Nostalgia was the name of the game with the new film “The Muppets.” That said, the film wasn’t simply a rehash of the past, as it managed to re-introduce the Muppets to a modern audience after more than two decades of neglect.
The film posed the notion that the Muppets had been disbanded and were out of the limelight for many years. They needed to band back together in order to save their studio and restart their popularity.
Of course, that notion wasn’t too far from reality. After the death of Jim Henson in 1990, it had been a strange road for the Muppets. They had nearly been sold to Disney around the time of Henson’s death, but the paperwork was never finalized. Thus, the Muppets spent much of the 19990s and early 2000s bouncing around amongst various ownership schemes. Even when Disney did finally get ownership in 2004, they didn’t seem to know what to do with the Muppets. Made-for-TV movies such as “The Muppets’ Wizard Of Oz” weren’t exactly classics.
Within the past couple of years though, Disney appeared to have things figured out in plotting a major new Muppet film. Despite some doubters along the way – longtime Henson partner Frank Oz dismissed “The Muppets” as not being respectful to the characters – it was hard to see the film as anything but reverent towards the Muppets.
The surreal nature of much of the film’s reality – a world in which Muppets live amongst humans and most real-world scientific laws can be bent – was pushed at times but managed to work. The several spontaneous musical numbers also worked well, with the zaniness of it all being readily acknowledged.
One big problem for me in post-Henson Muppet works has been the voice of Kermit. It never sounded quite right with someone else doing it in place of Henson himself. Steve Whitmire has been doing that voice since 1990 and he somehow managed to give the voice more authenticity this time around when compared to what I’d witnessed in the past.
There had been rumors of a parade of ‘big name’ cameos in the film, but that didn’t really pan out. Jack Black had a nice long-running joke that was more than just a cameo, but the other ‘celebrity’ appearances were a bit lacking. No offense, but I’m not sure if Whoopi Goldberg showing up for five seconds will do much for online ‘buzz’ about the film. There were apparently a few interesting cameos that never happened due to scheduling – Steve Carell – or that got cut – Jean-Claude Van Damme – but the stars of the film were the Muppets and that’s what people wanted to see.
I had great concerns that a new Muppet named Walter would end up being forced upon the audience or that the human characters played by Jason Segel and Amy Adams would dominate the screen time. Instead though, Walter seemed to really be a proxy character for the longtime Muppet fan and he worked fine in that capacity. Yes, he had a big moment near the end in a literal spotlight, but he was generally featured as the awe-struck super-fan and his frequent fainting spells were lovingly hilarious. Also, after the first ten minutes, the spotlight was not centered at all on the human characters. It was actually surprising how little either Segel or Adams factored into the film once things get rolling.
As the story came together, the nostalgia was well-balanced and touching. I defy any Muppet fan to say that they didn’t get misty-eyed during the “Rainbow Connection” performance. And, despite some claims that the film was a direct sequel to the original “Muppet Movie,” there were subtle touches that acknowledged the later Muppet continuity. At first glance, the marriage of Kermit and Miss Piggy appeared to be ignored, but in fact a still from their wedding in “Muppets Take Manhattan” popped up and we’re left to assume that they’ve simply been separated.1
The ending itself, serving as an encore of sorts, was great. Sprinkled in with a nice dance number was a climactic ‘welcome back’ for the characters. Luckily for the production, the characters’ fears that the world had forgotten them has not proved correct in early box office results. The world has clearly not forgotten about the Muppets and hopefully future productions featuring them are handled with the same care and genuine affection that they were by the creatives behind this film.