Growing up with The Muppet Show in my formative years meant exposure to a vaudeville tradition dating back to the 1880s at a time when stage performance was becoming a lost art. Kermit fronted a remarkable host of talent that kind of made you forget they were puppets, with a backstage part of the show that highlighted the work that went into this cultural touchstone. After several feature films of decreasing entertainment value, the Muppets themselves seemed to fade into history, losing their relevance forever. As it turns out, good entertainment is now and always will be relevant. In an ocean of market-tested and thoroughly homogenized products, the Muppets are a seamount that is once again breaking the waves. I never was a fan of Jason Segel, but he is my fucking hero for forcing into existence a Muppet Movie onto a pop culture stage that has forgotten them.
The Muppets is a film wonderfully knowing about the status of its subject, and makes a tremendous running joke about it throughout. The gang has gone their separate ways, Kermit living in obscurity in a dark house that holds him in more than holding intruders out. I may be stretching here, but his estate recalls Norma Desmond’s sans pool toy. Piggy is a fashionista in Paris and distant from her past and her love. Gonzo is a CEO of a plumbing company who so longs to return to show business that he carries a business self-destruct remote on him. Fozzie, hilariously, works the Reno motel crowd in a variety show that is a terrible knockoff of the Muppets that sings chintzy ads for casino mummies. They must unite to resuscitate the show and save their theatre from an evil oil company executive who really should have been played by Nicholas Cage, but instead is done by Chris Cooper.
The emotional anchor of the show, however, is Walter, a muppet who oddly is the brother of Gary (Jason Segel), and feels as out of place with other people as the Muppets in general would feel in the show biz. Gary is drifting away to his girlfriend (Amy Adams) while Walter must be left to his internal struggles. Throughout, the songs are lively, the dialogue endlessly referencing the past of the Muppets and of Hollywood in general, of the artificiality of musicals, and the weird concept of guest stars. At the same time, it celebrates traditions, from the variety show origin of The Muppet Show itself to cliches like saving the whatever from a villain by putting on a show. With a knowing wink throughout, The Muppets celebrates most of all the joy of entertaining the world, and makes a very strong case for why the Muppets matter in an age of TV shows like Punch Teacher (inspired for a tossaway gag). There is no protective shield of smartassed irony or cynicism here; the performers are bare and vulnerable, and they are here to entertain YOU. Anything is open for a laugh, including kidnapping and a barbershop quartet version of Smells Like Teen Spirit (it plays funny as shit, trust me). Even minuscule details, like Beaker working in the Large Hadron Collider provide a laugh for those paying attention.
The experience you have will depend on whether you grew up with the Muppets. Those unfamiliar will be entertained; the children I shared the theatre with had a ball. The adults who felt the tug of nostalgia were transported. Except maybe that rap bit with Cooper. That’s the problem with skit shows. Not everything sticks, but the Muppets are more than willing to toss just about anything, including themselves, at the wall. Welcome back, guys.