Repeats of Jim Henson's original Muppet Show played a large part in my upbringing. I grew up on the madcap antics of the felt covered puppets (in addition to Sesame Street and Fraggle Rock); I remember a well worn VHS tape of a great big Muppet celebration recorded off TV figuring large in my early life. Unfortunately, the Muppets have been on something of a downward spiral lately - their theatrical films petered out with the lacklustre Muppets From Space in 1999 and they haven't been on TV since the brief Muppets Tonight finished in 1998. Cue a cinematic rescue from one of the unlikeliest people: Judd Apatow alum Jason Segel.
Impressed by Segel's love of puppetry evidenced in Forgetting Sarah Marshall, he was given the task of re-introducing Kermit, Miss Piggy, Fozzie and the gang to the modern world. Segel co-wrote and stars as Gary, whose brother Walter is the world's biggest Muppet fan. Walter is, in fact, a Muppet. He's someone who has found life to be difficult, what with never growing and being made out of felt, and the Muppets have offered solace, comfort and laughter. So when Segel and his fiancée Mary, the always adorable Amy Adams, head to LA for their ten-year anniversary Walter tags along to visit the Muppet Theatre and Muppet Studios. Of course, while on a tour of Muppet Studios Walter stumbles upon a plot by evil oil baron Tex Richman (Chris Cooper) who plans to buy up the Studios, demolish them and drill for oil. Thus Walter, Gary and a neglected Mary have to get the Muppets back together, in order to save the Muppet Theatre, Studios and very name!
The Muppets is a Muppet film made by lifelong fans of the Muppets and it shows. But not only is it a film made with a great deal of love and attention, it's a film that explores the place of the Muppets in our digitised, cynical world. In a time where kids are running around realistic virtual war zones, capping "noobs" and computer imagery has reached never-more-realistic highs the film dares to ask if there is still a place for a rag-tag gang of lovable, sweet and cheerfully anachronistic puppets made of felt and fur. The arc of the Muppets in the world of the film parallels the arc of the Muppets in real-life, which is coupled with a few moments of self-reflexive and meta humour to really bring the point home.
Oh, and I haven't mentioned it yet, but the film is also a wonderful and full-throated musical. The Muppet Show was a vaudeville influenced affair, with plenty of singing-and-dancing numbers in between the bad jokes and outrageous stunts. One half of New Zealand's own Flight of the Conchords, Bret McKenzie, worked on the songs for the film and it's a fitting match of writer and material. The musical numbers range from the fun and daffy (the opening "I've Got Everything I Need" and the very Conchords-esque "Man or Muppet") to the emotional and regretful (Kermit's "Pictures in my Head" and a reprise of the most famous Muppet song, "The Rainbow Connection"). There's not a bum note among them with Segel, Adams and the entire Muppety cast giving it their all and having a ball.
The Muppets may not be as madcap and loose as The Muppet Show often felt, but Segel and Bobin are aiming for a more emotional arc to the story. The Muppets haven't really been with us for some time and it's important to illustrate where they are now and their journey back. The Gary and Mary arc feels somewhat underdeveloped; Gary is protective of his brother Walter to the point of making Mary feel neglected. But that underdevelopment of the human characters' story feels like the right choice: this should be a film primarily about the Muppets. And it is. It's irreverent, self-aware, musical, stacked with bad puns and surreal gags (such as Chris Cooper's "maniacal laugh"), with just about every Muppet ever featuring in some sort of appearance. The ending however (which I won't be so churlish as to spoil here) feels confused and rushed, which is an unfortunate note to close an otherwise entirely enjoyable film on. The rest of the running time has been sweet, funny, unironic, smart, witty, lovable and with a fair few gentle jokes and more adult-oriented ones; there's nothing quite like the Muppets. It looks like they're back and bigger than they have been for some time. And the world is better for it.
I think it's also important to note that The Muppets had one of the smartest, funnest and funniest advertising campaigns in recent memory. Beginning with a faux rom-com in the shape of "Green with Envy" announcing the first teaser trailer and with further trailers parodying everything from The Green Lantern to the Girl With a Dragon Tattoo, the campaign not only succeeded in creating interest for the film but also served as reminders of the humour we loved from them in the first place. Clever advertising that is far too rare nowadays.