[23 November 2011]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
“Everything is great, everything is grand, I got the whole wide world in the palm of my hand!” So sings Gary (Jason Segal), galumphing down the sidewalk in Smalltown, USA, alongside his fiancée Mary (Amy Adams), and a coterie of aptly smalltown supporting characters—the butcher, the baker, and the mailman, the gardener, a newlywed couple, and construction workers. “Everything is perfect its falling into place! I can’t seem to wipe this smile off my face!” And who can blame them? They’re in The Muppets!
More specifically, at this early moment in the movie, Gary and Mary are on their way to the bus stop, where they’ll be boarding a bus headed to Los Angeles. They’re going on a first-time vacation, after 10 years of dating. Mary hopes Gary might finally pop the question, and Gary, well, he hopes to cheer up his brother Walter, who’s feeling worried about exactly that possibility. Gary and Walter, you’ve just seen in a brief prelude, have grown up doing everything together—all wide smiles and freckles, backyard pools and chocolate-covered Oreos in front of the TV. But as they’ve grown up, Walter has discovered they’ve also grown differently. Gary is becoming taller and burlier, like a human boy, while Walter has remained short and fuzzy, like a Muppet (voiced by Peter Linz).
Now that they’re facing something like (Gary’s) adulthood, the brothers are trying to situate themselves in a larger scheme of things. Namely, the history of the Muppets: for when they go to LA, their first and most significant stop is the Muppets Theater, site of the TV show they enjoyed so often as children. They’re shocked to find the place in desperate disarray, dusty and cobwebby and strewn with broken furnishings. When they learn further that the evil businessman Tex Richman (Chris Cooper) means to take over the property because it’s sitting on an oil reserve (thus making him the easiest target possible these days—an oil man and a corporate monster), Walter and Gary and Mary (who appreciates the Muppets as much as anyone who might be engaged to a socially delayed human brother of one of them) decide there’s only one answer: the Muppets have to put on a show to raise the money they need to save the theater.
To that end, the trio tracks down Kermit (Steve Whitmire, doing an serviceable Jim Henson), now living alone in the Beverly Hills manse he was supposed to share with Miss Piggy (Eric Jacobson). Now he’s not a little sad and lonely, and so not so difficult to convince to round up the old gang, including Fozzie Bear, Scooter, Rowlf, Gonzo, and Animal (currently ensconced at an anger management retreat, being counseled by Jack Black). Even Chef agrees to participate, his chickens in tow. They even fly to Paris, where they convince Miss Piggy to come along, even though now, after all the drama with Kermie, she “has a life!” that is, she’s designing women’s clothing and eating frosted donuts while her busy-busy schedule is organized by Emily Blunt (inside joke: she played the same part opposite Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada). “Just remember, Kermit,” Miss Piggy warns, “I cannot be replaced.”
Back in LA, the Muppets set to putting on a telethon, even though they’re turned down by a series of network execs at first. “In this market,” explains one such suit, Veronica (Rashida Jones), “You guys are no longer relevant.” To illustrate, she takes a moment off her BlackBerry and turns on a TV, tuned to an egregious humiliation-reality show (this one called Punch Teacher, and starring Ken Jeong). The Muppets are too cute, too clever, too nice, she implies.
This becomes the movie’s point—and yes, it does have one. For all the diverting fun and silly gags, along with Fozzie Bear’s fart-shoes and Miss Piggy’s infinite ego, the Muppets make it their business not to condescend to their viewers; children or adults or those ever in between. Whether teaching numbers on Sesame Street or making fun of celebrities and show business on The Muppets Show or taking Manhattan in a movie, they’ve remained relentlessly goodhearted and generous, even in their spoofs. Thus, they’re something of a perfect fold for jack Black or Jason Segal or Amy Adams too, who can do outsized and delirious as well as any puppet, and whose love of such excess is palpable.
If the movie’s not perfect (if it goes on a bit regarding the always-already answered question about whether the show will go on), it reminds you of this, that mean TV and the tabloid industry and the grueling competitions are not nearly so delightful or smart as the simple-seeming Muppets. As the theater fills with audience members—including Zach Galifianakis as “Hobo Joe,” who arrives with a garbage can—as the telethon pledge calls are answered by Whoopi Goldberg, James Carville, and Selena Gomez (“I don’t know who you are,” she says, “My agent told me to come”), The Muppets doesn’t come to a conclusion so much as it provides a series of plot points, from Gary and Walter sorting out who they are (in a heartfelt, crosscutting duet, “Man or Muppet”) to Mary gets the ring she so desires.
This is all fine, but not as fine as what the Muppets do best, which is to make fun of everything that’s not them (and sometimes them as well). The most rousing of such instances here are these: the Muppets Barbershop Quartet massacring “Smells Like Teen Spirit” (while Jack Black winces and moans) and the chickens clucking their way through Cee-Lo’s “Forget You.” After all the hubbub over the lyrics and the video and Gwyneth Paltrow’s good luck, this is what persists: clucks.