Watching "The Muppets," the Jason Segel-spearheaded effort to re-launch Jim Henson's furry friends and familiar faces into the new millennium after years of corporate tussling and fallow creative hibernation, I wasn't pulled in by having emblems of my youth shoved down my throat with the sickly-sweet toxic oil of retrograde fond remembrance and fuzzy post-modern self-awareness. Instead, I was engaged by the characters, the plot, the message and the medium of the Muppets themselves -- decidedly low-tech puppets in an age when computer-generated imagery makes the imagination both limitless and, too often, lifeless on-screen.
I was hoping for a pretty good loving treatment of characters I loved; instead, I was reminded, through high-quality storytelling and real heart, of why I loved those characters to begin with, by an unexpectedly brilliant and touching mix of fun, feelings and felt. This isn't nostalgia, and it isn't irony -- "The Muppets" may be one of the best films of the year, not judged as a children's film, or a family film, but instead, simply as a film. If cinema is about taking the art and medium of motion pictures and, through technique and talent, evoking real feeling and wonder, then "The Muppets" is, unequivocally, a pure piece of cinema, one that not only rewards fans through its hard work (more than just its familiarity) but one that also strives to, and succeeds in, making new friends.
At first, though, we don't see the Muppets -- or, rather, the Muppets we know -- except on TV, as Walter (a new Muppet, voiced by veteran Peter Linz) explains his youth and happiness with his brother Gary (Jason Segel, who co-wrote with Nicholas Stoller). A big part of that happiness was watching the Muppets, and as Walter explains, "As long as there were talking frogs and singing bears, Swedish chefs and boomerang fish, the world couldn't be that bad a place."
Gary is planning a trip to L.A. to propose to his long-time girlfriend (Amy Adams, as sweet as she is game), and Walter comes along to see the Muppet studios -- only to find everything shut down, with oilman Tex Richman (Chris Cooper, channeling all his considerable power into a singing, sneering hilarious villain turn) ready to buy the dilapidated Muppet theater and drill the oil reserves under it. Walter and Gary -- and, reluctantly, Mary -- embark on a plan to reunite the Muppets so they can hold a telethon and make the $10 million required to save the theater. One of the cornerstones of "The Muppet Show," throughout its run on network TV from 1976-1980, was that there is, in fact, no business like show business. That "let's put on a show" joy is here, too, but getting the group back together is not only fun (including a transcontinental trip in Kermit's old Mercedes: "We'll travel by map!") but also surprisingly, um, deeply felt.
Take Kermit, who for years has been in danger of becoming, like Mickey Mouse, a corporate logo or the stationery letterhead instead of a character. Stoller and Segel's script shows us a different Kermit -- living in a rundown dilapidated mansion in L.A., part Charles Foster Kane, part Carson after retirement. And later, when Miss Piggy is hesitant about coming back, she confronts Kermit: "You always said 'We need you, Piggy.' You never said 'I need you, Piggy.'" And like that, these felt creations -- you can see the operating-sticks attached to Kermit's wrists, even when his heart, which isn't there, is breaking -- become more real and emotionally alive to us than most characters in most mainstream American films. It should be noted that the late Jim Henson and his right-hand Muppeteer -- whose right hand was often inside a member of the cast -- Frank Oz, are not involved. Steve Whitmire brings the right mix of wistful pluck and harried exasperation to Kermit; Eric Jacobsen steps in for Oz to perform Fozzie and Miss Piggy -- and if Fozzie's voice occasionally fails to match my old memories, then I was more than willing to overlook that in the name of making, and enjoying, new ones. As for the humans, Segel is perfect -- goofy and charming, eager to play along, pleased (but never smug) about his new co-stars and yet working with them as part of a team. Adams and Cooper also hit the right notes, and the cameos -- too many, and too good, to spoil -- are also both tradition and true bits of genius.
The finale of "The Muppets" has the hasty-and-yet-tasty speedy zip of a last-minute revamp after test-screening or careful thought; the big show-stopping, show-saving revelation, where a character reveals a sincere and beautiful talent, isn't set up in any way in the prior action. But these are quibbles, and those moments still work. And there's so much great stuff here -- like the invisible high-tech trickery behind the "Muppet Man" sight gag, or the ace songs by Bret McKenzie of "Flight of the Conchords," the program that, not coincidentally is also where director James Bobin came from as well. And there are familiar songs, too -- "Manah Manah," "The Rainbow Connection" -- and the best compliment you can give to the new material like "Me Party" and "Life's a Happy Song" is to note how they fit perfectly beside the classics.
Segel, Stoller and Bobin haven't just brought back a beloved franchise to lifelessly shuffle across the screen to the sound of both obligatory applause and the ka-ching of cash registers; they've made these characters new again, and made their adventures both hilarious and moving. Because the wordplay and cameos and sight gags -- which are all here in abundance -- aren't as important as the film's very real emotional moments and true spirit. At one point, in their darkest hour, Richman snarls to the Muppets that "their hippy-dippy ways" are a relic of the past. And Richman may be right.
But I didn't enjoy "The Muppets" just as a trip back to the hazy memories of my Carter-era youth spent watching them, or for two hours of joy in an often-dour, often-sour world, or for the cleverness it showed in cribbing from everything from past episodes of "The Muppet Show" (Jack Black swapping in for John Cleese as a reluctant host) to "Vertigo" to "Blazing Saddles" to "Requiem for a Dream." I enjoyed it -- and respected it -- because it makes the point, firmly and honestly, that time moves in only one direction, and while we have no choice about that, we can choose is how, and with whom, we travel into the scary and unknown future. You might think that's a hell of a message for "The Muppets" to deliver and you're right; then again, it's a hell of a film. [A]