waning status as icons, fondly-remembered by those who were children in the 70’s and 80’s, but mostly unknown to today’s more savvy if not jaded youngsters.
Therein lies the premise and the appeal of “The Muppets,” that this hardened, ironic world still needs the gentle-and-winking humor and optimism of the Muppets.
For anyone who doubts this, “The Muppets” makes a charmingly strong case for its own existence.
Admittedly, nostalgia plays a significant part in the film, both openly — the plot centers on the Muppets’ attempt to remind people why they loved the Muppets in the first place — and as subtext, as human actor and co-writer, 31-year-old “How I Met Your Mother” star Jason Segel (looking not entirely like an oversized Muppet himself), grew up watching the Muppets and has long dreamed of making a movie with them.
So while this may technically be a children's movie, the target audience is actually the generation of adults who feel the same way Segel does — with an appreciation for the disarming sweetness of the characters who seem largely forgotten in a more cynical world.
The movie opens in Smalltown, USA, the home of Gary (Segel), and his younger brother, Walter, a Muppet who lives among humans.
Walter (voiced with an eager innocence by Peter Linz) would give anything to meet another Muppet, so when Gary and his girlfriend, Mary (Amy Adams, in full “Enchanted” cuteness mode) plan a vacation to Los Angeles, Walter tags along to take a tour of the old Muppet studios.
When the trio get there, however, they find the studio to be abandoned and dilapidated, and Walter learns that an evil oil baron (are there any other kind?) plans on tearing it down to drill for oil underneath, unless the Muppets can raise $10 million to buy back the studio.
So, Walter, Gary, and Mary set out to reunite the original Muppets and stage a telethon to raise the money.
Where have the Muppets been all these years? How do Walter and company find them? Do they raise enough money to save their beloved studio?
To reveal much would be spoiling the playful fun of the movie, but suffice it to say that this Muppet movie is reminiscent of previous films, with ridiculous road trips, celebrity cameos, self-referential jokes, montages, and musical numbers, performed with equal aplomb by actors both human and Muppet.
The songs, written by comedian/musician Bret McKenzie (of “Flight of the Conchords” fame), are hard to resist, with catchy tunes and clever wordplay, evoking moods both unashamedly cheerful (during the film’s opening number, “Life’s a Happy Song,” sung by Gary and Walter in matching powder blue suits) and poignant (such as “Pictures in My Head,” sung by a reflective Kermit, walking through a literal hall of memories, recollecting his old Muppet friends).
The human actors (and their subplots, such as the romance between Gary and Mary), don’t add a lot to the proceedings, but neither do they detract from the overall enjoyment.
Veteran actor Chris Cooper shines as oilman, Tex Richman, a man so gleefully villainous, he doesn’t actually laugh, he simply repeats the words “maniacal laugh, maniacal laugh” over and over, and busts out in a surprising (and funny) rap number (”Let’s Talk About Me”) about how rich, and bad he is.
“I’ll make the baker bake my bread outta dough; No, no, don’t eat it though; It’ll make you ill; There ain’t no flour in a hundred dollar bill.”
Those who remember the original Muppets may notice their voices aren’t exactly as they were in the series. The only Muppeteer who reprises his role here is Dave Golez, the voice of Gonzo and Dr. Bunsen Honeydew, among others, but the new Muppeteers embody the spirit and the energy of their predecessors, particularly Steve Whitmire, who steps in for the late Jim Henson as the voice of Kermit.
Overall, “The Muppets” recaptures the magic of the characters in their prime, presenting them as characters that, despite falling upon hard times, still radiate an unfiltered enthusiasm, somehow feeling edgy but innocent, adult, but childlike at the same time.
The bulk of jokes are extremely funny without being offensive, and the sentiment is genuinely endearing. Who would have imagined after all these years, Kermit and company could still touch their audience in a truly affecting movie, sweet without being cloying, nostalgic without being maudlin, and very, very funny.
Do we still need the Muppets?
To quote Dr. Teeth: “Absitively, posolutely!”
“The Muppets” is rated PG for cartoonish peril, mild rude humor, and gratuitous Fart Shoes.
“The Muppets” is currently playing in Claremore at the Claremore Cinema 8. For a complete listing of showtimes, contact CC8 at (918) 342-2422.