The Muppet Show was really important to me when I was young. My parents divorced early, and when me and my brother would go and visit my dad, the show was still in heavy rotation on TV. It was something that made my dad cool to me, that he got to introduce me to the insane and loveable world of characters and their vaudevillian humour – and not just the characters themselves, also puppetry as a craft. Specifically of course, the master: JIM FREAKIN’ HENSON. It felt as though there was always a Henson show around; from repeats of The Muppet Show and Sesame Street, to Fraggle Rock, and finally distilled in superior children’s fantasy show The Storyteller, not to mention endless re-watches of Labyrinth and (yeah) The Dark Crystal on home video. Even through my teens, when the likes of Christmas Carol, Treasure Island and Muppets from Space graced the big screen, they were always there, even in the background. And then, one day, they just weren’t.
So yes, I suppose you can count me as a lifelong fan. A Mupp-head from the very start. Watching The Muppet Show is among the very earliest memories I’ve managed to retain, and it’s easy to see why; it’s like the way you remember your first game of Mario, the first ‘Important’ film you saw at the cinema, or your first big football match (if you do the ‘sports thing’) – the beginning of a fascination that will stay with you. This is why it was a big deal when The Muppets was announced, and even more so that writer/producer/star Jason Segal was a self-confessed ‘life-long Muppet fan’. Every interview I read with him in which he excitedly blabbed about the project and spoke of his specific connections to the franchise, and every new addition to the film – the casting of Amy Adams and Chris Cooper, and hiring Flight of the Conchords comedy-song titan Bret McKenzie as music supervisor – filled me with confidence that these were people who knew exactly what they were doing, the tone they were aiming for and the importance of building an appeal to both old audiences and new ones. And boy, did they hit a bulls-eye.
I think the overwhelming factor in the film as a success is heart. Segal has obviously written it coming from a very personal place, and that heart is practically beating up there on the screen. He plays Gary, the older brother of Walter, the world’s biggest Muppet fan and, inexplicably, a muppet himself (voiced by Peter Linz). Following a sweet montage of the two growing up as big believers in The Muppet Show, we meet them as adults and at a time when Walter is having something of an identity crisis and feeling like a social outcast, unable to fit in or connect with the fellow residents of Smalltown, USA (as it is called in the film, in one of it’s many wink-wink meta references). His sole, real connection is with Gary, who is torn between looking out for his sibling and the progression of his relationship with Mary (Adams). His resolution to this situation is to try and keep them both happy; he tells Mary of a surprise trip to Los Angeles for their tenth anniversary, but compounds it with the news Walter will be joining them, so he can finally fulfil his dream of visiting Muppet Studios. She reluctantly accepts the situation and hopes it will allow Gary to move on, but upon their arrival in LA – and their dismay at the rundown condition of Muppet Studios – Walter inadvertently learns of the disastrous plans of Texan oil billionaire Tex Richman (Chris Cooper and yes, lots of the jokes are that silly), and they resolve to do whatever they can to avoid the studio being torn down. So, how can they raise the ten million dollars they need? Where do they start? WHAT WOULD KERMIT DO?
It’s here that the film really starts hitting all the bases, as they decide to get the old gang back together for a Muppet Show telethon in the hope of raising the dough. One by one, famous faces start reappearing – with the first obviously being the li’l green guy, who gets the fabulous, heart-breaking song ‘Pictures in my Head’ – the pace picks way up, and each character added to their ensemble brings fresh waves of nostalgia. Fozzie Bear. Gonzo. Bunsen and Honeydew. Dr. Teeth and The Electric Mayhem. Even that bitch Miss Piggy. The jokes and references come thicker and faster but more importantly, it starts really feeling like The Muppets again.
That’s probably the single highest praise I can give the film – it doesn’t feel like fan-wank. Segal and co-writer Nick Stoller have crafted a story that works on multiple levels, simultaneously as a standalone film, a nostalgia piece and a great tribute to Henson and his beloved franchise. It not only pays homage to the greatest of Muppetry but establishes it as something as current and as relevant as it ever was. The characters are written as classically and hilariously as they ever have been, and it’s a real testament at script level that they don’t feel like updates or reboots of who they were. They just are who they always were, and that’s pretty fucking incredible.
Of course at the time of writing, it would be remiss of me not to mention the film’s stand-out musical number, ‘Man or Muppet’, as it collected an Oscar for the first time in Muppet movie history last Sunday. It’s a great moment which serves perfectly to gloss over the clichéd end-of-the-second-act ‘everything is going wrong’ backdrop in the film. You’re too busy being blown away by this musical number, which summarises the journey of both of the lead characters – Gary’s continual distancing from Mary, Walter’s existential confusion – and is hysterically funny while doing it. Wonderfully performed and executed, it’s an all-time great in a pantheon of all-time great moments for The Muppets as a whole.
I could go on and on here. The quality of the voice work and puppeteering across the board. The unexpected but fantastic resolution. The gaggle of celebrity cameos in measure both large and small (hello, Dave Grohl). It adds up to an outstanding experience that, above all, confirms one thing. Not only are The Muppets back… we never should have let them go.
The film is, quite simply, everything a fan could want, and has everything it needs to appeal to a new generation. A friend of mine described it this way: “It made my heart sing”.
I’d be a muppet to disagree.
This review was originally published on rustyshark.com