The new Muppet movie, titled simply The Muppets, is less about the Muppets themselves than it is about Muppet fandom. Lead human (i.e. non-Muppet) actor Jason Segel, who also co-wrote the script, sets the tone of the movie with his performance—he always seems on the verge of breaking out into ecstatic giggling, much like audience who’ve grown up with the Muppets (and there’s at least four decades of us out there) would, if they found themselves in the presence of real-live Muppets.
Since the Muppets have always embraced a certain fourth-wall breaking, self-aware/self-referential postmodernism, the approach Segel, co-writer Nicholas Stoller, and director James Bobin take (to wit, the movie being about their own fandom more than it is Muppets) fits with that the show and movies have always been about. Segel and Stoller’s script has the same fundamental lack of meanness that makes the Muppets so unique, and the movie—with the exception of a couple flat gags involving awkwardly-chosen pop songs and one other that will be addressed in a minute—comes close enough to hitting the mark that the general, universal positivity of The Muppets makes it a perfectly lovely day at the movies.
The story (read: excuse to re-introduce the Muppets one by one a la The (first) Muppet Movie) involves a sinister, joyless, rapacious oil tycoon (Chris Cooper) who discovers oil underneath Muppet Studios in Los Angeles. This plot is discovered by Walter, the inseparable Muppet brother of wholesome small-town non-Muppet boy Gary (Jason Segel), who’s in Los Angeles with his girlfriend Mary (Amy Adams) to celebrate their anniversary. Walter, an even bigger Muppet fan than massive Muppet fan Gary, decides that in order to save the day—and make good the terms of the “standard rich-and-famous” contract Kermit signed so many years ago—they have to reassemble all the Muppets and put on a show. Because that’s what Muppets do.
It all ends up exactly the way you’d think—the terms “unhappy ending” and “Muppets” aren’t in the same language—but much in the vein of The (first) Muppet Movie, one of the surprises is which celebrities show up in cameos in small roles. In this new one, there isn’t anyone quite on the level of the original’s Steve Martins, Richard Pryors, Edgar Bergens, Bob Hopes, and Orson Welleses, though a number of people show up and it’s like, “ah, nice! [so and so]! S/he must be a Muppet fan and thus a good person!” That feeling, of being in good hands and among one’s own people (both thematically in the movie and the resultant sharing in that feeling in the audience), pervades in The Muppets, and the ride is, with no major exceptions, entirely pleasant.
Aside from the unnecessary uses of “Bad To The Bone” and “We Built This City On Rock ‘n’ Roll” on the soundtrack (and those mostly feel as unfortunate as they do because the original songs, by Flight of the Conchords’ Bret McKenzie, are so good, I mean seriously, damn, the Best Original Song Oscar is decided: “Life’s A Happy Song.” Book it. It’s done), the only thing in the whole movie that doesn’t quite work is this one part when the Muppets go to Chris Cooper to ask him to stop being evil (worth a try), and he says “no” by way of a rap number involving several dancing girls. This is something you should know is coming, and you should know is relatively brief, because it is godawful. I know the Muppets are all about encouraging people to chase their dreams and not let anyone tell them not to be who they are and so on, but Chris Cooper should not rap. Ever. He makes Tony Yayo look like Nas. (In case the analogy is unclear, that means he’s not good.) But it’s only one scene, and it’s over in fairly short order, and the movie actually cracks a self-reflexive joke at itself afterwards, making it appear that, on some level at least, that scene was so bad in order to make Chris Cooper’s character look bad.
That, actually, in a nutshell is why I love the Muppets and The Muppets so: the fact that it’s self-aware enough to crack jokes at its own expense. Those jokes may not be as sharp as they were back in the day—the best Muppet movies are in no danger of being overtaken by The Muppets—but even B+ Muppets are better than just about anything else going. There’s something to be said for entertainment that’s so unambiguously, simply good as the Muppets, and that makes you feel as good as they do. Also (and this ending will make sense once you see the movie)…mahna mahna…do DOO do do do…mahna mahna…do DOO DOO do….