Directed by James Bobin
Released in 2011
There is a classic scene in the French film Amélie where the protagonist sits in a movie theater and says her favorite thing is to “look back and watch people’s faces in the dark.” The camera pans to the side and reveals faces of content, captured by the screen and lost in its world. It is great commentary on the power of cinema, but it is also the same image you would find at a screening of The Muppets. Grins stick from start to finish in this ode to happiness. This is a film that reveres the spectacle of classic Hollywood, when a physical set or stirring musical number needed no excuse.
“Life’s a Happy Song,” penned by Flight of the Concords half Bret McKenzie, opens the film and signals the return of those elaborate music breakdowns against a proud soundstage. Gary (Jason Segel) and his Muppet brother Walter sing about the joys of life by rhyming “life’s a leg of lamb” and “with someone there to lend a hand.” The opening number alone features cameos from Feist to Mickey Rooney. The game of celebrity I Spy that has served as a constant in all Muppet features resumes in a shower of green. A partial list of guest stars includes Jack Black, Neil Patrick Harris, Sarah Silverman, Dave Grohl and even James Carville for good measure. James Bobin, the director, and writers Segel and Nicholas Stoller stuffed so many guest spots in here that they had to leave some on the cutting room floor. Those they axed? Only Ben Stiller, Ricky Gervais and Lady Gaga. Big money flowing through this one.
Even Chris Cooper, one of our era’s greatest supporting actors, fills in for the one-dimensional villain with a paycheck likely dwarfing his award-winning work in American Beauty and Adaptation. Cooper knows this character does not call out for recognition in Oscar season, so he steps back and has fun with this meta-caricature as he directs his goons to “maniacal laugh” when the sinister music they all hear starts. He plays the subtly-named Tex Richman who plans on tearing down the classic Muppet Theatre to dig for oil. (Why do I see oil wells smack in the middle of Hollywood Boulevard not sliding with the world's most powerful liberals?). Of course, it is only up to Walter and his new friends - Kermit, Mrs. Piggy and all, though the inexplicable absence of Rizzo upsets my 90s Muppet film diet - to put on one more show to raise enough money to save the place. A little suspension of disbelief is required for a film that insists a felt frog maintains a Beverley Hills mansion all by himself.
Therein lies the wonder of the Muppets, as it refuses to shun the ridiculousness of its premise and instead wield it as its greatest strength. Why waste time with establishing shots and introductions when you recruit the whole Muppet gang with an American montage? That’s right, call it a montage, don’t fear its name; it has been shamelessly pummeled to death by those who hold it close as their stock narrative technique. Why travel by car when it takes ten seconds by map? And everyone knows you can only clean a filthy room when 80s workout music pumps on the soundtrack. The film does not just parody but champions the cliches of the medium, which is needed more now than ever as 3D action flops and flashy comedies try to pass off their formulaic dreck as inspired (looking at you, Immortals and The Hangover Part II). This labor of love from Jason Segel and Stoller embraces the art of film, its own beloved namesake, and you, goddammit. The Muppets speaks with love and laughter, somehow balancing innocence and self-aware reflexivity to cut through maudlin artifice and believably arrive on a happy note. And with the way things are going right now, don’t you just need a hug?
4 Stars out of 5