There has never been a group of puppets more enduring or endearing than those created by Jim Henson. Nearly three decades since his death, Henson’s characters continue to draw the admiration of people young and old, even as their recognition fluctuates.; the most recent boost to their popularity saw a Henson fan help others reconnect with his creations.
For as long as he can remember, Walter has been different to everyone around him, including his brother Gary (Jason Segel) – his short stature, orange skin and nose-less face have left him feeling like an outcast. Throughout the years, his greatest source of comfort has been old tapings of The Muppet Show, a variety television series that starred the likes of Kermit the Frog, Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear, Gonzo the Great and many, many others.
Walter has grown-up to become the world’s biggest Muppet fan, so when the opportunity arises to visit the famed Muppet Studios in Los Angeles with Gary, he doesn’t hesitate. Accompanying them on the journey will be Gary’s girlfriend Mary (Amy Adams), who worries that she will be a third-wheel to the adventures of Walter and Gary; nonetheless, all three are looking forward to spending time in Los Angeles and seeing the sights.
Whilst touring the Muppet Studios – which are now in a dilapidated state – Walter overhears a conversation with oil baron Tex Richman (Chris Cooper), who reveals his dastardly plan to tear down the building and replace it with an oil drill. The revelation is enough to put Walter in an elongated state of shock, but after being comforted by Gary and Mary, he feels compelled to save the beloved theatre by bringing the Muppet gang back together.
This reboot, of sorts, was the brainchild of Jason Segel, an unabashed Muppet fanatic who longed to share his love of the franchise with the world. The script he co-wrote with Nicholas Stoller is one which admirably pays homage to everything great about Henson’s characters – their charm, their musical numbers – with James Bobin’s direction ensuring it stays true to the vision of their forebear. It’s the kind of material that is comforting to older viewers, yet accessible enough for those unfamiliar with the characters.
Segel’s passion – some would say obsession – for the Muppets is also channelled into Walter, who is the film’s central protagonist. Brought to life by puppeteer Peter Linz, Walter is a prefect fit for Henson’s universe, being offbeat, manic and utterly charming, whilst remaining somebody that the audience can identify with. These same traits can be found in the performances of Amy Adams and, to a lesser extent, Jason Segel, both of whom look to be relishing the opportunity to be part of the Muppet universe.
There are plenty of other fun elements to The Muppets, many of which are retained from the films of old. This includes the core gang mentioned earlier, the endless celebrity cameos – which deserve not to be spoilt – and the songs, here composed by erstwhile Flight of the Conchords member Bret McKenzie. His catchy tunes include the Academy Award-winning ballad “Man or Muppet”, the upbeat opener “Life’s a Happy Song” and, this reviewer’s favourite, the mournful, reflective “Pictures in My Head”.
As with any Muppet property, comedy plays a key part in Bobin’s film, with slapstick aplenty, fourth-wall breaks and the aforementioned cameos providing laughs here and there – some appearances are pure gold, but just as many land with a dull thud. One other blemish to note is the underwhelmingly-written conflict between Gary and Mary, with the erosion of their relationship having little impact on affairs, despite what the film builds it up to be. But in the grand scheme of things, it’s only a minor grievance.
The Muppets can be viewed as either a homage to Jim Henson’s work or a toe-tapping crowd pleaser, in both instances being a success. Thanks to a group of loveable characters who fit perfectly into a world of singing, dancing and talking animals, James Bobin’s film reaffirms the legacy of the most treasured puppets ever to grace our screens.