Forgetting Statler and Waldorf

Jason Segel saves The Muppets

It’s been 12 whole years since the Muppets hit the big screen with their middling adventure Muppets From Space and while they’ve stuck around with even worse telefilms and TV specials the magic of their heyday has been rarely if ever revisited. Thankfully Judd Apatow disciple Jason Segel is both a talented writer and respectful fan of the franchise and he may just have saved them with The Muppets .

With decades since their last big show the Muppets have gone their separate ways. Kermit lives like a hermit in his Beverly Hills mansion. Fozzie lives in Reno and works as his own stand-in for the horrible casino act The Moopets. Gonzo has turned in his wild abandon to become the CEO of a massive plumbing corporation. Miss Piggy now living in Paris works as the plus-sized fashion co-ordinator for the French edition of Vogue . The other characters all have their own stories to tell which are nicely compiled in a self-referential montage.

On vacation to Los Angeles Gary (Jason Segel) along with his girlfriend Mary (Amy Adams) and eternally short little brother Walter (the newest Muppet who is also a Muppet Show obsessive) visit The Muppet Studios. Expecting a magical place reminiscent of Disneyland they are greeted with a rundown nearly condemned shithole. Supposedly generous business tycoon Tex Richman (Chris Cooper) is allegedly planning to buy the studio and turn it into a Muppet museum but Walter discovers that his real reason for buying the property is to demolish it for the precious oil underneath.

What follows is the classic Muppets premise — Kermit and his new friends have to get the old gang back together and throw one last show raising the $10 million required to save the studio. The story might sound a little dry on paper but the execution is near-perfect. Segel’s Apatow-trained writing style works well with a PG rating as his conversational jokes thrive with the Muppets’ self-deprecating sensibilities. In fact the jokes in this movie are so good that I missed some lines from laughing so hard.

Then there’s the music. Far from a fan of modern musicals I was a little skeptical about how the sappy singing would come across. Then I realized that Flight of the Conchords member Bret McKenzie had written the original songs. He could not have been a better fit. From the sweet-but-never-sickening “Life’s a Happy Song” to the existential self-examination on “Man or Muppet” McKenzie came staggeringly close to re-creating the magic of The Muppet Movie classic “The Rainbow Connection.”

Of course the film is not without its flaws however minor. While Walter is a damn likable character he’s not one of the Muppets you’ve spent your whole life growing to love. With that in mind the first act focuses solely on Walter Gary and Mary. These scenes are well written and entertaining but the film could have crammed the original Muppets into every scene and no one would have complained. Plus it wasn’t like there was an abundance of screen time for each character. In fact wisecracking shorty Rizzo the Rat doesn’t have a single line in the whole thing.

These are small complaints for what is essentially the best Muppet movie since The Muppets Take Manhattan (1984). Armed with timelessly witty jokes fantastic musical numbers and a ton of heart the film recalls a bygone era where “family movie” wasn’t a dirty word. It’s telling that critical curmudgeons Statler and Waldorf have very little to whine about throughout the film.