US (2011) Dir. James Bobin
On a trip to LA with his brother Gary (Jason Segel) and his girlfriend Mary (Amy Adams), über Muppet fan Walter (voiced by Peter Linz) tags along for the tour of the Muppets Studio. Whilst hiding in Kermit’s office, Walter overhears super rich businessman Tex Richman (Chris Cooper) planning to destroy the studios to get to the oil beneath it, unless Kermit can raise $10 million to buy the studios himself. Walter, Gary and Mary track Kermit down to tell him this news, prompting the now retired frog to regroup the Muppets to put on a fund raising telethon to save the old studios.
After an absence of many years it’s time to play the music and light the lights one more time as the Muppets return to the big screen via Disney. All of your favourites are back – Kermit, Fozzie Bear, Rolf, Miss Piggy, Gonzo, Scooter, Swedish Chef, Dr. Bunsen Honeydew and Beaker, Sam Eagle, the Newscaster, Animal, Sgt. Floyd Pepper, Janice, Zoot, Dr. Teeth, Statler and Waldorf, the chickens and Pepe the Prawn –for this loving tribute from writer and star Jason Segel, who wears his Muppet fandom on his sleeve for all to see. Even without the contributions of the only man not named Jim Henson who is synonymous with the Muppets, the legendary Frank Oz – who turned the job down because he felt the script was disrespectful to the characters – this film manages to capture the spirit and charm of the original series and subsequent early films without appearing like a parody or tired rehash of past glories. If anything the self referential, tongue-in-cheek approach of the script makes sure the older audience members needn’t view the film askance and enjoy it for what it is.
The plot is deliberately simple and contrived since this is aimed at a family audience and frankly anything of any substance or convolute is not necessary. The only twist is not the fact that Walter and Gary grow up as brothers practically joined at the hip, despite the overlooked if rather crucial fact that Walter is himself a muppet! Aside from Tex Richman’s duplicitous deals the only other plot diversion comes from the trip to LA being in celebration of Gary and Mary’s tenth anniversary together where Mary hopes Gary will finally propose. With the task of locating and reuniting the Muppets taking priority, Gary inevitably forgets about the actual day upsetting Mary and then upsetting Walter as he tries to salvage his relationship with Mary on the eve of the big show. With the emphasis being on in-jokes and nodding winks to the filmmaking process, plot and character development are not a major concern where a cheeky song and dance number will suffice.
Much of the “wink wink” humour will go over the heads of the younger viewers giving us oldies something else to grab onto aside from the expectant feelings of nostalgia of the original 70’s TV series. Such gems include Waldorf and Statler during Tex Richman outlining his evil plan “If I didn’t know any better I’d say you were reciting some sort of important plot point” or Fozzie’s pondering as to how they could afford a huge explosion in their budget! Best of all, Kermit’s assistant 80’s Robot suggesting their hunting down of the Muppets be done in montage form to save time. As obtuse as this sounds it works very well. But not all the humour is simple – some of it has a nice satirical bite to it. Madcap drummer Animal, for instance, is tracked down at anger management classes with Jack Black as his sponsor! And yes the strained on-off romance between Kermit and Miss Piggy is still strained and still on-off.
As with all Muppet outings the “human” cast are the straight men to the comedic absurdities of their puppet co-stars, with the occasional lapse into musical silliness to keep the madness going – Tex breaking out a rap as to how rich his is for example, or Mary’s energetic single lunch routine. Jason Segel would be a rather ineffective leading man in any other film but that innocuousness works for him in this film. It has to be said that while Amy Adams approaches her role as Mary with joyous abandon and gusto, her character is arguably the least important to the overall plot and could easily have been reduced to a cameo to bookend end the film. Speaking of cameos, there are plenty to be found here but aside from the legendary Mickey Rooney, the aforementioned Jack Black, Emily Blunt and Whoopi Goldberg, many might be unfamiliar to non-US viewers such as myself. In some ways this could be a sad reflection on the marquee value of today’s “stars” when you consider the level of international icons who appeared on the original TV shows – such as Liberace, John Cleese, Julie Andrews, Alice Cooper, Spike Milligan, Roger Moore, Peter Ustinov, Rudolph Nureyev, Steve Martin, Milton Berle, Elton John, Bob Hope and many more.
The Muppets might be the most anachronistic film you’ll see this year (The Artist notwithstanding) in terms of its family friendly, music and comedy entertainment but that is also its strength, especially for those of us of a certain vintage. With no pretensions of being anything other than a 100 minute slice of fun, there is really little to complain about unless you’re the sort of person who gets their kicks from eating newborn puppies or are a Tory voter!