The Muppets

After a gap of more than a decade, it’s once again time to play the music and light the lights with the return of The Muppets to the big screen. The fuzzy felt franchise, which topped the box office with 1979s Muppet Movie and 1981s Great Muppet Caper, went into steep decline following the untimely death of creator Jim Henson in 1989.

The loss of the Muppets driving force is not the only challenge facing this reboot. Frank Oz (who voiced Miss Piggy and Fozzie Bear) is pursuing a directing career of his own nowadays and declined to take part, while the kids today, reared on a diet of indistinguishable digital cartoons, think a muppet is something else entirely. Wholesome, music-hall inspired knockabout puppet comedy isn’t fashionable nowadays. As Kermit the Frog might tell you, it’s not easy being green, anymore.

Director James Bobin’s approach seems to be to embrace the fact that times have changed. This is clear from the opening scenes, where we watch home-movie footage of a young Muppet named Walter (voiced by Peter Linz) and his human brother Gary (Jason Segel, who also co-wrote the script with Nicholas Stoller). Walter and Gary might be different species, one being fleshy and the other fleecy, but that obvious difference is never acknowledged. They are brothers, pure and simple, with the older Gary constantly looking out for his half-pint, hand-operated sibling.

When Walter discovers an old VHS tape of The Muppet Show, he realises how different he is and sees, for the first time, how his life could be. Obsessed with the show, and devoted to Kermit (voiced by Steve Whitmore), Walter tags along when Gary brings his sweet-natured fiancée Mary (Amy Adams) on a romantic trip to Los Angeles. There they visit the old Muppet Theatre, now a crumbling, cobwebbed museum and discover that the site is in danger of being torn down by Tex Richman (Chris Cooper), a sinister oil tycoon with no time for nostalgia. The race is on for Walter and Gary to reunite the original Muppets and host a fundraising television special to restore the theatre, and its furry players, to their rightful glory.

Kermit, now living in splendid isolation in a vast, empty mansion in Beverly Hills, is the first recruit and the gang pile into his Rolls Royce and hit the road. Their first stop is to rescue Fozzie Bear (Eric Jacobsen) from a Muppet tribute band with a residency in a dangerous dive bar. Animal is lifted from an anger management therapy clinic, Gonzo rediscovered in a plumbing supplies warehouse while Miss Piggy has become, what else, the editor of French Vogue. Reunited and their confidence restored, the Muppets enlist a host of cameo stars to join them on the show, while Cooper’s greedy capitalist (whose moustache-twirling so outraged the conservative Fox News network) waits in the wings.

None of this should work, really. The "save the theatre" plot is tired, the structure is rickety, the star cameoes are decidedly low-watt and the central puppet characters, owing to death and disputes, don’t sound like they should. What saves the film is a vivacious, witty tone, familiar to older fans of the original series and easily absorbed by a new generation. Segel and Adams bring an infectious sense of humour and a purposefully awkward charm to a knockabout series of song-and-dance routines that combine new songs (from Flight of the Conchords star Bret McKenzie) with the welcome reprise of a few old favourites, including a show-stopping version of Kermit’s Rainbow Connection.

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