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Film Review: ‘The Muppets’ Pushes Back Against Hardness & Cynicism in the World

Movie display at the theatre where I saw "The Muppets"

(*I interrupt my regular Occupy movement coverage to bring you a review of a film I had to see this holiday weekend. I don’t normally review movies but I graduated from college with a Film/Video degree. I enjoy writing about movies and have written a number of reviews before. I also am a lifelong fan of The Muppets.)

Made by a fan for fans and a new generation that perhaps has never been introduced to The Muppets, the Muppets movie is a lighthearted film that breathes new life into the puppet characters.

Walter, a new Muppet created for the film and voiced by Walter Linz, his brother Gary (Jason Segel) and Gary’s girlfriend Mary (Amy Adams) go to Los Angeles to see Muppets studios. Walter is possibly one of the Muppets’ biggest fans. He and Gary watched hours and hours of the Muppets when they were growing up. The Muppets helped Walter feel like less of an outcast.

When they arrive at The Muppets studio, what they see is a condemned building. Much of the studio is closed to the public but a crusty old tour guide (Alan Arkin) still gives a version of the tour that is indifferent to the gang. They all go on the tour and see the gang is gone. Walter slips into Kermit’s office to see where one of his personal heroes used to work. He hides when a door to the office opens and Tex Richman (Chris Cooper), a callous businessman, enters with a few “evil” Muppet characters.

Walter overhears Richman’s plan to take over the land underneath the studio so he can drill for the oil underneath. Gary, Mary and Walter realize they have to get the Muppets gang back together to save the studio or the Muppets will likely be dead forever. They find Kermit and then embark on a journey to get the gang back together so they can save the studio.

Segel, who co-wrote the film with Nicholas Stoller, considers The Muppets to be his “childhood idols.” He came to Disney wanting to do this film and bring back these innocent characters that he and others remember growing up with in the late-‘70s and early-‘80s. That he did this out of love for the Muppets and not out of interest in making a profit shows. This movie is a kind-of fans’ case for why audiences need to see The Muppets on screen (or on television) once again.

The journey to re-unite the gang includes many songs that give the film the musical energy that flows throughout previous classics like The Muppet Movie (1979) or The Great Muppet Caper (1981). Much of the film relies on campy moments of humor, the sort-of devices that make classic Mel Brooks films like The Producers or Young Frankenstein enjoyable. It is also filled with lines that hearken back to the classic Muppets movies audiences enjoyed decades ago. For example, when asked by Walter how they will be getting the gang back together, Kermit responds, “Didn’t you see our first movie? We drive.” And when it is time to renovate the condemned studio for a telethon that will hopefully save The Muppets, Walter reminds the Muppets that they are The Muppets and they “do this to music.”

I grew up watching the Muppets—The Muppet Movie, The Great Muppet Caper, Muppets Take Manhattan, Muppet Christmas Carol, and Muppet Treasure Island. I watched re-runs of “The Muppet Show” and the show that returned them to television in the ‘90s, “Muppets Tonight.” I listened to all the great songs like “Rainbow Connection,” “Movin’ Right Along,” and “Happiness Hotel.”

The values of The Muppets are in many ways an example for all of us to live by. Segel put it best in an interview for NPR’s “Fresh Air”: “The Muppets don’t get laughs at other people’s expense…It’s part of what I really loved about the Muppets. They don’t even want to destroy their villains. They want to reform their villains.” And Segel added in the “first Muppet movie, when the villain Doc Hopper wants to cut off Kermit’s legs to make frog legs” Kermit doesn’t want to destroy Doc Hopper. He is “like, ‘Maybe you should think about why you don’t have friends. Maybe you’re just lonely and you need to be a happier person.’”

Those values appear in this movie as the thought occurs to Kermit that he could just ask Richman if he would find it in his heart to give the gang the studio back because it is the right thing to do. He’s an oil tycoon only interested in money and rejects this appeal from The Muppets. Kermit and the others may have known Richman would never give them the studio back but they do not think it could hurt to ask.

The combination of virtue and campiness is the kind of essence, which I think keeps a human being from being harsh and cynical in this world. In fact, there is even a scene in the movie where Richman wants to replace the Muppets with a hard and cynical act for a hard and cynical world. The Muppets are pushing up against a world that finds it easier to adapt or profit from the hardness and cynicism of society and culture instead of pushing back against the popularity of callousness, indifference and other destructive ideals.

“Life’s a Happy Song,” written for the new film, represents the pure idealism of The Muppets beautifully. The lyrics include the following:

Everything is great/Everything is grand/I got the whole wide world in the palm of my hand/Everything is perfect/It’s falling into place/I can’t seem to wipe that smile from my face/Life’s a happy song/When there’s someone by your side to sing along

The charm is infectious. In a much deeper sense, it stands in sharp contrast to the socially degenerate every-man-for-himself ideals promoted widely in society and recently seen on display on Black Friday. And because that spirit of togetherness and goodness is such a part of The Muppets, because they exist solely to make us all laugh and have fun and want nothing more of us, they are a pleasure to listen to and watch on screen.

*From their appearance on “Dancing with the Stars”

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Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."