Review: ‘The Muppets’ reunites the gang for an unexpected mix of serious and sad with plenty of big screen silliness

in Disney, Movies, Reviews

Since Jim Henson debuted the Muppets in the 1950s, their wacky antics have delighted generations, particularly throughout “The Muppet Show,” on the air in the ’70s and early ’80s. But as time passed on, so did Jim Henson, leaving Kermit, Fozzie, Gonzo, Miss Piggy, and the rest of the famous gang searching for their place in pop culture. Now, more than 10 years since their last theatrical starring roles, the gang has returned to the big screen in a big way with the simply titled “The Muppets,” a film not only producing the expected big laughs derived from an abundance of silliness and songs, but also an unexpected dose of sadness that offers up a rather “human” side to the colored creatures.

When “The Muppets” hits theaters on Wednesday, it will be the first theatrical film to star Jim Henson’s creations since 1999’s “Muppets From Space.” With an abundance of history and expectations to live up to, writer/actor Jason Segel has been the one to champion the return of these lovable characters since 2008, when he and co-writer Nicholas Stoller pitched the film to Disney, the owners of the Muppets for seven ongoing years. And Segel appears to have pulled off the Muppets’ successful return to the big screen with a movie that is best summed up as a tribute to all things Muppetational.

“The Muppets” focuses largely on the most familiar of characters to today’s audience, including Kermit, Miss Piggy, Gonzo, Fozzie, and Beaker. There are, of course, many other Muppets featured throughout the film – and they are the stars – but this core group carries the performance with Muppets newcomer Walter, who plays the brother of Jason Segel (as Gary).

As the film goes, Walter and Gary are joined by Gary’s longtime girlfriend Mary (played by Amy Adams) in their quest to reunite the Muppets after discovering their Muppet Studios home has not only fallen into disrepair after the group disbanded years prior, but is also about to be taken over by an “evil” oil tycoon set to destroy it. The film is set in a pseudo-reality wherein the Muppets are both real creatures as well as television characters and, in a true Hollywood cliche, a telethon is needed to raise money to save the Studios. But ultimately the plot of “The Muppets” does not matter, as the audience is meant to focus strictly on the characters and their hilarity.

But the laughs don’t always come easily in “The Muppets.” The film throws away a typical three-act story structure in favor of a constant building of more and more jokes. Early on, the comedy is light and often falls flat, with an opening musical number proving to be entertaining but entirely lacking in the Muppet department. An overall feeling of sadness looms over the first half of the movie, as Kermit reluctantly tries to put the old “Muppet Show” gang back together, dealing with hardships and confrontation all the while.

As the movie progresses and more Muppets are added to the gang, smiles grow and the laughs get bigger, culminating in a grand finale barrage of “traditional” Muppets wackiness that will send every audience rolling in the aisles. Not every joke works throughout the film, but there are so many of them that it’s easy to forget the bad ones in lieu of enjoying the best. In the end it’s all about the Muppets themselves, with human characters that began the movie as the stars taking a backseat to the familiar felt faces of Kermit and his group. And it’s a welcome transition, as Adams’ acting talents are underused on her one-note character while Segel’s acting is not always up to par, with him even having recently admitted that one child focus group found the least enjoyable part of “The Muppets” to be his face. I tend to agree.

In addition to clever one-liners and slapstick moments, “The Muppets” is also filled with musical numbers, some working better than others. A split duet by Amy Adams and Miss Piggy (“Me Party”) is one of the least enjoyable (and even a bit bizarre) but a similarly-structured song featuring Jason Segel and Walter is one of the best moments in the entire film, also bizarre, but in an entirely enjoyable and laugh-out-loud kind of way, posing the absurd question, “Man or Muppet?” But ultimately it’s Kermit’s solo ballad, “Pictures in My Head” that will stay in the hearts of audiences and Muppet fans, as he fondly remembers the past while considering his future.

This mixture of entertaining, enjoyable, emotional, and extraordinarily odd songs represents “The Muppets” as a whole. Amidst the absurd jokes, wacky scenarios, and celebrity cameos (of which there are plenty, many hilarious), the film focuses on what is truly the most important aspect of Kermit and pals: their sincerity. Even with all the cannon launching, fart shoes, and singing chickens, “The Muppets” creates or reinvigorates a strong emotional connection with a frog, pig, bear, and whatever Gonzo is that not only touches Muppets fans who will delight in the movie’s nostalgic feel, but also reaches out to new generations, offering an introduction to explore years of inspirational, sensational, and, yes, Muppetational entertainment that surely won’t conclude here, whether Statler and Waldorf like it or not.

Anyone looking for some great laughs mixed with touching scenes featuring beloved characters and memorable songs should enjoy the pre-Thanksgiving treat that is “The Muppets” when it hits United States theaters on November 23, 2011.

And if all that isn’t enough of a reason to see “The Muppets,” the new Toy Story Toon short film called “Small Fry” that accompanies the film is one of Pixar’s best yet, providing big laughs before launching into the main feature.

While waiting for “The Muppets” to open nationwide, take a look back at the 2011 D23 Expo performance of “Rainbow Connection” by Kermit the Frog and Rowlf the Dog, a perfect example of the type of classic entertainment that’s mixed in with contemporary laughs in “The Muppets”:

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