After that major disappointment known as Muppets from Space, many of us started to write off the late Jim Henson’s famous creations as passé. Our feelings were not without their cause: all of the magic that we had previously seen in the (better) Muppet motion pictures from the ‘70s and ‘80s had all but vanished — something that was evident once we saw Sam the Eagle being distracted by and subsequently staring at a girl’s breasts in the 1999 film’s teaser trailer. After that, the Muppets retired from the big screen altogether (which was probably a good thing), and the possibility of a worthwhile comeback was more than unlikely.
Fortunately, such was not the case. Sometimes, all it takes to breathe fresh life into a series is some new blood — and actor Jason Segel was the man who rolled up his sleeve and donated. Now, while it’s hard to imagine that a lad from that Judd Apatow generation of filmmakers and who has appeared completely nude in one of his own movies could go the family-friendly route, it’s nevertheless true: Segel has saved the Muppets with this reboot — and should receive a Lifetime Achievement Award for The Muppets alone.
Segel’s story (which he co-wrote with Nicholas Stoller) opens with the introduction to a Muppet of their own: Walter (voiced by Peter Linz), who — for reasons that are unlikely to ever surface — is the younger brother of human Gary. As they grow up together, Gary is the only one that actually grows upward (eventually maturing into Segel): poor Walter remains, well, a Muppet. The two share a mutual love for the actual Muppets, though Walter is more obsessed with the magical television/movie celebrities than anything. Gary, on the other hand, has a life; more specifically, a hot girlfriend named Mary (an always-hot Amy Adams).
The best-friends/brothers have a strong bond — one that Mary is unwilling to deliberately break, though she does wish she could have more Gary time. All that changes when the two humans travel to Los Angeles for their 10th anniversary and opt to bring Walter along. A visit to the dilapidated Muppet Studios (wherein the great Alan Arkin is the less-than-enthusiastic tour guide) pits the trio directly in the center of a controversy: it seems that an evil oil magnate (Chris Cooper) has offered to buy the broken down property and turn it into a museum — though he is really intent on tearing it down and drilling for the black gold that lies in wait underneath.
So, Walter, Gary, and Mary embark on a quest to reunite the long-separated Muppet troupe in order to raise a whopping ten-million dollars to save their old playground. For them, it means a lot of work, travel, and the confrontation of past demons for Muppets like Kermit the Frog, whose marriage to Miss Piggy ended long ago. For viewers, on the other hand, it means an all-out wonderful time as we see all of our old favorites (though the Muppets never age) come together again to touch our hearts. Segel and Co. expertly bring back the laughs, intentionally bad puns, jokes that constantly break the fourth wall (often about their own careers), and affection that those of us who grew up with the Muppets remember them for — and which new generations could no doubt do with having in their lives.
It seems kind of hard to imagine a Muppet movie without the heap of famous guest stars, iconic handler Frank Oz, or musical contributions from tunesmith extraordinaire Paul Williams like the older classic films featured. Even so, Segel, Stroller, and director James Bobin have managed to wrangle up a few well-known faces (the aforementioned Arkin, Jim Parsons, Zach Galifianakis, Ken Jeong, Sarah Silverman, Emily Blunt, James Carville, Whoopi Goldberg, Selena Gomez, Neil Patrick Harris, Dave Grohl, Mickey Rooney, Judd Hirsch, and their “special guest star,” Jack Black), and brought in the very talented Bret McKenzie (of The Flight of the Conchords fame) to write some new (not to mention excellent) songs.
Fortunately, McKenzie doesn’t try to erase the epic melodies Paul Williams brought us. “The Rainbow Connection” — that unforgettable track Mr. Williams wrote over thirty years ago — is still alive and well here, as is that once-etched-in-your-mind-it’s-there-forever tune “Mah Nà Mah Nà” by the late Italian composer, Piero Umiliani. Bret’s own masterpiece, “Man or Muppet” — an emotionally dazzling duet between Gary and Walter (and their imaginary Muppet/human counterparts) — managed to snag an Oscar at the 2011 Academy Awards.
As for Frank Oz: he withdrew from the project early on, feeling that the humor was a little too off-color for him. The rest of the current Muppeteers — Steve Whitmire, Eric Jacobson, Dave Goelz, et al — stayed on to. As the writing process evolved, most of what Oz probably objected to was struck from the script, with the only notably “offensive” item left in being a pair of “Fart Shoes” that Fozzie Bear makes. Personally, I think Frank Oz made a hasty decision in leaving before the writing process was completed, but the movie still works just fine without him, so there.
Disney brings us the surprise 2011 hit The Muppets to Blu-ray in what they call “The Wocka Wocka Value Pack,” which includes a Blu-ray and DVD, the latter of which has a Digital Copy of the film. There’s also a code to download the entire soundtrack for free (a nice plus). The video presentation of this wonderful family film are exceptional, with detail so fine, you can see all the tiny bits of fuzz on the felt used to make our titular heroes. The same goes for the audio here: the DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 soundtrack is outstanding, and really delivers.
The special features for The Muppets aren’t as great as the A/V aspects of this release are fine, but somewhat fleeting. There’s an audio commentary with Segel, Stroller, and Bobin that’s just OK, all things considered; several deleted scenes (including omitted cameos by Ricky Gervais, Wanda Sykes, Danny Trejo, Billy Crystal, and Kathy Griffin), including an extended segment wherein Chris Cooper raps (yes, that’s right: Chris raps); a witty behind-the-scenes featurette that is slightly reminiscent of Peter Serafinowicz’s Look Around You series; a blooper reel; a mini-featurette with the cast (Muppets and all) on their way to a read-through; and a collection of theatrical trailers that spoof several box office hits (Rise of the Planet of the Apes, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, etc.).
In short: The Muppets is just what Jim Henson’s Muppet babies needed. The title has already garnered enough interest for a sequel, though Jason Segel has announced that he shan’t be participating in it, so we might as well enjoy this one to the fullest just in case the next installment doesn’t have the same kick to it.