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.
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.
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.
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]