About halfway through the new Muppet movie, a TV executive in a nice suit explains to the Muppets that they're not famous any more. They've literally fallen off the cultural map. (This scene is in the trailers, so I'm not really giving away a spoiler.) And it's sort of true: the Muppet cultural moment was over a long time ago, long before 1999's Muppets in Space.
Are we even ready for the Muppets' brand of gentle humor and quirky characters any more? Can we have cuteness without cloying crassness and "hip" in-jokes? Can nostalgia for old pop culture ever result in something fresh and interesting? What kind of a world would it be if animals made of felt were not only alive, but working in show business?
The Muppets answers all of those questions, and more. This movie is the real thing: a revival of a classic property that goes past nostalgia into real, beautiful love. Along the way, the movie actually asks some fascinating questions about "realness" when it comes to puppets and aging franchises.
It's time to read some spoilers...
It's hard to avoid comparing The Muppets to The Smurfs, which came out earlier this year. They both involve magical cute creatures wandering around "our" world, and they're both revivals of characters that nobody has cared about for decades. But The Smurfs took the crassest path at every turn, and insulted your intelligence with a sadistic intensity, while bombarding you with terrible CG and horrible 3D. Meanwhile, The Muppets really feels like a labor of love, and it's witty where The Smurfs was offensively stupid. And there's no CG, and everything's beautifully two-dimensional.
The Muppets begins as a study of fandom and alienation. Gary (Jason Segal) and Walter (voice of Peter Linz) are brothers — except that Walter is made of felt, and is basically a puppet. How did Gary's mother give birth to a felt baby? Did Gary's mom cheat on Gary's dad with Guy Smiley? Mercifully, we are spared any explanation.
As the only person who's made of cloth for hundreds of miles around, Walter feels understandably a bit isolated, even though he and Gary are inseparable. Until Walter discovers the Muppet Show, which is full of others like him. A whole performing troupe of cute fuzzy puppets! Most of them are not human, but details. (That's Walter, at left, trying to climb through the television screen and join his idols, with no luck.)
Walter becomes the Muppets' #1 fan, and collects tons of Muppet memorabilia, etc. Flash forward several years, when Gary and Walter travel to L.A. with Gary's sweetie, Mary (Amy Adams) — and discover the Muppets are defunct, and their theater is about to be torn down by an oil baron (Chris Cooper) unless the Muppets can raise $10 million. Oh, and the oil baron, Tex Richman, wants to replace the Muppets with a crass commercial knock-off group, the Moopets.
What ensues is a Blues Brothers-esque "getting the band back together" storyline, in which Walter has to gather all of the Muppets and convince them to re-form, with Kermit the Frog's help. What distinguishes this from Jake and Elwood and countless other stories is the fact that Walter's love of the Muppets, as well as their love of each other, is what saves them and brings them back together. This is a movie made by fans, about the power of fandom. (It's interesting that Martin Scorsese's Hugo, also out this weekend, has a similar theme, of fannish love bringing back an artist who's given up on creating.)
The Muppets is super funny, and pretty sweet, without ever feeling fake. The comedy, and the moments of sentimentality, both flow pretty easily out of the situations instead of feeling tacked on. Whether it's Miss Piggy working at Vogue Magazine in a very Devil Wears Prada-esque sequence, or Animal struggling with his forbidden urge to play the drums, the movie keeps just the right tone of zany anarchy. Oh, and this movie marks the first time in I don't know how long that Jack Black has been funny on screen.
Also, one of the new additions to the crew is the 1980s Robot, who does everything 1980s-style, including using a MODEM. Cheap gag, but funny nonetheless.
The Muppets have always been a pretty metafictional bunch, with a propensity to break the Fourth Wall. But this time around, that tendency is both magnified and used to highlight Walter's identity crisis. In a crucial — and very strange — musical number, Gary and Walter both ask the question, "Am I a man or a muppet?" No doubt whole armies of grad students will be writing about the twisty identity politics in that sequence, which teases the possibility that Jason Segal could suddenly choose to identify as a Muppet despite having skin made of skin, and so on. Becoming a Muppet isn't something Walter inherits, by virtue of his cloth features — it's something he chooses, because he grew up loving the Muppets.
The movie doesn't run away from the weirdness of having a world where fuzzy talking animals sing on television and do stand-up comedy in Reno — if anything, this movie runs into the weirdness and embraces it, in the great Muppet tradition. The hyper-stylized world where this film takes place is so unreal, it becomes realer than reality. We could all live in a world of silliness and primary colors and spontaneous musical comedy, if we only wanted it bad enough. Just like you could choose to be a Muppet, the way Walter does, if only you had that much faith in it.
And the difference between the real Muppets and their would-be replacements, the Moopets, not surprisingly, all comes down to heart.
Given that we're at a uniquely cynical moment in our culture, when everything seems doomed and we all take it for granted that our leaders will only make things worse, it's a bit of a miracle to discover a piece of pop culture that's optimistic and sunny, without seeming forced. What's more, the Muppets contains the usual messages about there being stuff more important than money, but they're tied to a really nice message about believing in yourself and the magic that can come from creating art and beauty, along with a home-made family.
So yeah, this movie is the real thing — unlike The Smurfs — and it has a message about realness. Walter becomes a real Muppet, at last, by believing in the Muppets and himself. It's kind of amazing that such a stylized, hyper-cartoony movie has more of a feeling of reality than most "realistic" films I've seen lately — and it has some deep lessons about how to keep it real.