The aim of 2011’s The Muppets was to resurrect the age-old Muppet brand, giving fresh new life to the titular gang, reinvigorating old fans, and promoting the formation of a new fan-base to keep Jim Henson’s joyous creations alive for a long time to come. Scripted by self-proclaimed Muppet fanatics Jason Segel and Nicholas Stoller (who wrote Forgetting Sarah Marshall), this new Muppet adventure ticks all the proverbial boxes – there are plenty of inside jokes, guest stars, and lines which break the fourth wall, not to mention it’s filled with a feeling of victory as the comical critters prove they still have what it takes to be the best entertainers in the world. But while this is a heart-on-its-sleeve charmer, the picture nonetheless fails to achieve its full potential. The Muppets tries extremely hard to be better than it is, resulting in an uneven flick that lacks energy and wit as a whole but tells a worthwhile story and contains isolated moments of excellence.

The Muppet Show stopped airing in 1981, and the last theatrical outing for the Muppet characters was 1999’s Muppets From Space. Thus, the basis for this film is slyly self-referential: the Muppets are yesterday’s news, and are no longer relevant in today’s harsh, cynical world.
A puppet named Walter (Linz) and his human brother Gary (Segel) live unremarkable lives in Small Town, USA, and Walter’s videos of The Muppet Show are his only source of joy. Gary and his long-time girlfriend Mary (Adams) are planning a trip to Hollywood for their anniversary which will include a tour of the Muppet Studios, and Gary decides to take Walter along. Walter’s excitement becomes shattered, though, when they arrive to find the Muppet Studios in ruin and disrepair, having been abandoned by the group decades ago when they broke up. Worse, shady oil barren Tex Richman (Cooper) has purchased the site with the secret goal in mind of demolishing the buildings to drill for oil. Horrified, Walter sets out with Gary and Mary to convince the Muppets to save their studio. To achieve this, Kermit (Whitmore) looks to reunite the gang and put on a show.

In keeping with regular Muppet movies, the plot is a clothesline on which the filmmakers could add musical numbers, laughs and celebrity cameos. Somewhat reminiscent of The Blues Brothers, 2011’s The Muppets sets up the central narrative crisis before switching to “we’re getting the band back together” mode, providing the opportunity for classic Muppet characters to shine in their own vignettes. It’s hilarious to see Gonzo the successful toilet magnate, and it’s a masterstroke to find Miss Piggy working in the Paris offices of Vogue while Animal is in an anger management class. And once all of the Muppets are reunited, the makers dive right into iconic Muppet Show merriment. The final act, therefore, is more or less a 2011 reimagining of the bygone Muppet variety program, and it’s a treat for long-time fans to behold the use of beloved old sets and songs (The Rainbow Connection is present). However, aspects of the final act are a bit too contrived, and, though the final scene gave this reviewer gooseflesh, the story’s resolution in relation to Tex Richman feels too easy. The narrative is also formulaic – Kermit’s pessimism even leads to a clichéd “all hope is lost, but his friends will help him through” section.

Perhaps the key problem with The Muppets is that its focus haphazardly shifts between traditional Muppet shenanigans and the new characters. While Walter’s love for the Muppets gives the film its heart and joy, Gary and Mary’s plot thread is dreadful; a superfluous, clichéd distraction that’s detrimental to momentum. The movie could have been stronger if Kermit was the impetus for the plot, or if there was just plain no Mary (she even has an extraordinarily weak song and dance number). Ultimately, The Muppets works better in isolated sections than as a cohesive whole. It contains a handful of excellent, funny scenes (Kermit’s musical rumination on the past is superb and heartfelt, and the team-assembling montage is pitch-perfect), but pacing is weak in between. Considering the enormous amount of talent involved (even Pixar assisted in the writing process), the best belly-laughs are in disappointingly short supply. It’s a shame, too, as a few rewrites could have smoothened out some of the more glaring flaws and allowed this to be a true classic. 

As Gary, Jason Segel looks to be having a ball interacting with the Muppets in a major motion picture, as he wears a smiling face pretty much all the time. And that’s the problem; he’s too broad and obvious. Rather than seeming in the moment, he looks to be in on the joke, and is therefore not funny. The rest of the cast, thankfully, are more successful. Amy Adams is bright and sunny despite her useless character, and Chris Cooper absolutely went for broke as the story’s villain (he even does a rap, with side-splitting results). You’ll also find a cavalcade of high-profile cameos; the likes of Emily Blunt, Alan Arkin, Whoopi Goldberg, Zach Galifianakis, Neil Patrick Harris, Sarah Silverman and Mickey Rooney are all present, and more. 

Of course, the Muppets themselves are predictably wonderful here. The filmmakers retained an old-fashioned approach, so the Muppets are the result of puppetry and animatronics rather than distracting new-age CGI. Balcony hecklers Statler (Whitmore) and Waldorf (Goelz) are as funny as ever, Kermit the Frog (Whitmore) remains eminently charming, Miss Piggy (Jacobson) is still hilarious, and even The Swedish Chef (Barretta) shows up to great effect despite limited screen-time. Frank Oz was not involved in this film (he used to voice Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear, Animal and Sam the Eagle), but it’s not obvious; his replacement (Eric Jacobson) has done a marvellous job. However, beloved characters like Pepe the Prawn were saddled with mere cameos. Most heartbreakingly, Rizzo the Rat does not even speak; he’s on-screen for all of two seconds (I think that was him). Sure, it would take four hours to give the entire ensemble their due screen-time, but Rizzo does not even seem to be present, and has no sort of dynamic with the rest of the troupe.

Disney’s marketing campaign for The Muppets was solid gold. For months, we were subjected to a number of hilarious parody trailers and satirical posters which skyrocketed this reviewer’s hopes into the stratosphere. It’s a shame, then, that the finished feature film is not as witty as its marketing campaign. The more one ponders the film (especially in regards to its contrivances and a completely inappropriate instance of product placement for Cars 2), the more it falls apart, but it’s impossible to completely dislike the film due to how overly jolly and astute it is. If nothing else, Jason Segel, Nicholas Stoller and James Bobin have made the Muppets relevant and topical again, and have proved they still have mileage in the 21st Century. And considering that this century is dominated with soulless family films, The Muppets is nicely refreshing. The closing credits (which bring back an iconic tune) in particular left this reviewer with a big dumb grin on his face.