When Toy Story came out in 1995, it shocked people. Pixar’s style was entirely unprecedented, and understandably became the chief talking point, but no one could deny the quality of writing and storytelling behind the flagship film. At its heart, Toy Story is a film about nostalgia and childhood, a musing younger generations seem more and more intent on indulging. The Muppets isn’t as tied up in the more general existentialisms of growing up as Pixar’s debut, as it is so obsessed with the Muppet canon, but it is nonetheless the best film about nostalgia since Toy Story. Writer and Star Jason Segel hasn’t made a movie so much about how wonderful the Muppets are, as a film about how wonderful the Muppets are to him, and by proxy, his audience. And this is not a minor distinction. Making a film from the heart and not the head, at least in this case, makes all the difference in the world.
Gary (Segel) and his puppet brother Walter (Peter Linz) live in Smalltown, USA, a picturesque hamlet with colorful characters just on the verge of breaking into song. Walter and Gary are huge Muppet fans, with Walter in particular feeling a kinship with the puppet ensemble. When Gary and his girlfriend Mary (Amy Adams) plan a romantic trip to LA, Walter is asked to tag along for a visit to the Muppet Studios. But the studio is a shambles, and Walter, hiding in Kermit’s old office, overhears the plans of oilman Tex Richman (Chris Cooper) to tear down the studio and drill for oil on the land. The only hole in his plan is a clause in Kermit’s contract, allowing the Muppets to buy back the studio if they can raise the required ten million. And so, Gary, Mary, and Walter begin rounding up the old crew, with the intention of putting on one last show, a celebrity-hosted telethon to save the Muppets.
You don’t have to be a Muppets fan to appreciate The Muppets, but it helps. There is reference after reference made to past Muppet projects. Segel and co-writer Nicholas Stoller are the real-deal fans, with Segel talking endlessly in interviews about his house full of Muppets, and the role it played in his childhood. Knowing this serves as a helpful reminder that the Gary and Walter characters stem from the same guy: a man-child super fan struggling to reconcile the requirements of adulthood with the joyful freedom of being a kid. In the exceptionally hilarious song “Man or Muppet,” Segel sings to his muppet reflection–and Walter to his human one–about the battle of inner child and outer adult. It’s a winning moment, albeit thoroughly tongue-in-cheek. Segel and music supervisor Bret McKenzie (of Flight of the Conchords) pull as many power ballad tropes as they can, and the result is a laugh out loud song that, meanwhile, does a pretty stellar job of summing the story’s chief conflict. In general The Muppets’ music is as good as their legacy dictates it ought to be. To see Kermit the Frog sing longingly for his halcyon days in “Pictures in my Head” is the kind of sentimental stroke that is certain to remind Muppet-loving adults of their emotional connection to this company of misfits, meanwhile snagging a whole new audience of kids with no frame of reference. The original tracks, with their bright melodies and simple lyrics, also serve as a reminder to adults that, despite being written for a primarily adult audience, this is still a kids movie at heart. And the film gets a lot of mileage out of old, wistful classics like “The Muppet Show Theme” and “Rainbow Connection”; classic songs that also serve as some of the film’s better set pieces.
The Muppets is not perfect, but it’s also playful enough to get away with any of its mistakes; it feels foolish to take a film too seriously that clearly doesn’t take itself too seriously. And anyway, The Muppets is the most fun you’ll have in a theater this year. Between the joy of seeing the Muppets back at it, and the dazzling script by Segel and Stoller, it’s simply too much fun not to appreciate. And while plenty of people will praise the duo and Director James Bobin for their deft handling of a beloved franchise, it’s the guaranteed acquisition of a whole new audience that’s especially praiseworthy. The Muppets dusts off the prized oddballs for a whole new generation, and while the financial returns are sure to reflect success (What’s a guy gotta do to get The Muppet Movie on Blu-ray?), it’s the new life injected into the franchise we can really get excited about. This means a whole slew of new opportunities for Kermy and the gang, which, if approached with the same sort of joy and respect as Jason Segel’s passion project, should keep us happily in Muppets for years to come.