As I walked out of the theater, my son (10) asked if The Muppet Show really used to be on TV, and you could see in his eyes that he was hoping it did, because then he could ask if we could get the DVDs. I told him it was, and recounted some of the memories of watching it every Sunday night. I could tell that I lost him somewhere along the way, as I tried to put together the idea of the weekly event that it was for me. My son, who by way of DVDs, Netflix, and Tivo, only has a vague idea of “live” television, and imagines it only in the anachronistic way that children try to conceive of archaic ideas thrown into the rest of the world they know (like people riding horses down paved streets with stoplights, or taking responsibility for their actions), didn’t quite know what I was talking about… but he liked the sound of the idea.
That exchange summed up The Muppets for me, because while the vast array of other Muppet films have been entertaining efforts, they are very different beasts from the creature The Muppet Show was. Still filled with the zaniness, and the same brand of general humor, sure, but they aren’t replacements for the true event that featured the biggest names anywhere, and showcased the purest form of Jim Henson‘s magical persona and philosophy that kids are people in all but height, and adults are kids in all but their tendency toward being sour, cranky bastards.
Our story is that of brothers Gary (Jason Segel – who also wrote the screenplay with Nicholas Stoller) and Walter (who is a Muppet), and their trip to see the Muppet studios. It’s a trip that starts out as a vacation for Gary and his girlfriend Mary (Amy Adams) to celebrate their 10th Anniversary, but since we’re so close, and Walter is the Muppets biggest fan, we’re bringing him along.
The brothers discover that the Muppet studios are rundown beyond all hope, and that oil baron Tex Richman (Chris Cooper) is going to get the land and level the place unless the Muppets can come up with $10 million. This is bad enough on its own, but the real crusher is discovering that time really has passed the Muppets by, and no one cares about them anymore, not even them. Kermit sits alone in what used to be his home with Piggy, Fozzy is working a lounge act at a dive casino in Reno, and generally the whole gang has gone their separate ways, getting by any way they can.
Gary and Walter convince Kermit to take on the task of getting the gang back together and putting on a fundraising special to save the old studios, but things don’t come together as easily as we might hope. Miss Piggy is an editor at Vogue Paris (or whatever), and she isn’t interested in leaving. The happy couple’s troubles are hinted at, and have much to do with Kermit’s lack of attention. Then we have the problem with the networks, as we find that none of them are interested in airing the special. We get a handy graph showing the tiny speck of interest remaining for The Muppets in the collective consciousness, and that isn’t going to get ratings.
The Muppets are going to give it their all come what may though, and they aren’t going to let absent pigs, or the evil machinations of an oil tycoon stop them… maybe.
In a world that has run out of ideas, and for lack of anything better dredges up reworking, re-releases, and/or sequels that cover everything that can be mined from days long gone, here is a film that proves that there are a few things worth revisiting. The story we’ve pieced together is simplistic, but serves as well as any, because whatever play we might have landed on, it doesn’t matter any more than if any particular episode of The Muppet Show featured Pigs in Space. The only thing that really matters is that we call out the donkification of television over the last three decades at least, turn up the screwball antics, break the fourth wall, sing goofy songs, light the lights, and get things started. In short, we get to watch The Muppet Show again.
Segel delivers well, giving us a character that is wonderfully Muppet-esque in over-the-top, goofy performance, and Amy Adams is right there with him. More importantly, considering Segel’s role as screenwriter, the humans involved are all brilliantly “sort of there,” even in the few scenes that don’t include any Muppets at all. On a side note, a musical number near the end that has Gary and Walter doing individual versions of (Am I A) “Man or Muppet” features one of the coolest cameos in years.
That said, this is not a film where the critic can play his normal game any more than it is a normal film. The story worked, the actors did great jobs, the jokes and rhythms were quintessentially Muppet, it was hilarious, and overall giant bags of fluffy fun… but that still doesn’t quite mean anything. At least, not to me.
For ninety-some minutes I was back in a place where we still had a 50″ TV, but the screen might have been 19″, and you stole into the great, orange beast of a chair and tried to be quiet as a mouse so no one would notice (because that was Dad’s chair), and you laughed your ass off at things you didn’t completely understand, because the Muppets seemed to think it was funny, and there was everyone else, huddled around, doing the same.
And then, my son looked up at me and said he wished he could go there too, and I said,
“Mah Na Mah Na.”