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The Muppets (James Bobin, 2011)

February 17, 2012

James Bobin’s reboot of The Muppets provides another contribution to the trend of 2011 films rooted in nostalgia for cultural staples of the past, alongside the likes of Hugo, The Artist and Midnight in Paris. Opening with outright adoration for the original The Muppet Show, this new outing for Jim Henson’s puppet creations features an array of elements from their televisual and cinematic offerings of the past. 1984’s The Muppets Take Manhattan contained a very similar plot strand involving the group reuniting to put on a big show, while the much beloved song “Rainbow Connection” from 1979’s The Muppet Movie makes an appearance here. That latter film’s self-reflexive postmodern comedy based around breaking the fourth wall, as well as its road movie leanings and cameo based comedy, are prominent features of Bobin’s film, which is written by Nicholas Stoller and the film’s human lead Jason Segel.

Since 1999’s much-maligned critical and box office flop Muppets from Space, the characters have basically been relegated to a series of poor TV movie appearances, and even the theatrical efforts for the group in the 1990s following Henson’s death were based around classic literature, not original story efforts. James Bobin was a co-creator and frequent director for the HBO incarnation of Flight of the Conchords, and his work there has a clear influence over this film. Song contributions from Conchords member Bret McKenzie, alongside revivals of songs like “Rainbow Connection” and some amusing cover versions, help revive the musical comedy format not employed for the characters since 1996’s Muppet Treasure Island. The content and staging of these numbers is pleasingly reminiscent of Flight of the Conchords, even if some, like the Amy Adams and Miss Piggy led “Me Party” and villain Chris Cooper’s brief excursion into rapping, aren’t always successful. The bombastic “Man or Muppet” is one of the film’s highlights, a shared number between Jason Segel’s Gary and his Muppet brother Walter.

This film is a dream project conceived by Segel, a long-time fan of the franchise. His script with previous collaborator Nicholas Stoller is mostly successful in maintaining the spirit of the high points of the franchise, while also updating it. Unfortunately, Segel also plays a part in the film’s one major detriment. His character, his girlfriend Mary (Adams), and his brother Walter serve as the catalyst for the reunion of the Muppets, with Walter fulfilling the role of the “gateway” character into the Muppet world that would previously have been filled by someone like Robin, Kermit the Frog’s nephew. Aside from in the literary adaptations, human characters have never been key protagonists in the series’ previous films. With this entry looking to both revive and re-introduce the Muppets, the presence of major human stars in major roles is an understandable necessity. The problem is that once the Muppets are all re-introduced, they are denied taking centre stage until the last act when they put on their show. Too much of the film is based around subplots with Segel and Adams, with the Muppets feeling like supporting characters in their own film for far too much of it. While Gary’s bond with Walter is compelling, and the driving force behind “Man or Muppet”, the storyline of his relationship with Mary becomes frustrating as it increasingly takes up more and more of the running time, diverting from the genuine entertainment elsewhere.

As a whole, The Muppets is a greatly enjoyable, frequently hilarious return of a very fun pop culture institution. Should this revival result in a sequel, one hopes the Muppets themselves will be allowed to play the most prominent role in order to expand on the successful elements this film has.

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