“The Muppets” bridges gap between old and new audiences

By Kevin Romani

“You guys aren’t popular anymore,” declares a television executive to the Muppets halfway through their new movie.

The line presents the motivating conflict of the film’s story, but it is also true in the context of the real world. The Muppets have been absent from the public spotlight for years. The last theatrical film featuring the crew, “Muppets from Space,” was released in 1999. The Muppets have made minor appearances in various television productions, but have come nowhere close to the popularity they maintained in the 1970s and 1980s. In light of the recent trend of re-booting major franchises, Disney and the film’s producers must have seen the industry’s current climate as the perfect time to bring back the Muppets.

Jason Segel, most known for his starring television role in “How I Met Your Mother” and roles in several Judd Apatow productions such as “Freaks and Geeks” and “Knocked Up,” served as both star and co-writer of “The Muppets.” He was most responsible for getting the ball rolling on a reimagining of the Muppets. Segel proved that he was not only an accomplished writer after the success of “Forgetting Sarah Marshall,” but also a talented musician and puppeteer. In “Sarah Marshall,” Segel’s character puts on a Dracula-based musical that incorporated puppets. He later approached Disney with the idea of re-booting the Muppets franchise, having showcased his understanding for the art of puppetry with the sequence from “Sarah Marshall.”

Instead of making a direct sequel or placing the Muppets in another popular story – such as “The Muppet Christmas Carol” or “Muppet Treasure Island” – Segel and the producers were wise to conceive a new type of story. The basic plot is borrowed from previous Muppet films, which sees the Muppets scattered about and in need to get together for one final performance. It is in the film’s style, however, that Segel and co-writer Nicholas Stroller were able to freshen up in order to appeal to new audience members. In the past decade, films like “Batman Begins,” “Casino Royale” and “Star Trek” were all able to correct the mistakes of previous incarnations for each respective franchise while satisfying audience members both old and new. Similarly, “The Muppets” will please diehard fans while providing laughs to those previously unfamiliar with the strange cast of characters.

“The Muppets” opens with brothers Walter (voiced by Peter Linz) and Gary (Segel) while they grow up together with the Muppets. Walter, himself a Muppet, is ecstatic when Gary offers him a trip to Los Angeles, where the Muppet Studio resides. Walter joins Gary and his girlfriend Mary (Amy Adams) on the trek, and all are dismayed when they find the Muppet Studio left unkempt. When Walter accidentally overhears an oil tycoon, Tex Richman (Chris Cooper), reveals his plans for buying out the studio in order to have it turned into an oil refinery, the trio locate Kermit the Frog and warn him of his erstwhile studio’s impending fate. The resulting adventure is sparked when Kermit gets the idea to bring the group back together for a broadcast telethon to raise money for the studio.

From the musical numbers to the humor, “The Muppets” is successful in attracting itself to all ages. The essence of what made the characters so popular in the past is still there. Kermit, Miss Piggy, and Fozzie Bear have not changed at all. The humor of the film, however, has been updated to current tastes. Instead of relying heavily on physical comedy, “The Muppets” has a sense of wit and originality in the dialogue akin to that of films from Judd Apatow. This is where Segel’s presence is notable in the screenplay, while he is otherwise able to hide his tendencies behind the Muppets. In addition to the wit, there are several jokes involving filmmaking. This is not unfamiliar to the Muppet franchise, as past productions have often made reference to the fact that the characters were in a movie. Characters suggest using a montage to pick up the pace, or to “travel by map” to Paris. These jokes are not forced, and they flow well with the narrative of the film.

As much as this film is trying to appeal to all audience members, “The Muppets” is overall a children’s film. The musical numbers are well done from a technical standpoint, as they are not restricted to small sets and boring dance routines. Some performances take place in wide open streets, and introduce a seemingly endless amount of participants (including a cameo from Mickey Rooney). A few of the musical pieces feel forced and out of place, such as a rap song from antagonist Tex Richman. Most, however, are fun, and lead to some of the most memorable jokes from the film, like when Gary remarks, “I’ve made up my mind, and I just sang a song about it.”

“The Muppets” is a light-hearted comedy that is perfectly placed in the holiday movie season. Fans of the franchise will mostly approve of the film, and will be overjoyed to see their favorite characters on screen once more. The film is truly nostalgic to past Muppet productions, and it shows how important these characters are in the history of popular culture. With a modern sense of humor and several celebrity cameos (including Neil Patrick Harris, Zach Galifianakis and Selena Gomez), a newer generation of fans may be attracted to the franchise. “The Muppets” may be the first of many future films to come.

Kevin Romani can be reached at [email protected]. Follow Kevin Romani on Twitter @KevinRomani.