When Jason Segel capitalized on the critical and financial success of his breakout hit Forgetting Sarah Marshall three years ago by securing the green-light to write his own Muppets film, my world stopped turning for a day. Muppets? In the 2010s? And envisioned by a man who not only represents a perfect human foil to everyone’s favorite felt-born cultural satirists and performers, but also possesses a clear love for puppetry as a general pursuit (as well as the Muppets in particular)? Could I be so lucky? Fast forward from 2008 to November 25th, 2011; here I am basking in the unabashedly jubilant glow of The Muppets, and of course I have a conundrum. I’m afflicted with a sudden absence of articulation and a dearth of words to express myself properly.
But maybe that’s okay in this case. The Muppets have always first spoken directly to the heart; Segel understands where we maintain our fondness for and attachment to these inanimate beings, which come to startling life through the skilled hands of a few good puppeteers. A critic bereft of a soul could write at some length about The Muppets‘ issues with structure and they might not be wrong in a straightforward sense, but those characteristics don’t comprise the components necessary for creating a successful, meaningful Muppets film that resonates with its viewers. Phrased less delicately, bringing a traditionally critical touch to a Muppets review feels just plain old miserly.
Especially since Segel and partner in crime Nick Stoller thoroughly get what makes the Muppets work. A good Muppets film is simple alchemy, a matter of brewing together a precise blend of pop culture commentary and parody, self-aware humor, delightful musical numbers, human presence and interaction, and boundless cheer; other ingredients that we tend to prize in other films, notably strong plotting, matter much, much less. Oh, there’s a story at the center of The Muppets, make no mistake, and anyone familiar with their first cinematic outing will easily pick up the similarities between the two films– only this time, the goal is to reunite the Muppets after the gang has parted ways, for the purpose of keeping unctuous and egotistical tycoon Tex Richman (Chris Cooper) from demolishing the old Muppet theater to access the oil reserves beneath it.
While Segel and Stoller both lay down those elements of conflict as the foundation of the picture, they don’t refer to them as a focal point. Richman’s bid to get at the Muppet theater’s oil acts as a binding to tie together all of those characteristics that we crave from a Muppet movie. Are we watching The Muppets to see Kermit and Ms. Piggy and Fozzie and Scooter and Rowlf and the Swedish Chef and Gonzo defeat an imminent threat to their very history? Or are we watching the film because we anticipate the shenanigans the group inevitably will get up to in their attempt to stop Richman’s nefarious plan? Ultimately, we all truly love the Muppets for the emotions they instill in us above matters of structure and plot.
That’s The Muppets‘ big takeaway. The Muppets represent so much to those of us who grew up with them in a way that’s nostalgic without constituting something of a sickness; they don’t call us back to happier times but rather to happiness itself. More than anything that’s Segel’s and Stoller’s goal; they’re not yearning for a time gone by but instead working to bring these characters into 2011, frequently by identifying where the Muppets stand on various scales of popularity. How do the Muppets become relevant in a world where their group persona and comedic sensibilities go against the cultural grain? Through a handful of self-deprecating jokes which identify how far adrift the Muppets are on the pop culture radar, but also with a climactic dance number in which the film states that for as long as the characters have been gone, they haven’t been forgotten.
In doing so Segel and Stoller make the case that people need the Muppets today. Contemporary humor grounds itself so much in cynicism and on occasion outright cruelty that a dose of joyful absurdity could well be a much-appreciated tonic. Frankly, the comedy of the Muppets feels refreshing in a world of It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphias and South Parks. We need their brand of caustic humor as well, but when contemporary comedy leans so heavily on various degrees of negativity for their set-ups and punchlines the Muppets act as the new optimism. The Muppets doesn’t seek to placate the masses with mindless entertainment; rather it intends to show us how to face our dilemmas and challenges with positivism and with laughter.
Which the film brings in spades. Not every Muppet movie can be The Muppet Movie, but Segel’s and Stoller’s offering comes in a close second. The Muppets is side-splittingly funny, unrelentingly ridiculous and unapologetically zany as only the Muppets can be. Take your time and try to pin down your favorite gag; it’s harder to do than you might think. (For my part, seeing Cooper spontaneously bust a rhyme had me in stitches.) Largely, credit for how well the film’s comedy plays can go to Segel, who certainly makes a proper fit with the Muppets both as a writer and as a figurehead (though he wrote the script with Stoller, his fingerprints are all over the film on every level; not to discredit the contributions of James Bobin, but this is very much Segel’s film); he’s got the right personality for each task and his lovably goofy proclivities as a comic actor work perfectly with Muppet sensibilities.
He also knows how to marry Muppet lunacy with Muppet emotionalism, and carries out the latter task through Walter, a brand-new Muppet tailor-made for this film. As a concept Walter represents a physical embodiment of Segel’s love for Jim Henson’s iconic puppets; as a character he’s the heart that drives The Muppets forward. Walter grows up watching The Muppet Show, in which he finds role models he can truly relate to; at his urging, the effort to save the Muppet theater begins in earnest. Walter’s arc is about a lifelong fan being given the chance to perform alongside his idols, but it’s also about fostering hope for the characters who gave him hope as a kid. The Muppets, through Walter, becomes a story of reciprocity; love the Muppets and they’ll love you right back.
Maybe it’s the time of year, maybe it’s where we are as a culture, but there’s no cinematic message more welcome or comforting than that. The Muppets is effervescent elation personified, and the most purely gleeful picture of the year. It’s hard to take a swing at a film that’s so firmly and intentionally entrenched in its own mirth, but as much as it’s critic-proof in its fashion it’s also genuinely warm and merry, and crafted with lots of love. Muppets fans will rejoice for certain, but Segel and Stoller have also succeeded in introducing them to a new generation of viewers.