It may not entirely work as a movie, but The Muppets shines as a piece of touching pop nostalgia. The challenges facing the film (it feels strange to call a Muppets movie a “franchise reboot”) are clear, and many. It’s a kids’ movie for a generation of kids who don’t really know much about Jim Henson’s beloved creations; The Muppet Show ended in 1981, though the Muppets themselves lived on through movies and TV specials. Meanwhile, its most receptive demographic consists of adults who probably want something a bit more knowing than, say, The Great Muppet Caper. And yet to get too snarky or pop-culturey would betray the sweet, ambling Muppet ethos.
It’s an awkward dilemma, but director James Bobin’s solution appears to be to indulge the awkwardness. That’s clear from the opening frames, which feature home movie footage of a young Muppet, Walter, and his human brother Gary (who will grow up to be played by Jason Segel, who co-wrote the script with his Forgetting Sarah Marshall director and fellow Judd Apatow protégé Nicholas Stoller). Walter and Gary aren’t half-brothers, nor are they foster brothers; they’re brother brothers, but their obvious difference isn’t directly acknowledged, even though the plot hinges on Walter’s discovery of, and obsession with, The Muppet Show. When Walter visits Los Angeles with Gary and Gary’s fiancée Mary (Amy Adams), only to discover that the decaying Muppet Studios are now in danger of being torn down by a conniving oil tycoon (Chris Cooper), our heroes decide to gather up the original Muppets and put on a show/telethon to save the studio.
If it hasn’t already done so, the plot now begins to write itself. Kermit the Frog is living in a vast, empty mansion in Bel Air, but he helps track down his old crew — Fozzie Bear is performing in Reno with a Muppet tribute band called The Moopets, Animal is in (where else?) an anger management class, Gonzo has become a plumbing supply tycoon, and Miss Piggy is now a high-powered fashion editor (naturally, her assistant is played by Emily Blunt in a Devil Wears Prada reprise). Meanwhile, among the humans, Mary is starting to feel a little left out, which forces Gary into one of those dime-a-dozen dilemmas over accepting his responsibilities. There are some original touches along the way, however: The team needs a celebrity guest star for the show — so they capture Jack Black, who hilariously spends most of the movie tied to a chair, screaming for his life and/or commenting bitterly on the onscreen action.
On paper, it shouldn’t work. The studio-in-danger-of-being-torn-down plot is beyond tired, and the human mechanics between Mary and Gary are so unbaked one wishes they were at least half so. And, as if to confirm their inherent triteness, all these obstacles are resolved with a minimum of hassle. Tone is everything here, and Segel turns out to be curiously perfect for the role of Muppet savior. The actor’s cinematic persona has always hovered between good-natured earnestness and calculated artificiality (as in I Love You, Man, where he kept us wondering if he was the hero’s best friend or just a hustler after an easy mark). His purposefully awkward song and dance numbers, his overzealous vivaciousness help give the movie a homespun quality that smooths over — or rather, justifies — its many rough edges.
Plus, there’s something genuinely inspired about the fact that the movie is just one big excuse to stage one more go-round of The Muppet Show. As the effort comes together, as beloved characters and situations fall into familiar grooves, the proceedings gain an affectionately incantatory feel. We’ll see what the kids do, but don’t be surprised if the grown-ups find themselves inspired to sing along to those old tunes again.