In his effort to revitalize the brand, Jason Segel exposes his fondness for the Muppets as boldly as he exposed his naked body in Forgetting Sarah Marshall. No hidden agendas here, The Muppets is packed with full-frontal nostalgia that suggests not just Segel’s desire to relive the magic of yesteryear but also his fervent belief that the Muppets’ charms can cast an equally powerful spell today. The Muppets, which Segel co-wrote with Nicholas Stoller, opens with an outright appreciation of The Muppet Show and the not so subtle implication that Segel spent his childhood feeling as if the Muppets were part of his family. If you’re a hardcore fan and realize how much the brand’s spirit has strayed from its roots since Jim Henson’s death in 1990, this is exactly the kind of opening you want to see, and it’s equally encouraging when, not much later, Segel’s Gary and his brother Walter (a Muppet performed by Peter Linz) break into song. The film’s rousing opening number, “Life’s a Happy Song,” captures some of the cherished Henson-era optimism and sweetness in its title alone, and the lyrics have a casually playful absurdity to them that feels just right. But the capper is a massive dance routine at the end of the song, when the citizens of Smalltown, USA, come flooding into the frame to form a leg-kicking, jazz-handsing chorus, creating a spectacle that would rank among the all-time greatest Muppet moments if not for one small problem. None of them are Muppets.
For a guy who so clearly gets the Muppets, Segel should be the first person to realize how utterly un-Hensonian this is. Henson’s Muppet movies are full of big musical performances, but always with the Muppets at the center of the action. In The Great Muppet Caper alone, there’s the black-tie dance sequence that includes Miss Piggy tap-dancing, the synchronized swimming number, also starring Piggy, and “Couldn’t We Ride,” with the whole crew on bicycles. The thrill of these Henson numbers is their audaciousness, the way Henson dared to make the Muppets part of the action in scenarios in which it seemed logistically impossible. Segel’s opening dance number takes the opposite approach. One moment Walter and Gary are singing their way through the streets, and the next moment Walter is gone, literally kicked from the frame, never to return until he’s wheeled in on luggage at the very end of the sequence as dozens of humans dance behind him. Audacious? Hardly. And it’s a sign of what’s to come. Segel’s core mistake is to repeatedly push the Muppets to the margins in a movie designed to give them the spotlight. Case in point: Of the more than 20 songs in Henson’s three Muppet movies, only one of them has a non-Muppet performer (“Piggy’s Fantasy” in Caper, in which Kermit vies with a voice-dubbed Charles Grodin, which is part of the joke). Yet of the six original songs in Segel’s film, only one of them is Muppets-only. One.
None of this is to suggest that Segel’s approach to the Muppets isn’t endearing in its own way. But The Muppets speaks to the ability of Segel and Amy Adams (as Gary’s girlfriend Mary) to be Muppet-like as often as it speaks to the appeal of the Muppets themselves. What’s particularly odd about Segel’s reboot, directed by James Bobin, is that it tends to miss most glaringly when trying hardest for the bull’s eye. Midway through the film, for example, the Muppets, who have been gathered together from far and wide to put on the traditional one-last-show, are faced with
cleaning and repairing their decrepit studio. After watching Scooter quietly push a broom for a few unproductive seconds it’s Walter who reminds the Muppets that this is the kind of stuff that they’re supposed to do to music, and he’s right. But Starship’s “We Built This City”? Uh, no. That scene might be intended as Segel’s nod to the Muppets’ recent successes on YouTube, where they covered Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” to hilarious results, but it lacks the Muppets’ own signature. It’s more like an Alvin & The Chipmunks cover: same song, different performers, no reinvention. Thus it smells like surrender, an odor that returns late in the film when the Muppets sing “Rainbow Connection” as the main act of their studio-saving telethon. Make no mistake, watching the gang
perform “Rainbow Connection” is lump-in-the-throat touching and realistic, too (not that the Muppets have ever been about realism), but it comes off like a concession – that the Muppets’ best days are behind them and the most magic we can hope for is an occasional performance of their greatest hits.
Maybe that’s true. Maybe what Segel’s film shows us is that Henson and Frank Oz, the puppeteers extraordinaire who through their voices and hands gave so many of these characters their spirit, are irreplaceable. As disappointing as it can be to watch the Muppets lose their identities in adaptations like The Muppet Christmas Carol and Muppet Treasure Island, the catch-22 of letting the Muppets be themselves is to be made increasingly aware that, with Henson and Oz gone, most of the performances can be nothing more than imitative. Credit where it’s due, Steve Whitmire’s Kermit is as strong as it's ever been – he’s mastered the subtle finger movements that make Kermit so thoughtful – but Fozzie and Piggy, to name two, are frequently off key, and Rowlf seems to have lost his personality entirely. When the new troupe nails it, as Whitmire and Eric Jacobson do when Kermit and Fozzie have a quiet conversation in hammocks underneath the stars, it warms the soul. But so much of what works in this picture is an allusion to the Henson era (the lens flares that recall The Muppet Movie) or a direct quotation of it (the cover of the “Rainbow Connection”), and as welcome as it is to see banjos hanging on the wall of Kermit’s office or to spot a photograph of the African-mask puppets from Harry Belafonte’s famous performance on The Muppet Show, these little details can make the film feel less like a reinvention for a new generation than like a fantasy camp for the old one.
Segel’s stroke of brilliance with The Muppets, beyond reviving the running gags and meta references that are key to the brand, is to backload the picture with the sort of colorful, chaotic and heartfelt performances that typified The Muppet Show, ensuring that the movie ends on a high note. I’m not sure what the shelf life is for the cover of Cee Lo Green’s “Fuck You” by about a dozen chickens, but I do know it’s precisely the kind of mischief Henson would be up to if helming The Muppet Show today and that it inspired much of the packed crowd at my screening to break into gleeful rhythmic clapping. Trouble is, so many of these thrills send us backward, not forward, like the goose bump-inducing recreation of The Muppet Show’s opening number, confining the Muppets to retro appeal. In the movie’s greatest shot, one that perfectly blends the familiar and the new, Kermit sits alone backstage, his hand on a small handle that he’ll use to throw open the oval hatch through which he’ll announce the start of the show, looking angst-ridden and full of questions. Will their material hold up? Will anyone come to watch? Will the crowd still love them? Segel’s film makes it clear that the answer to those questions is yes, but we’ve yet to see if someone can return the Muppets to their roots while moving beyond nostalgia. Segel’s film offers hope and also confirms fears.
Maybe the time has come for Kermit and the gang to cede the spotlight, not to eliminate the brand but to preserve it. Maybe the Henson-era characters need to be retired, replaced by Walters, Bobos and Pepes. It’s a tough task, immortality. Then again, part of loving the Muppets is believing in the dream.