The central reality of The Muppets, the thing which many are afraid to speak but which virtually any opinion of the film fundamentally rests on, is nostalgia. One might expect, considering that the film’s director James Bobin is most known for co-creating the archly-dry Flight of the Concords, that this film would follow suit and place the emphasis squarely on the reality that everything which made the Muppets so lovable was also extremely lame (and I mean this in the best way possible, since the Muppets were always proud of their lameness and held it in high regard).This is not so, for Bobin and co-writers Jason Segel and Nick Stoller in fact adopt not arch-irony but arch-genuineness in the film. The humor, while occasionally pointed, is mostly of the gentle and sweetly grinning variety, clearly in an attempt to mimic the original show. In today’s hyper-cynical world, this is quite a wonderful thing, and it makes the film curiously out-of-touch (in a good way) with a modern society that can’t seem to enjoy anything without its daily dose of irony on the side.
At the same time, if this gives the film a warmly sweet and honest attitude toward itself, genuine sentimentalism is also an extremely difficult thing to pull off well. Here, the film mostly succeeds, but there are lingering doubts. The central danger of the Muppets is that they always threaten saccharine weepiness and cloying sentimentality, and this film, especially in its open-faced heart-on-its-sleeves treatment of the franchise, veers far closer to drowning in its own tears than any previous Muppet feature. A key feature, perhaps the central feature of the show, was that the characters all knew the jokes were lame but only slightly hinted toward this fact – they maintained a near-perfect mix of sentimentality and mocking tomfoolery, with just enough of a subversive edge to make the general loopiness work. This film often comes quite close to nailing that deft touch, but too often it’s rather ham-fisted in its love of the characters and its gee-willickers romance. There’s too much love going on here. I love the Muppets, but a little of that love goes a long way.
This tension is explicit in the film’s very idea. The centers of the narrative are a Muppet, Walter, and his human brother Gary (Jason Segal). Walter loves the Muppets- after all, he is one. One day, when Gary and his girlfriend Mary (Amy Adams) go to LA for a vacation, Gary convinces Mary to allow Walter to tag along so he can see Muppet Studios and, you know, meet his heroes and all that. This is all well and good, except, as Walter learns, the Muppet Theater hasn’t been functional or populated for years and the Muppets are long-gone from the public eye. Unable to accept the fact, Walter goes with Gary and Mary to convince Kermit to get the band back together, so to speak, only to meet with a lonely frog and a bunch of has-been creatures that are shells of their former selves scattered across the land. The Muppets, in a sense, are no more- but Walter has a thing or two to say to them.
Essentially, the narrative is “The Muppets” in the sense that it is about that brand and all its parts as iconic, capitalized, proper-noun figures, treating them as public celebrities of the past now struggling to return to public acceptance. There’s something vaguely clever about this, for it acknowledges the state of the franchise today (well, acknowledges is a bit of a lie – the idea that the Muppets are has-beens is an overstatement – despite lulls in their popularity, they never really went away). But the film mostly plays it for tears and hugs – it’s not really interested in doing anything dangerous. This is conceptually sound for a family film, except this one happens to spend an inordinate amount of time indulging in “The Muppets” as icons that it sacrifices the Muppets as characters. More simply, all of the film’s effort to entertain the concept of the fallen stars of the Muppets feels more like fan-boyish sentimentalism and rampant indulgence than clever satire or knowing emotion. It’s not crippling, but it feels a little bit like being hit over the head about how great the Muppets are – in all of this, the film forgets to just show us how great they are by having them do their thing. Show, not tell, is just about the golden rule of cinema, and this film struggles to grasp it.
The big question then is “how do the titular characters fare?” Well, again, the film loves them, almost cringe-inducingly so in spots. But when it isn’t busy telling us how great they are, there’s actually room for us to be reminded how great they are. Kermit is a wee bit too soft, and Miss Piggie’s nuances have been sanded down to resemble a more annoying, broadened version of herself than ever before (she’s been on that trajectory for years though), but they generally work. But it’s the side players that really bring down the house. Fozzie is in tip-top form as the comedian so bad he can’t but be good for his own endearing idiocy, while Gonzo is as wild and wondrously off-kilter as ever (he also has, by far, the most inspired “off-Muppet” career as a business magnate). Rowlf, meanwhile, bears the butt of the film’s jokes and kind-of turns into a full-of-himself loner, but the jokes are the most subversive and cutting in the film and make up for any character deficiencies. It is, after all, these characters we came to see, and they often save the film in spite of itself.
Ok, that’s a bit of an overstatement. The film, on balance, is actually quite funny and frequently touching. There aren’t god-awful moments (well that’s an over-statement too; a cover of “We Built this City” is both pointless and cringe-inducing, although largely because the song itself is just awful to begin with). More of the film’s sweetness hits than it misses, and many of the jokes are actually rather inspired. My favorites are generally the drollest ones, where the characters’ geniality is simultaneously adored and (only) slightly undercut. The reaction shot of the Muppets entering their long-abandoned theater for the first time in years is to-die-for, and a few of the cameos (Alan Arkin in particular) are wonderfully inspired. The Muppets were always at their best when they were at their most amusingly postmodern, never so much bitterly commenting on how the whole thing was just a performance but infusing it in their DNA and sort of just adoring it for the hell of it. But the show was never “about” its postmodernism, even when it was, really, all about its postmodernism.
Or, to be more accurate, it wasn’t about what postmodernism entails, but it was absolutely about the pure breezy fun of just putting on a show because, well, that would be fun. Too often here it’s about how putting on a show would be “important”, and that is much less fun indeed. A little postmodernism goes a long way when we want to see the Muppets just have a time with themselves – this film is too much of the former and not enough of the later. Too much of what was left unstated in the original show and films is made obvious here. But many of the more unforced moments, including a side-splitting line by Fozzie about the success of the show they just put on within a movie that is essentially about the Muppets putting on a show, shine through with inspiration.
If this review sounds a little depressed, let it be known that the film on the whole works rather well. It’s just that there is something of a sense that the filmmakers were too obviously trying extremely hard to make a Muppets movie about the Muppets as characters and as a franchise that they couldn’t just, you know, make a Muppets movie about a bunch of puppets screwing around and enjoying each other’s company. The titular characters, for all their endearing optimism, never would have engaged in this degree of fawning over themselves. With this kind of stuff, an off-the-cuff vibe works best. This film nails it about 70% of the time – when it’s just the Muppets doing their thing, and that, as proof that they shine through even in spite of a film that tries to drag them down more than once, is about the greatest joy someone who enjoys the Muppets can find, and proof positive that the formula works even in spite of itself.