Disney’s “The Muppets” is one of the year’s biggest, mostly effective attempts at franchise reboot. This largely entertaining film is aimed at adults who grew up with the Muppets and the kids in their lives who have yet to experience Muppet magic for themselves.
It has been twelve years since the last, disappointing Muppets movie. The film series began in 1979 with the big hit “The Muppets Movie” and soldiered on for twenty years, producing six features, the last of which was the forgettable “Muppets from Space” in 1999.
The “original trilogy,” however, which concluded with “The Muppets Take Manhattan” (1984), constitutes what could be called—taken together with their variety show, which ran from 1976–81—the Muppets’ classic period. This new Muppets movie is really, then, the reboot of an early-1980s franchise, which explains the many 1980s jokes in the screenplay and the introduction of a new Muppet named ’80s Robot.
The story for this seventh movie, written by star Jason Segel with Nicholas Stoller, director of “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” (2008) and “Get Him to the Greek” (2010), is serviceable.
The Muppet Theater in Los Angeles is about to be demolished by an evil oilman (played by the great character actor Chris Cooper). The ultimate Muppet fan Walter (a Muppet himself, performed by Peter Linz), his brother, Gary (Jason Segel), and Gary’s longsuffering girlfriend, Mary (the always charming Amy Adams), band together with Kermit the Frog to try to raise the $10 million needed to avert this tragedy.
Walter, a new Muppet character, lacks in-depth personality and sometimes seems to be a mere device, due to his devotion to Muppet history, to reintroduce and resell the Muppet line. At regular intervals, he does things like show off his Kermit watch to remind us there is a lot of Muppets merchandise out there to purchase.
The biggest challenge toward saving the Muppet Theater is that all the Muppets of yesteryear—including the familiar abd likeable Fozzie Bear, Miss Piggy, Animal, and Gonzo—have scattered. Thus, to accomplish the goal, they need to be tracked down in their new lives and coaxed into reuniting for a telethon.
As expected, there are some unresolved issues among the pack, especially between the frog and pig, who still have romantic feelings for each other, even if they do not know exactly how to express them.
If these plot elements sound familiar, there is reason: Disney has used a similar tale a decade ago for a film called “The Country Bears,” which was, like the “Pirates of the Caribbean” films, based on a Disney park attraction. In that film, the Country Bear Hall was about to be demolished by an evil banker (Christopher Walken), and ultimate Country Bear fan Beary Barrington (a bear himself, voiced by Haley Joel Osment) pulled the Country Bears back together for a reunion concert to rescue their facility from razing.
Despite the overly familiar narrative premise, “Muppets” director James Bobin, who comes from “Flight of the Conchords” and “Da Ali G Show,” gets things off to a colorful and raucous start that should give audiences of all ages welcome flashbacks to “Pee Wee’s Big Adventure” (1985).
The first half of the film enthusiastically and often hilariously reintroduces the beloved Muppet family. However, midway, as the Muppets repair the old theater and rehearse for the big show, the movie starts spinning its wheels, and many of the gags do not add up; they remain gags. For example, the Gary–Mary and Kermit–Piggy romantic subplots are not as exciting as they should have been.
The Muppets, meanwhile, need a celebrity host, and the best they can come up with is Jack Black, doing his by-now reliable shtick. (It might have been a better idea to cast another actor, one with less established image).
Keeping with Muppets movie tradition, there are a number of brief cameos from big stars, which add color to the proceedings. Fo me, one of the only memorable ones is Jim Parsons from “The Big Bang Theory,” who pops up in the film’s weirdest, and perhaps most original musical number, aptly titled “Man or Muppet.”
A barbershop quartet rendition of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” is also fun to behold, as is the Muppet chickens’ take on Cee-Lo Green’s “Fuck You.” There are other cute originals along the way, and the Muppets standard, “Rainbow Connection,” is dusted off to great effect.
The long-awaited telethon certainly has its fun moments, but the last minutes of this film are bogged down by a tad too preachy pep talk about th need for growing up and the importance of believing in yourself, courtesy of both Gary and Kermit.
By and large, this effort should be a successful relaunch of the series, but in the future, the Muppets may want to consider a different, fresher premise for their next outing. Some viewers may think that, with all its charm and entertaining values, “The Muppets” is too nostalgic, a movie more about looking back than looking ahead.
“Small Fry,” a new “Toy Story” short involving a support group for discarded toys at a fast-food restaurant, precedes “The Muppets,” serving as funny and smart intrduction the main attraction.
Gary – Jason Segel
Mary – Amy Adams
Tex Richman – Chris Cooper
Veronica – Rashida Jones
A Walt Disney Pictures release.
Directed by James Bobin.
Written by Jason Segel and Nicholas Stoller.
Produced by David Hoberman and Todd Lieberman.
Cinematography, Don Burgess.
Editing, James M. Thomas.
Original Music, Christophe Beck.
Running time: 102 minutes.