‘The Muppets’: Leveraging the devotion of its target audience, one meta-gag at a time

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The Muppets. ()
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Simon Abrams

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It's not easy to make a bad new Muppet movie. So the fact that The Muppets is as underwhelming as it is is actually quite something.

This is particularly disappointing considering how much energy star and co-writer Jason Segel (co-writer and star of Forgetting Sarah Marshall) invested in his performance, and in his promotion of the film. Segel clearly had a blast working on and selling The Muppets. But it is unfortunately a maudlin and uninspired tribute to Jim Henson’s mirthful puppets and their Vaudeville style of humor. How did that happen?

The fact that The Muppets is as schmaltzy and self-congratulatory as it is only part of Segel and co-writer Nicholas Stoller’s problem. Since a couple of the last seven Muppet movies have employed a “putting on a show” formula, the idea of ending a Muppet movie by having fans, within the film’s universe, cheer on Kermit, Piggy and the gang is not at all unreasonable. But the road to that point is so rocky that you have to wonder why so much time is spent trying to prove that people who exist outside of the movie still love the Muppets.

I mean, of course people love the Muppets! But this movie is an almost conscious test of how far that proposition can be taken. The funniest gags are inside jokes. (They allude at one point to “Together Again,” which was originally sung in The Muppets Take Manhattan. No non-fan would have known that.) Some of the cameos are great fun and Segel and co-star Amy Adams are both appropriately bubbly and button-cute. But is that all there is?

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The Muppets is a movie about wish-fulfillment for Muppet fans. Gary (Segel) and his best friend Walter (voiced by Peter Linz) are brothers. The key difference between Gary and Walter is that Walter is a Muppet—he just doesn’t know it yet. Or, more accurately, he just hasn’t accepted the fact that he’s different (though he is a Muppet-like puppet). So when Gary and Mary (Adams), his girlfriend of 10 years, set out to celebrate their anniversary in L.A., Gary offers to take Walter along with them to visit the now-defunct Muppet Studios.

You see, in The Muppets, Kermit the Frog, Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear and Gonzo have disbanded. They live in a world that has mostly forgotten the Muppets, and which resembles ours, actually.

The Muppets is suffused with an air of desperation born of a desire to get them back together again, and you suspect that the desperation is Segel and Stoller’s. 

The Muppet Studios, now a musty museum of bygone happy days, is about to be bought and demolished by the evil Tex Richman (Chris Cooper). So it’s up to Walter, Gary and Mary to light a fire under Kermit, now a sad-sack nostalgist, and get the Muppets back together in time to raise $10 million, via telethon, to fend Richman off.

The problem with this is that Segel and Stoller know that their story is generic. They know that the “putting on a show” structure to The Muppets is old-hat, and they admit as much. When Walter asks how Kermit plans on bringing the Muppets back together as a group, he coyly replies, “Didn’t you see the first Muppet movie? We’ll drive!”

All those winks at the audience just come across as premature jadedness. For instance, after the group has re-united with Fozzie and Gonzo, Fozzie suggests that they resort to a montage to speed things up. In another part, the group jokes that they can’t drive to Paris to pick up Miss Piggy, so one of them suggests traveling by map, alluding to the way that films show characters moving cross-country via dotted line. Somehow I can’t help but imagine Henson’s Muppets driving underwater and showing up on a Paris beach without all the extraneous fourth-wall-breaking that Segel and Stoller indulge in before and after they show Kermit’s Rolls Royce emerging onto the sands of a Parisian beach. I mean, really, I thought this was a Muppet movie, not a Shrek sequel.

The Muppets gets some things right. Segel and Stoller know how to stick the film’s ending. Gary and Walter both lack self-confidence, a problem that they can’t overcome together: They have to learn to believe in themselves. Gary says as much to Walter, which is what makes the bittersweet speech that Kermit delivers to the Muppets after their telethon that much more effective. Regardless of whether or not they raise the money, the fact that they tried is the real victory because it demonstrates that they’re self-sufficient and proud of themselves.

Still, when I had finished watchingThe Muppets, I didn’t feel like I had seen a Muppet movie.

If only Segel and Stoller were able to tap into The Muppet Show’s sense of humor and were able to reproduce the spark of anarchic but unabashedly hopeful sensibility that Henson and Frank Oz, among other original Muppeteers, pioneered. I also wish they had found a story to tell that doesn’t revolve around the pat notion that the Muppets have broken up and gotten back together before and will do so again. This cliché doesn’t make the Muppets seem immortal; it just makes their current handlers look like they’re needy.