“I have this vision of doing it with puppets”, says Jason Segel’s character of his planned ‘Dracula rock opera’ in 2008’s Forgetting Sarah Marshall, “I think they’re due a comeback”. Prophetic words indeed, as following that movie’s success, Segel and director Nicholas Stoller pitched a new Muppet movie to Disney. The result, written by the pair with Segel starring, is the most successful Muppet movie to date. It’s a veritable shot in the arm to the ailing franchise, which seemed to falter after its last big screen appearance eleven years ago in the inconsequential Muppets from Space (1999), and won an Oscar for songwriter Bret McKenzie, not to mention some of the most positive praise of for any film in 2011.
It’s not hard to see why. Even the most cynical of critics could not resist the infectious charm and zany antics of an ensemble of toys with hands up their arses. A new generation of performers may have moved in but the original spirit remains faithfully intact; along with director James Bobin (Flight of the Conchords), Segel and Stoller have harnessed their lifelong Muppet fandom to good use. The plot is simple but effective: Gary (Segel), with his girlfriend Mary (Amy Adams) and curiously Muppet-like Muppet super-fan brother Walter, help Kermit, Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear and the gang save the Muppet Studios from the clutches of cackling villain Tex Richman (Chris Cooper), by putting on a telethon, with predictable but joyously entertaining results.
The comedy ranges from enjoyably juvenile (Fozzie’s fart shoes) to knowingly self-referential (“If I didn’t know better, I’d say you were reciting some sort of important plot point!”), whilst the musical numbers, though occasionally a little bland, are nonetheless delightfully old school, invoking the ghosts of Hollywood old. The finale, a chaotic variety show extravaganza in the spirit of the original TV show, doesn’t disappoint, a barbershop quartet rendition of Smells Like Teen Spirit (with actual barbering) or Cee Lo Green’s Forget You as sung by a chorus of chickens being the highlights.
Not everything is ‘hi-ho’. The calibre of celebrity cameos, for example, is poor. For a franchise that in the past attracted the likes of Gene Kelly, Sly Stallone, Johnny Cash and Elton John, it’s regrettable that Jack Black is about as A-List as they can manage. Perhaps the Muppets’ star power really was as faded as the film’s plot suggested (a problem that surely won’t materialise in the planned sequel). “I don’t really know who you guys are”, Selena Gomez tells Kermit. Well, Ms. Gomez, the feeling is mutual. There’s the standard-issue sentimental guff about believing in yourself as long as we’ve got each other, etcetera ad nauseum. Yet this is a Disney film, after all, and if you can look past that, and the intermittent moments of dreary mawkishness, you’ve got a franchise reboot that the Muppets truly deserve. Wocka wocka, indeed.