Long-felt Wants and Long-wanted Felt
Looking at the new films opening a few weeks ago, for a moment I thought I'd had a bang on the head and was experiencing the delusion that I was back in the 1970s: for the big three releases consisted of a Star Wars movie, a Hammer horror, and a big-screen outing for the Muppets.
Now, like most people of my vintage I have fond memories of the original Muppet Show and several of their early movies, and so I went along to see James Bobin's film hoping for a few laughs and a pleasantly nostalgic hour or so.
It has, of course, been 12 years or so since the last theatrical Muppets release and it is clear that the makers of the new film are worried that today's younger generation may have no idea who the Muppets are and what their schtick is. So the new movie has been carefully written to ease newcomers in – it's quite a long time before any of the big-name characters make a proper appearance.
Instead, in the first act we meet Gary (Jason Segel, who also co-wrote), a young man from Smalltown, USA, whose life is mainly distinguished by the fact that his brother Walter is a Muppet (basically, this means. . . oh, for crying out loud, I'm not going to explain what a Muppet is – ask someone at Goldman Sachs if you really must know) – the circumstances behind this rather odd situation are not gone into, possibly wisely. Walter in particular is a life-long fan of the original Muppet Show, and when Gary goes on holiday to Los Angeles with his girlfriend Mary (Amy Adams), Walter goes with them so he can visit the Muppet theatre.
However, the Muppets haven't worked together in years (an example of the knowing self-reflexiveness that runs through the movie) and their name has lost something of its prestige (although one still wonders what their financial advisors call them behind their backs). During the visit, Walter sees Statler and Waldorf selling the property to evil tycoon Tex Richman (Chris Cooper) – unless the Muppets can find $10 million in two weeks, the theatre will be ripped down so he can drill for oil on the site. Aghast at the prospect of the destruction of such an iconic place, Walter persuades Gary and Mary to help him reunite the Muppets so they can mount one last show to raise the money they need.
Well, the plot is not going to win any awards for originality, but, the Muppets being who they are, the film is aware of this and isn't afraid to make a few jokes about it. One of the keys to the Muppets' success is the fact that they're not afraid to combine outrageous silliness with some of the smartest comic writing anywhere to be found, and the film continues this in spades. I found this movie to be relentlessly, irresistibly funny, whether that be in its dialogue, its (very catchy) original songs, its sight gags, or its broader ideas. (If you've ever wanted to see a Cee-Lo Green song reinterpreted by a choir of chickens – and who hasn't – this is the film for you.)
On the other hand, the film doesn't skimp on the pathos which has also been part of the Muppets' long-term appeal. Watching the film, I was intellectually aware that most of the cast were (spoilers) bits of foam rubber, felt and ping-pong balls – but somehow this didn't seem to register. Seeing the Muppets come back together again and rebuild their various relationships was, absurdly, very moving. Not only did I laugh myself breathless all the way through, but at a couple of points I also found myself tearing up. (Not that I'll be telling anyone that, of course.)
I'm not sure how much of this emotional connection will be shared by the younger audience this film is clearly pitching for – although, at the same time, this is also more of a nostalgia piece than any of the other Muppet films. It harks back almost constantly to the 1970s Muppet Show, features new versions of a number of classic Muppet routines, and there's even a very obscure gag referring to the original 1980 Muppet Movie that will probably only be appreciated by hard-core Muppet fans and people with freakishly overdeveloped memories.
The film is perhaps slightly disingenuous in the way that the villain and other characters repeatedly declare that the world has moved on and the Muppets are old-fashioned and irrelevant, only for this to be wholly disproven in the climactic scenes: this movie would hardly be being made if Disney didn't think there was a market for it. I'll be curious to see if the deserved success of this hilarious, charming, and unexpectedly touching film produces a more extended return to the limelight for Kermit and his friends, but my hopes that the answer will prove positive are without reservation.
Well, almost without. For a film about the Muppets battling to avoid being assimilated by a soulless, grasping, corporation, there's something bleakly ironic about the fact that the end credits declare it to be based on ‘Disney's Muppet Characters and Properties'. In other words, there's no mention of Jim Henson, their original creator. I know that the Henson family sold their rights to the Muppets years ago and that Disney are under no legal obligation to acknowledge Henson in this movie (it also doesn't feel quite sporting to have a go at Disney right now, given they're set to take an inland-sea-sized bath on John Carter). But there's what's legal and there's what's right, and the omission of even the slightest credit for Jim Henson anywhere prominent in this film left a slightly sour taste in the mouth at the end of what was otherwise a wholly joyous experience.