Yes, I have been off in the desert. I have been contemplating the universal truths, eating nothing but locusts and honey, letting the poisonous snakes nibble on my tender bits and hallucinating from their venom, letting my beard grow out as I became sunburned and progressively insane. And now, having become wise in the ways of the universe, I return to you to speak…of Muppets.
Let’s get the least-important part out of the way first. No, the voices aren’t as good. Kermit and Miss Piggy are a reasonable approximation of their old selves, mainly because it’s difficult to tell whether Kermit is reedy and hesitant on purpose or by accident, but Fozzie’s voice has lost that braying quality that was so distinctive, and Rowlf sounds so off and has so little dialogue that they’d have been smarter to write him out entirely. But that’s miniscule stuff. The voices were always going to change someday, because that’s what happens with puppets and cartoons. Someday they will bring back Homer Simpson and he will not be voiced by Dan Castellaneta. It’s the way of the world. The question is, how’s the movie?
The answer: It takes a while to get going, but it has fun when it gets there. The first act is really flat; the screenwriter knows that he’s remaking ‘The Blues Brothers’ with Muppets, and he knows that the audience knows it. The deranged, inexplicable response to this problem is to treat the material with perfunctory disdain; the scene that sets up the dilemma (the Muppets need to come up with ten million dollars or an evil oilman will demolish their old theater!) is played with such utter disinterest that it would have been more exciting if they’d just filmed the story conference. The writer obviously loses interest in the “getting the band back together” material about halfway through, and has the characters openly admit how boring it’s becoming (“let’s do the rest of this as a montage!”) It’s a movie that is fully aware of what a lazy, slapdash premise it has, and just openly asks, “Could you do us both a favor and not care?”
Which is a shame, because I think there’s a lot of depth to the central premise that I think they ignored in an effort to keep things light and frothy. Because let’s face it, the Muppets didn’t stop becoming relevant as a cultural phenomenon because the world got harsh and cynical and the Muppets were too sweet for that kind of a world, as the film asserts. (For one thing, a TV show that put Alice Cooper on, singing “School’s Out” in an era when a lot of radio stations wouldn’t play it, is not a series that should be considered “too sweet”. The Muppets have always had a fairly twisted core to their comedy, something that this film thankfully captures in a lot of its best moments.) The Muppets “broke up” because Jim Henson died. The film makes a conscious decision to ignore this because it’s kind of a downer to talk about, but really, a film that doesn’t acknowledge that on at least a metatextual level is a movie without an emotional center, and that shows in all of the scenes that actually deal with the plot.
Luckily, there are a lot of scenes that don’t bother. The movie is at its best in the third act, where it stops trying to have a plot and starts becoming a really wonderful updating of the old Muppet Show with Jack Black as their Very Special Guest Star and slightly-more-recent pop culture references. The Muppet Telethon is like a demo reel for what the series would be like if it were brought back tomorrow, saying, “Look, all the weirdness, all the monsters, all the corny gags and the celebrity comedians and the charming self-deprecation and the throwing bowling balls through the air…yes, this still works. It is still funny. Chickens clucking out the melody of popular songs is never going to stop being funny. Here, have some more.” And that’s when I really loved the movie.
And the ending (not the actual “ending” ending, but the climax of the film) is letter-perfect, an acknowledgment of what Henson had in mind all along: Laughter and hope and family and love are not possessions. They cannot be taken away from you by anyone unless you let them. That’s a message Henson would have been proud of.
So, in short: Worth watching? Yeah, but after the first viewing you’ll probably find yourself fast forwarding to the halfway point. The important thing is that we need a new Muppet Show, dammit.