If watching actor/writer Jason Segel reluctantly trying to impress Mila Kunis by performing a song from his Dracula puppet rock opera in the 2008 comedy Forgetting Sarah Marshall made you wish all love was as eternal as a vampire’s, then you must’ve also been as intrigued as I was when news that Segel and Sarah Marshall director Nicholas Stoller would continue playing puppet show by penning the script for a reboot to the famed Muppet film franchise.
After 12 years without a theatrical release (their last was the second-rate, Gonzo-centric Muppets from Space in 1999), there would finally be what the studio was calling a fresh take on the beloved cast of characters who first appeared as a group on The Muppet Show in the mid ’70s. If by “fresh” they meant The Muppets would feel like it was plucked from the days when Bob Hope and Milton Berle would cameo, then, yes, a lifelong Muppets fan like Segel should be proud of sticking to tradition despite original muppeteers like Frank Oz opining about the script’s lack of respect for the characters.
For people like myself, however, who grew up watching reruns of The Muppet Show in syndicate and trusted Segel and Stoller wouldn’t harp on homage so much and be brave enough to take some creative license, The Muppets is in many ways both a charming return to form and a surprising letdown. Sure, Judd Apatow humor, while usually clever, might be considered much too mean-spirited for the wholesomeness of Kermit the Frog and Fozzie Bear. But the new version is so far from modern that even Statler and Waldorf would deem parts of it all dried up.
Still, playing the nostalgia card is welcomed. We get a glimpse of the Muppets’ past at the beginning of the movie when we’re introduced to Walter, the Muppets’ No. 1 fan (and a Muppet himself) who grew up collecting their memorabilia and watching the old TV show with his human brother Gary (Segel). When Gary and his girlfriend Mary (Amy Adams in an equally chipper role as Enchanted) invite Walter to tag along on their anniversary trip to Los Angeles, he jumps at the chance to go so he can visit the famous Muppet Theater. Now abandoned, the theater has caught the attention of wealthy oil tycoon Tex Richman (Chris Cooper), who wants to buy the building and bulldoze it so he can drill for the sweet crude underneath. The only way to save the theater: raise $10 million in two days by reuniting the now estranged Muppets for one last extravaganza show and telethon.
It sounds easier said than done, which makes Segel and Stoller’s decision to give Kermit, Gary, Mary, and Walter only 48 hours to track down all the Muppets, rehearse, and find a celebrity to host the event and TV network to air it, all the more ridiculously impossible. To help with the time constraints, the writing duo incorporate a few meta techniques to cheat their way through the narrative such as admitting to the audience that a musical montage would be used to skim happily through the Muppet hunt (or making sure said audience remembers they’re watching a movie). None of it comes off as clever as it probably did on paper, but Segel and Stoller stick with it nevertheless. Even the save-the-theater storyline itself didn’t rely on much thought. Whether it’s saving an orphanage in The Blues Brothers or a community recreation center in Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo, or — get this — the Muppet Theater in 2002’s It’s a Very Merry Muppet Christmas Movie, originality isn’t a key element in the screenplay. Segel and Stoller would’ve had better luck coming up with something imaginative by filling in the blanks of a Muppet MadLibs.
Instead, The Muppets goes for quick and easy jokes like outdated references to Dirty Dancing, Scarface, and Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” Even more contemporary gags like chickens clucking to Cee Lo Green’s always-edited single “Fuck You!” will be overshadowed by the disappointment lingering after you realize another 12 years from now, the biggest cameos in this newest version (Jim Parsons, really?) will be just as memorable as Rob Schneider and Andie MacDowell’s in the last. •
★★ (out of 5)
Dir. James Bobin; writ. Jim Henson, Jason Segel and Nicholas Stoller; feat. Jason Segel, Amy Adams, Chris Cooper, Rashida Jones, Kermit the Frog, Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear (PG)
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