The Muppets plays the music and lights the lights, but it’s not sensational, inspirational, celebrational, or even muppetational, and that’s the most disappointing thing of all. What we have are two movies vying for the same space, neither emerging victorious because they’re not handled particularly well. On the one hand, we have a soppy, innocuous love story between Jason Segel and Amy Adams, which is occasionally interrupted by musical numbers that have plenty of singing and dancing but hardly any life. On the other hand, we have the Muppets themselves, which would be fine except that they’re almost completely reduced to background scenery and aren’t given anything much to do. For all the effort that was put into the sets, the costumes, the special effects, and of course the puppetry, the film lacks the imagination and heart that made most of the previous Muppet films so enjoyable.
In the earlier efforts, human actors were essentially supporting players. The filmmakers had enough sense to let the stories unfold from the perspective of the Muppets, all of whom were allowed to develop as characters. This is not the case with this film, which gives ample time to Segel and Adams. They play Gary and Mary, a wholesome, sunny couple from the all-American hamlet of Smalltown, where the population number on the welcome sign fluctuates due to the buses crossing the city limits. Much of the film is spent on their being deeply in love – and, of course, on the circumstances that test their emotional fortitude. We know right from the start that their relationship is silly, but the real problem is that it’s also unnecessary. It doesn’t help that neither Segel nor Adams gives a noteworthy performance. Adams in particular is surprisingly out of place, spending most of her time mugging girlishly.
For their tenth anniversary as boyfriend and girlfriend, Gary decides to take Mary on a trip to Los Angeles. Along for the ride is Gary’s brother, Walter, who, for reasons wisely left unexplained, is a puppet (performed by Peter Linz). Mary doesn’t mind … as long as Gary makes time for a romantic dinner. Naturally, Walter is not seeing this from their perspective. Being only three feet tall and made of foam, he always felt like an outsider. He found solace only in watching “The Muppet Show,” and in due time, he because the Muppets’ biggest fan. His sole purpose in joining Gary and Mary is to take a tour of the Muppet Theater in Hollywood (take note, Angelinos: The Muppet Theater is actually the El Capitan – which, incidentally, is where I saw this movie). It turns out to be a shadow of its former self, a dilapidated tourist attraction no one is interested in.
In due time, Walter overhears the wealthy Tex Richman (Chris Cooper), who says he wants to turn the theater into a Muppet museum but has in fact discovered oil underneath and plans on taking it all for himself. The only possible way to save the theater, as stipulated by the Rich and Famous contract Kermit the Frog signed in 1979, is if Kermit raises $10 million by a certain date. And so Walter, Gary, and Mary find Kermit (performed by Steve Whitmire), who now lives in an old, decaying mansion in Bel Air. He decides that his only hope is to track down the rest of the Muppets and, in the tradition of the Judy Garland/Mickey Rooney backyard musicals, put on a show. But is such a thing possible? As a TV executive (Rashida Jones) eventually makes abundantly clear, the Muppets just aren’t popular anymore. Under her orders, they must have a celebrity host.
We see some of the Muppets being found. Fozzie (performed by Eric Jacobson) performs in Reno with a mean tribute band called the Moopets, Animal (again Jacobson) is undergoing anger management, Gonzo (performed by Dave Goelz) has become a successful plumbing tycoon, and Miss Piggy (Jacobson yet again) has made a life for herself in Paris as the editor of Vogue magazine. The rest are gathered during a montage. What bothers me is that just about none of the Muppets are given their fair share of screen time; they’re not characters, but objects for the audience to point at and recognize nostalgically. The only exceptions are Kermit and Miss Piggy, and even then something is missing. For the first time in their decades of being paired together, they have absolutely no chemistry.
Like most Muppet movies, we’re treated to a slew of celebrity cameos. These would include Jack Black, Mickey Rooney, Alan Arkin, Neil Patrick Harris, Sarah Silverman, Whoopi Goldberg, John Krasinski, Selena Gomez, Zach Galifianakis, Rico Rodriguez, Judd Hirsh, Emily Blunt, and Dave Grohl. If you can think back to 1979’s The Muppet Movie, you’ll recall that all of the guest stars were given more to do than flash their faces for a star-crazy audience. They played actual characters. Remember Steve Martin as the irritated waiter? I can count on one hand the guest stars in The Muppets who are given a purpose and are developed into anything resembling a personality. There’s no reverence, only hype and a lot of one-note jokes.
The filmmakers were wise to include some of the Muppets’ most famous songs on the soundtrack, including “The Muppet Show Theme,” “Mahna Mahna,” and “The Rainbow Connection.” They even worked in some energetic pop hits, including Gary Numan’s “Cars” and (my favorite) Starship’s “We Built This City.” But the new songs by Bret McKenzie, most written in the style of a Broadway showtune, are flat, routine, and forgettable. The worst is a rap solo performed by Cooper, which has the lyrics displayed on the screen. How can anyone except us to sing along when we’re hearing the melody for the first time? It’s pointless to dwell on this. The Muppets may find an audience through its harmless tone, bright colors, and broad humor, but its thin plot, shoddy soundtrack, and badly developed characters are unlikely to appease diehard Muppet fans – or anyone in need of a good story.