As someone who grew up on “Sesame Street,” I often imagined that one day, I’d be able to go through the TV screen and live in a brownstone next to Ernie and Bert and Oscar and Big Bird. So when I saw Walter (voiced by Peter Linz), the new Muppet character from “The Muppets,” have that same dream about following Kermit and Fozzie and Miss Piggy to the other side of the glass, I knew that the Muppets’ return to the big screen was in loving and capable hands.
Sure, the plot here borrows heavily from “The Muppet Movie” (this time, Kermit has to reunite everyone rather than get the band together) and the made-for-TV “It’s a Very Merry Muppet Christmas Movie” (evil financier wants to steal the Muppets’ theater; Chris Cooper’s oil billionaire steps in for Joan Cusack’s banker).
But “The Muppets” has the same brilliant absurdity, anarchic humor, subtle uplift and ensemble comedy that fans have come to expect over the years.
Jim Henson may be gone, but a new generation of writers and performers are doing right by his creations.
The aforementioned Walter has grown up loving the Muppets, as has his brother and best friend Gary (Jason Segel, who also co-wrote the film). Gary takes his longtime girlfriend Mary (Amy Adams) to L.A. to celebrate their tenth anniversary, and Walter tags along to see the sights — not that there are many of those to behold at the decrepit Muppet Studios, a moth-eaten shadow of its former self.
Walter sneaks into Kermit’s old office and hears the ruthless Tex Richman (Chris Cooper) elaborate his plans to buy the studio and the theater under the guise of building a Muppet museum, even though his real agenda is to tear it all down and dig for oil underneath.
Horrified, the small-town trio track down Kermit (voiced by Steve Whitmire), who’s puttering around a moldering Bel-Air mansion, nostalgic for the past. Walter inspires Kermit to reassemble the Muppets to hold a benefit telethon to save the theater, sending them off to collect Fozzie Bear (voiced by Eric Jacobson), who’s performing with a tribute act called “The Moopets” in Reno; Gonzo (voiced by Dave Goelz), now a successful plumbing-fixtures magnate; and all the rest.
(In true Muppet fashion, there’s a montage of tracking down beloved characters — and people in the movie mention the fact that they’re in a montage.)
But there are challenges, of course: Can Kermit convince his estranged girlfriend Miss Piggy (Jacobson) to leave her gig as plus-size editor at French Vogue to return to the fold? Will the Muppets find a celebrity in Kermit’s 1970s Rolodex to host the telethon? And will Walter figure out what talents he might have in time for the show?
The plot, as you may well imagine, is secondary to the barrage of jokes, songs, fourth-wall violations, and occasional celebrity cameos that are part and parcel of the big-screen Muppet experience. And “The Muppets” gets all of this just right — several of the new tunes are from “Flight of the Conchords” songwriter Bret McKenzie. (“Conchords” vet James Bobin directs the new movie.)
While Segel (who memorably worked singing puppets into “Forgetting Sarah Marshall”) and Adams are perfectly charming, and totally get into the spirit of things, can we take a moment to acknowledge what a great performer Kermit the Frog is? He’s got one of the most expressive skulls in show business (albeit also one of the softest ones), and he can convey a panoply of emotions just by indenting his temples or folding in his top lip. (All of the Muppets, of course, have that gift of smiling by opening their mouths as widely as possible.)
There are one or two draggy moments in “The Muppets,” but nothing that will render young audiences any more fidgety than, say, the “Never Before and Never Again” number in the original “The Muppet Movie.” And for Muppet fans who, like “Star Wars” nerds, speak breathlessly of “the original trilogy” — namely, “The Muppet Movie,” “The Great Muppet Caper,” and “The Muppets Take Manhattan” — this reboot stands proudly, wackily, and adorably with its storied predecessors.
Even if Statler (Whitmire) and Waldorf (Goelz) are still heckling them.