By Michael S. Goldberger, film critic
When “The Muppets” is going full tilt, espousing its positivism and good cheer, and the endearing compassion makes us laugh with well-being, observe the audience’s happy faces. It makes you wish you could just grab Congress by the shoulders and say, “C’mon man, join in…be a little less selfish. You could really make this a better world.”
Yeah, well, until the rainbow connection exercises that kind of magic, we have this feature-length big wish to remind us that not everybody has turned full cynic, detractor or obstructionist. While not the best Muppet yarn to date, we are still heartwarmingly informed why a couple generations have been enthralled by the life-ennobling fantasy.
Smart and plucky, there is no shortage of muckraking cleverly aimed at our current political quagmire/malaise as Tex Richman (get it, get it?), deliciously portrayed by Chris Cooper, seeks to block the Muppets from saving their old studio and making a comeback. You see, there’s oil under that thar building and Tex reckons to corral it all for himself.
If he makes some poor suckers unhappy in the bargain, all the better. But be warned, Mr. Richman, the film ostensibly proclaims, the Muppets and all that they symbolize are not to be trifled with so cavalierly. Representing Muppetkind’s interests are Jason Segel’s blithe Gary, his puppet brother, Walter (Peter Linz), and girlfriend Mary (Amy Adams).
The envisioned renaissance of Jim Henson’s original gang, now depicted as having long forsaken showbiz, begins in Smalltown, U.S.A., when Gary, planning a combination vacation/anniversary trip to Hollywood, springs it on Walter that there’s a ticket for him, too. And of course that means they’ll be visiting the Muppet Theater, a Mecca for Walter.
But alas, upon arrival, the Muppet Theater has gone to seed. A tour by a doddering old guide played by Alan Arkin only makes the scene of dishabille all the more depressing. Oh, what’s a potentially heroic puppet in search of his true destiny to do? Simple, responds Gary, save the day by visiting the Muppets in diaspora and reunite them.
In the mode of “The Magnificent Seven” (1960), the self-appointed crusaders start at Kermit’s hermitage, a veritable museum to yesteryear’s glory reminiscent of Norma Desmond’s (Gloria Swanson) manse in “Sunset Boulevard” (1950). It takes some cajoling to sell the retired icon, but soon they’re off in style in his 1984 Rolls-Royce.
Stops at Gonzo’s plumbing empire, the third rate theater where Fozzie Bear bravely ekes out a living, and on down the line of now displaced Muppets impress an urgency for their return to grace. That’s just one of the many metaphors adeptly tied together in no less than six storylines weaving through the saga. A nice score complements the message.
Interestingly, the gaggle of obviously astute 9 to 11-year-olds perched to my right got it, snickering heartily at the film’s social satire, probably affirming what they’ve all along suspected. While there was otherwise no great guffawing in the theater, but rather a series of intermittent yet earnest chortles, the joyful mirth of social contagion was in full flower.
Aside from a curiously stolid Gramps and Grandma seated in front of me who, I suspect, never reacted to anything in their entire lives, the audience knew this was an experience in goodness. While the script by Jason Segel and Nicholas Stoller isn’t as tight or joke-filled as we’d like, it nonetheless spans the generations with warmth and glee.
Miss Adams and Mr. Segel, the goody-two-shoes cliché playing afflatus to would-be-Muppet Walter, put it across nicely via a one-two combination of innocence and self-effacement. They are at once grownups and children, yet wise enough to detail the challenges Walter must face up to if he is to ever self-actualize.
In addition to the étude in good vs. evil, the coming of age contemplation and the ponderings about stardom, the musical comedy also includes a primer on the protocols of keeping a romance in bloom. Bouquets aren’t enough, we observe, as Gary, heretofore preoccupied with Walter’s pilgrimage, must himself grow into the altruism that is love.
The movie’s height of sensitivity and whimsy comes when Walter and Gary, through song and dance, take turns addressing their alter egos—Gary to his puppet self, Walter to his human parallel—in the very simple but delightful “Man or Muppet.” You can’t help but smile. I mean, gosh, here we are taking the Muppets seriously, and rightly so.
Oftentimes, especially after hearing a lying politico or being pickpocketed by the bank’s “other fees,” we wish folks would be a bit more upright, like it seemed when we were little, before we got to know the score. “The Muppets” enchantingly reminds of our human potential, that we are not puppets, and that you can’t pull our strings for very long.
“The Muppets,” rated PG, is a Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures release directed by James Bobin and stars Jason Segel, Amy Adams, Chris Cooper and The Muppets. Running time: 103 minutes
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