It’s not easy being green. At least it hasn’t been in the last decade or two for Kermit the Frog and friends. The magic left behind after the death of Jim Henson dried up somewhere around Muppets From Space, and they’ve been limping along ever since. But now Jason Segel and his partner Nicholas Stoller have ridden in on a white charger to return their soul to them. As with the J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek, The Muppets completely re-energizes the characters, not by trying to make them hipper, but by relying on their timelessness. It’s joyful and silly and iconoclastic in all the right places, and once it a while, it even leaves you a bit misty-eyed.
Segel and Stoller hit upon the ingenious notion of introducing the Muppets from the point of view of a long-time fan… who happens to be a Muppet himself. Walter (performed by Jason Linz) and his brother Gary (Segel) live in an idyllic small town, where no one thinks twice about a living felt puppet growing up in their midst. The pair are inseparable – much to the quiet consternation of Gary’s longtime girlfriend Mary (Amy Adams) – and both of them grew up watching the Muppets. Now they’re heading to Los Angeles for a well-needed vacation, topped by a visit to the famous Muppet Studios.
When they arrive, however, they find a nasty shock: a dilapidated studio and the Muppets scattered to the four winds. Even worse, a greedy oil baron (Chris Cooper) has plans to knock the studio down and start drilling. When Walter gets wind of it, he hatches a desperate plan to find Kermit and reunite the original performers. With a little luck, they can put on a show and raise the money to buy their old digs back.
The story thus splits roughly in two, with Walter/Gary/Mary gradually giving way to Fozzie, Gonzo and the old gang. For the first hour or so, it’s almost perfect. Director James Bobin combines sophisticated wit, self-aware in-jokes and gentle affection in just the right amounts, while the script captures the irreverent spirit of the Muppets with a fresh set of eyes. Their smartest collective decision was to acknowledge how much the zeitgeist has moved on since the characters’ hey-day and turn it into a running joke. Not only does it diffuse any self-importance that might creep in, but it reminds us how much more cynical our world has become in the ensuing thirty years… and how much of a tonic the Muppets’ sweet, gentle ethos can be.
The brilliance of the first half slips a bit in the second, though not because the star attractions move in on the newcomers. Rather, the newcomers’ plot threads start to get in the way, as Gary and Mary’s romance struggles for our attention and Walter’s questions about who he is head towards an eminently foregone conclusion. Bobin seems aware of the problems, however, and uses the well-established irrelevance to counteract them as swiftly as they arise.
Most importantly, the film sells us completely on the fact that Kermit and his friends really do live in our world: that they’re not puppets but living beings whose adventures might be taking place just a few blocks away. We believed in that reality when Henson was alive and somewhere along the way it got lost. Bobin, Segel and the rest resurrect it from whole cloth: helping us smile, giggle and remember what it was like to be young again. Even better, they do so in a way that revitalizes the property for a new generation, even as they point nostalgically back to its golden era. The Muppets are evergreen; it just took an effort like this to remind us of the fact. Wherever he is, I can’t imagine their creator being any prouder.