REVIEW: When Humans Aren't On-Screen, The Muppets Achieves Pure, Distilled Joy
Can something be considered fan fiction if it's also an official, canonical studio product? I'm going to argue yes, absolutely, because with The Muppets, Jason Segel has crafted what can only be described as the most extravagant work of fan fiction ever, Mary Sue-ing himself into the Muppet universe as a character who helps reunite the gang in order to save their old theater and the day. Segel, who co-wrote the film with Nicholas Stoller, even leaves his own tentative mark on Jim Henson's beloved ensemble by inserting a personal addition in the form of alter ego Walter (voiced by Peter Linz), his character's Muppet brother and the group's most devoted fan even when the rest of the world seems to have forgotten about them. Fandom can be a precarious thing -- someone's devotion to the source material he or she is adapting to screen can sometimes lead to being too cautious with it, too respectful to do what's best for the movie instead of only for the hardcore supporters. But the love Segel has for the Muppets is a genuine, perceivable and positive quality that suffuses this good-hearted revitalization of the franchise, and if some wish fulfillment sneaks in there too, it seldom gets in the way of the enjoyment to be had.
Segel plays Gary and Amy Adams is Mary, his equally cheerful schoolteacher girlfriend who's been waiting with saintly patience for a decade for her oblivious love to propose. They live in an idyllic small town called, appropriately, Smalltown, and Gary still shares a house and a childhood bedroom with Walter. Walter's Muppet nature, beyond raising certain larger questions -- was he adopted? is Muppetism some kind of genetic abnormality? -- means that adult life has left him by the wayside while Gary has matured physically, though as is true for so many Segel characters, not so much mentally. To Mary's gentle consternation, Gary invites Walter along with them on their trip to Los Angeles to celebrate their 10th anniversary, and while on a tour of the now deserted and dilapidated Muppet Studios, Walter overhears the wicked plan of a wealthy Texan executive named, once again appropriately, Tex Richman (Chris Cooper) to tear down the building and use the plot to drill for oil. (You'd think developing condos would be the more likely bet, but who dares reason with the evil?) The Smalltown trio track down Kermit the Frog at his Sunset Blvd.-esque mansion and convince him that he needs to raise the $10 million necessary to save the studio by reuniting with his former colleagues and putting on a show. Soon, they're traveling the country and, somehow, the world to retrieve Rowlf, Gonzo and other adored figures from their scattered retirements in places like Reno (where Fozzie is part of a knock-off act called "The Moopets") and Paris (where Miss Piggy has gone on to a job a million girls and pigs would kill for).
Segel knows to get out of the way of his furry and fleecy costars, and after the introduction and opening number (irresistible earworm "Life's A Happy Song") he and director James Bobin do their best to put the Muppets front and center as much as possible. The film's energy level does drop significantly whenever the action turns to the humans in the cast or, alas, to Walter, who's really just that vague yearning to become part of one's treasured childhood preoccupation brought to life (or the closest puppet approximation of it). The original song and dance segments have a dissonant, self-consciously ironic air that doesn't match up with the rest of the Muppet humor -- I wrote in my notes that they were "so goddamn Flight of the Conchords" before heading home to discover that Bobin in fact co-created the series with Bret McKenzie and Jemaine Clement and directed 11 episodes. Similarly, the winking meta-humor, while not a new addition to the franchise -- in the first Muppet Movie, one fortuitous rescue takes place because characters read what was going to happen in the script and arrived to help -- is jarringly heavy. ("This is going to be a very short movie," Mary observes when Kermit at first refuses to buy into the scheme.) And the less said about the scene in which Chris Cooper raps, the better.
But when the Muppets do gather, the film's a marvel, and when they return to the stage to put on their own last-minute show, it's pure, distilled joy, from Fozzie's wonderfully terrible stand-up routine to Jack Black, literally roped into being the celebrity host, shrieking that the Muppet barber-shop quartet giving him a shave is "ruining one of the greatest songs of all time." The hokey jokes (the heavenly chorus paired with a familiar someone's first appearance is revealed to be a gospel choir driving by in a bus), the gleeful chaos, the tumultuous but unexpectedly emotional reuniting of Kermit and Piggy, the plentiful and strange celebrity cameos (Feist? James Carville?) are all there, and carry with them the welcome squishy feeling of being reunited with old friends. The film's peppered with call-backs to the earlier Muppet films -- the studio is endangered thanks to a clause in "the standard rich-and-famous contract" Kermit signed back in the 1979 feature -- but should please newcomers to these characters as well.
The Muppets actively invokes nostalgia -- the Muppets are a faded act even within the world of the film -- but the affection it has and faith it shows in Kermit, Gonzo, Fozzie and the rest go beyond any backwards-looking sentimentality. The film may not leave any lasting mark on the Muppets, but it pays them a fitting tribute and earns every tear it'll sneak out of you when the characters launch into The Rainbow Connection -- not because it's familiar, but because it's such a goddamn lovely song.
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