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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Kermit and company mark magical return with ‘Muppets’

Published: December 2, 2011
Section: Arts, Etc.

If you’re anything like me or my friends, a certain wave of nostalgia accompanied the first trailer released for “The Muppets,” which finally premiered last week. After all, the Muppets themselves have been largely absent this last decade, with their last big screen venture now 12 years in the past. Needless to say, I had high expectations when I arrived for a midnight screening of the film. Luckily, the movie turned out to be everything I hoped it would be.

“The Muppets” is itself a profoundly nostalgic film. Two brothers, Gary (Jason Segel) and Walter (Peter Linz), share a house in Smalltown. They’re best friends, but Walter is a muppet and consequently feels a little left out—until he discovers “The Muppet Show” as a child. When Gary decides to take his girlfriend Mary (Amy Adams) to California for their anniversary, he invites Walter along so he can finally see the fabled Muppet Studios.

There’s only one problem: The Muppets have long been disbanded, with their studios now in rapid decline and visited only by the occasional Asian tourist. Even worse, wealthy oilman Tex Richman (Chris Cooper) has just bought the studio and plans to demolish it. Inconsolable, Walter tracks down Kermit with Gary and Mary’s help, and together they hatch a scheme to reunite the Muppets so they can stage one more show—a telethon—to save the theater.

Of course, it’s not that simple. After reuniting, the Muppets must first convince a television executive (Rashida Jones) that they are still relevant; meanwhile, Tex schemes to ruin the telethon and replace the Muppets with his own cheap knock-offs, the Moopets.

“The Muppets” perfectly recreates the spirit of past entries in the franchise. That classic oddball sense of humor with which their creator Jim Henson gifted his creations is still very much there. The Muppets manage to be totally entertaining while still remaining kid-friendly, employing their mix of strong, colorful personalities with often (intentionally) groan-inducing comedy. There’s also a bit of darkness thrown in for the adults in the audience, which was also present in the past Muppet movies. For instance, when the Muppets meet with the TV executive, she shows them a clip of a hot new reality TV show “Punch Teacher,” in which contestants … punch their teachers. As the camera shows the Muppets’ horrified reaction, you can hear a weak voice coming from the TV: “I just wanted to make a difference!”

With so many Muppets and relatively little time, the film does a great job of spreading material among the large cast. As always, Kermit serves as the sensible, level-headed ringleader who makes sure the telethon makes it to the air. Miss Piggy, unsurprisingly, indulges her diva sensibility while alternately pining for Kermit; prior to their reunion, the odd couple had been separated for many years, with Piggy serving as the editor of French Vogue. Gonzo, Fozzie, Rowlf, Swedish Chef, Beaker and Animal get their own bits in the film.

The new additions for this film also proved worthy additions to the Muppet canon. Rather than taking away time from already established characters, they added something fresh to the film. Both Segel and Adams did well as Walter’s (almost) perennially smiling human companions. Segel, who wrote the film’s screenplay, has the biggest part, but Adams nonetheless made an impact with the kind of cheery persona she previously perfected in 2007’s “Enchanted.” Cooper’s greedy Texas oilman makes a great villain. He’s just one step away from twirling his non-existent mustache, which worked perfectly—after all, how could anyone threaten the Muppets? The best bit involving Cooper concerned his maniacal laugh—rather than actually laughing, he would simply repeat the words “maniacal laugh” while gleefully looking at his henchmen for approval.

As the only new Muppet, Walter is a great addition to the cast, serving as a kind of audience substitute. He boasts something akin to an awkward, Michael Cera-esque personality; apparently Segel originally envisioned Cera providing his voice.

Of course, no Muppet venture would be complete without at least a few celebrity cameos, considering how steeped in showbiz the Muppets are. Every episode of “The Muppet Show” had a celebrity guest host, and the Muppets’ telethon is no different, with a kidnapped Jack Black performing the honors. As someone who rarely finds Black’s humor funny, he did surprisingly well here.

Perhaps the most unexpected cameo came in the form of Emily Blunt, who played Miss Piggy’s secretary at Vogue—clearly an allusion to her first big role in “The Devil Wears Prada.” Unfortunately, the movie didn’t try to replicate that character’s acidic delivery, making this particular cameo a little disappointing. Jim Parsons, Neil Patrick Harris and John Krasinski also appear briefly, as do Whoopi Goldberg and, strangely enough, James Carville.

Every Muppet production incorporates at least a few musical numbers, and “The Muppets” is no different. The film opens with “Life’s a Happy Song,” a slice of cheery perfection. Muppet songs aren’t expected to be musical masterpieces, but they do need to be catchy and lively; this song did not disappoint.

The songs “Me Party” and “Man or Muppet” also proved to be standouts. In “Me Party,” Mary and Miss Piggy sing about the joys of spending time on one’s own; at this point in the film, neither Gary nor Kermit are paying enough attention to their respective ladies. “Man or Muppet,” meanwhile, generates the most laughs, as it shows Gary grappling with being a “muppety man” and Walter considering his own status as a “manly muppet.” Bret McKenzie, best known as one half of the musical comedy duo Flight of the Conchords, wrote all the original songs. A few muppet classics also make an appearance, with Kermit reviving “Rainbow Connection” as the telethon’s penultimate performance.

One of the big problems with nostalgia is that you might find yourself disappointed if you ever get the opportunity to revisit that certain something. That’s certainly not the case here; it’s genuinely a pleasure to be reunited with Kermit, Miss Piggy and the gang. If you grew up loving the Muppets, then definitely take this opportunity to see them on the big screen.