For many a comedy fan, The Muppets was the start of a lifelong love of entertainment. Playing the music, lighting the lights, celebrity guest stars aplenty, and a gang of Muppets to offer guaranteed laughs every week was the perfect route into light entertainment. Before long the gang, created by husband and wife Jim and Jen Henson in 1955, made their way onto the silver screen. Muppets Treasure Island and Muppets Christmas Carol are stalwarts of the festive season TV programming. But by 2011, it had been 12 years since any of The Muppets had been seen on the big screen. Did the cinematic landscape of 3D and CGI mean The Muppets were resigned to the history books, left to just be cited as niche references by comedians and entertainers?
Enter Jason Segel.
After the success of his writing debut Forgetting Sarah Marshall, as well as a career forged in Apatow films and How I Met Your Mother, Disney offered Segel the chance to make whatever he wanted. He pitched them a Muppets reboot. Segel was a perfect fit for joining the Muppet family. As well as a passion for the history of the franchise, he exudes muppet like qualities; physical comedy, kindness, pure enthusiasm, and an innocence to his performance.
2011’s The Muppets does everything a Muppets film should. Written by Segel and his Forgetting Sarah Marshall co-writer Nicholas Stellar, with songs by Bret MacKenzie (from Flight of the Conchords fame) The Muppets answers the age old clickbait question: “where are they now?”. Walter (Peter Linz) is as hardcore a Muppets fan as they come. Growing up in Smalltown, USA, with his brother Gary (Segel), a trip to Los Angeles sees Walter discover his beloved Muppets Studio in a state of disrepair, and set to be sold to big businessman named Tex Richman. Cue a road trip style plan to get the Muppets back together, do a big fundraiser show, and save the history, and indeed, the future of the gang.
As premises for reboots go, it’s a pretty smart one. A reboot within a reboot, with plenty of self-aware nods, and references to the self indulgence of it all throughout. Without these, one wonders whether it would be too saccharine to (Fozzie) bear, but luckily, in true Muppet style, the tone of the comedy is perfectly balanced. Mixing the slightly absurd with the perfectly written joke, the innocence and enthusiasm of Fozzie with the cantankerous nature of Statler and Waldorf, The Muppets manages to perch on the line normally occupied by Pixar; that which children and adults can enjoy, for entirely different reasons, but together.
What’s particularly special about this incarnation of The Muppets however, is what it says about the life and times of the franchise. How things come and go, some die and fade and are resigned to the past when the world moves on, and no one wants to see a talking frog and pig sing together about rainbows. How fandom, much maligned in these times of crowdfunded Star Wars rewrites and trolling, is at its core little else than loving something very dearly and very truly. It’s a film that brings back much loved characters and themes, but updates them, fully aware of its own ridiculousness. When Walter and Kermit track down the old gang Rizzo the Rat is working as a toilet salesman, Animal is in anger management and Miss Piggy is, of course, the editor of Paris Vogue. All of these play into tropes of the characters, imagining them in the real world beyond the realm of The Muppets themselves, resulting in some sort of postmodern muppet existence.
Of course, it wouldn’t be much of a Muppets film without music, and MacKenzie doesn’t fail to deliver. The emotional turning point of the film is the song ‘Man or Muppet’, which picked up an Oscar for Best Song and features everything a good movie ballad should: singing into a mirror, shouting into the pouring rain, and a surprising celebrity cameo that makes you want to shake whoever’s idea it was by the hand. MacKenzie wrote 3 other songs for the film, ‘Life’s a Happy Song’, ‘Me Party’ and ‘Pictures in my Head’ and each one manages to wriggle its way into your head and stay there for days, perfectly balancing the emotional heft and comic slightness of the lyrics.
The most joyful thing about The Muppets however is the pure happiness that it brings. And maybe that’s what we need now, most of all, in our films. Joy.