Though the legacy of Muppet mastermind Jim Henson still reverberates in the hearts and minds of children far and wide (most notably through Sesame Street), when it came to the movies, Kermit and the gang had never quite managed to recapture the magic of years gone by. In hindsight, one wonders if they were held back by a barely perceptible aura of cynicism: Maybe the people behind the films believed the Muppets were past their prime, and maybe that theory wasn't completely off base. Whatever the reason, it seemed that in recent years the spark that made The Muppet Show a phenomenon had dulled considerably. Thankfully, over 30 years after they first hit the scene, and more than 20 years after Henson's death, the Muppets get their groove back.
Screenwriters Nick Stoller and Jason Segel (who also stars) allowed no cynicism to taint The Muppets, which was directed by James Bobin of Flight of the Conchords fame. In fact, part of what makes The Muppets so successful is the honesty of its premise. In the film, as in life, The Muppet Show is valued primarily for its nostalgia factor, having long since been replaced by tackier fare. However, for Walter (voiced by Peter Linz) -- a puppet who resides in Smalltown, USA, with his brother and best friend Gary (Segel) -- the Muppets represent the sense of belonging he's never been able to experience as the only puppet in a town full of humans. When Gary and his girlfriend Mary (Amy Adams) take Walter with them on a vacation to Los Angeles, a tour of the Muppet Theater reveals that the onetime stomping ground of his idols is but a lonely shadow of its former glory. As fate would have it, Walter learns an oil tycoon (Chris Cooper) plans to tear down the theater, and suddenly reenergized, he makes it his mission to find Kermit, reunite the old crew, and hold a telethon that will raise enough money to save the theater from destruction. It's a tall order, but the Muppets (and the film) have the heart for the job.
There are flaws here and there -- Kermit occasionally seems like an impersonation of himself (perhaps it's impossible to recapture the bit of Henson's personality that he brought to Kermit as his original voice and puppeteer), and Cooper's musical sequence doesn't quite fit. It's also true that the formula doesn't deviate much from those of the classic Muppet films. Luckily, The Muppets doesn't suffer for these elements. It's a winning formula, after all, and the sincerity from all those involved gives it the feeling of an affectionate homage, as opposed to a crutch to lean on. Segel and Adams demonstrate a joyful earnestness in several musical numbers (for what's a Muppet movie without song and dance?) that could have easily fallen flat, while Cooper's gleefully villainous portrayal of oil tycoon Tex Richman echoes that of Charles Durning's turn as frog-legs merchant Doc Hopper in The Muppet Movie (1979). The many celebrity cameos (including a brilliant blink-and-you-miss it appearance from Dave Grohl of the Foo Fighters) are top-notch, and Jack Black playing himself as the telethon's reluctant celebrity host -- well, he's just really, really funny.
In the end, however, the film's success is owed to the fact that the living, breathing actors understand the show belongs to the Muppets. In their capable paws, claws, and flippers, the fun, kindness, and total, unadulterated wackiness of The Muppet Show is finally back.