The seventh theatrical film (and first in a dozen years) to star the late 20th century’s most beloved vaudeville gang works best as a sweet valentine to the troupe’s staying power. Made with palpable affection and childhood nostalgia by its comedy young-blood participants (director James Bobin and songwriter Bret McKenzie from HBO’s The Flight of the Conchords, and, more worryingly, co-writer and human protagonist Jason Segel of the Judd Apatow slobcom factory), The Muppets reverts to the let’s-put-on-a-show genre of The Muppet Show TV series and the initial 1979 movie, both of which are frequently invoked and quoted here. Disney, the new proprietors of Jim Henson’s creations, and the filmmakers know the Muppets’ oeuvre is catnip to tens of millions of adults between 30 and 50, who, with or without kids in tow, will be melting into tears at “The Rainbow Connection” or Kermit the Frog’s climactic “we are family” speech to his fellows (as I might have, though you can’t prove it).
More problematically, this nostalgic catering to the Gen X demo comes at some cost to The Muppets‘s child-friendly elements. Its early production number, “Life’s a Happy Song,” dares you to find irony in citizens brightly prancing through Smalltown U.S.A., but the satirical instincts for a Hairspray-style lampoon are just under the surface (the presence of both Mickey Rooney and Feist seems a giveaway). And puzzlingly, the movie introduces a new Muppet, the cross-eyed innocent Walter (voiced by Peter Linz), who serves as a surrogate for the young audience and dominates most of the early going; he’s kind of a drip. A Smalltown devotee of Henson’s felt-skinned clan, Walter tags along to Hollywood with his roommate brother, Gary (Segel), and Gary’s neglected girlfriend, Mary (Amy Adams), to Hollywood, where the trio beseech reclusive Kermit to reunite the Muppets to save their old studio from the clutches of an oil tycoon (Chris Cooper, bling-rapping “Let’s Talk About Me”). Walter is blandly inoffensive and unlikely to stir a Jar Jar Binks-style fan revolt, but the Muppets don’t seem sufficiently forgotten to need him as a bridge to the tots, despite Cooper’s snarl that “your Julie Andrews/Dom DeLuise-hosting era has passed!”
Fortunately, once Kermit has been persuaded (in the Bel-Air mansion built for him by ex Miss Piggy) to round up his old crew, Segel and Nicholas Stoller’s script morphs into a road trek so he can recruit Fozzie (fronting a grungy “Moopets” tribute band in a Reno dive) and Piggy (now a Prada-wearing, Paris-based fashion doyenne), then into an underdog backstage-drama parody, with Tarantino and Shawshank Redemption gags woven in. There’s plenty of traditional fourth wall-breaking, a funny Gary/Walter identity-crisis ballad (“Man or Muppet?”), and more long-layoff jokes (the first two telethon-host candidates from Kermit’s yellowed Rolodex are President Carter and Molly Ringwald). Missed opportunities include the two underutilized comedy queens in the ensemble, Adams and Piggy, sharing a cross-cut song instead of a paint-the-town-red teaming, but at least one third-act error, Piggy’s decision to kidnap a tiresome Jack Black to MC the TV fundraiser, is redeemed when rope-bound Black is razzed by iconic hecklers Statler and Waldorf. The Muppets is finally irresistible, even overcoming the misstep of having Fozzie trot out some “fart shoes” for rehearsal, and supplies one of the year’s biggest laughs with a Cee Lo Green cover that victoriously plays chicken with the movie’s PG rating.