In an unusually promising Thanksgiving weekend for family films that also includes Martin Scorcese’s “Hugo” and Aardman Animation’s “Arthur Christmas,” the new “The Muppets” revives the famed franchise from a long cinematic absence.
The movie, scripted by “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” collaborators Jason Segel and Nicholas Stoller, has been credited in some circles as a redefinition of the Muppets. Others, including original Muppeteer Frank Oz, have claimed it doesn’t honor the spirit of Jim Henson’s characters.
The truth is somewhere in between: “The Muppets” doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but it combines hyper-aware pop-culture references with the overall heart of Henson’s creations to make another likable installment in the series.
The film introduces a new Muppet, everyman Walter (Peter Linz), who grew up idolizing “The Muppet Show” in Smalltown, USA. So when his human brother Gary (Segel) leaves for Hollywood on an anniversary trip with his girlfriend Mary (Amy Adams), Walter relishes the opportunity to come along and visit the Muppet Studio.
Yet when the trio arrives, the studio is in abandoned disarray and businessman Tex Richman (Chris Cooper) has set his sights on it to drill for oil. In order to save the studio, Walter and Gary seek out Kermit the Frog and then, ultimately, the entire Muppets ensemble.
In these early moments, the film quickly establishes a super-self-aware tone about pop-culture, the Muppets and itself. This may not come as a surprise to audiences who’ve previously seen the film’s trailers parodying “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” or “The Hangover: Part II.”
Some of these jokes, such as the first name in Kermit’s Rolodex being Jimmy Carter or non sequitur references to Dom DeLuise’s appearances on “The Muppet Show,” are pretty funny. The movie may directly comment on itself a little too often and obviously, but this can possibly be attributed to the childhood audience who can only take so much subtlety.
The decision to have the Muppets sing Starship’s “We Built this City,” however, is a questionable one for all ages.
“Flight of the Conchords” star Bret McKenzie helped write the film’s handful of original songs, which range from the funny ballad “Man or Muppet” to the too-short Adams and Miss Piggy duet “Me Party.” Frequent “Flight of the Conchords” director James Bobin makes his cinematic debut here, probably helping to bring in the talented comedic cast along with Segel and Stoller.
“The Muppets” greatly benefits from its connection to the modern comedy world, including cameos from stand-up comics such as Kristen Schaal, Sarah Silverman, Eddie Pepitone and Donald Glover. If these comedians seem out of place in a family-friendly film, one only needs to remember Richard Pryor’s appearance in “The Muppet Movie.”
Then there’s the question of whether or not “The Muppets” does justice to the other Muppets movies and television series. Oz turned down working on the film and said to Metro : “I wasn’t happy with the script. I don’t think they respected the characters. But I don’t want to go on about it like a sourpuss and hurt the movie.”
Yet for all its modern pop culture references, the film essentially has the same sweet spirit Henson’s characters started out with. Kermit still speaks with the same sad, thoughtful creases of his face and it comes together with a message of togetherness and community.
The film even briefly seems ready to close on the same affecting note as the conclusion of “Be Kind Rewind,” before opting out for an easier ending. However, it shows enough emotion and sincerity for Oz’s concerns to be unfounded.
A Muppets film lives and dies largely on its humor, its music and its celebrity cameos. “The Muppets” mostly succeeds in all three marks, and shows some enterprise in bringing in some of modern comedy’s brightest stars and – without ruining anything – a few well-chosen cameos.
It doesn’t redefine what a Muppet film means, but rather serves as an affectionate tribute to the ones that came before it.