To make the Muppets, first Jim Henson gilded puppetry with an unmistakable shimmer of stage magic: Any great Muppet sketch has a "How'd-they-do-that?" element to it. You can't help but crane your neck to look in vain for the puppeteer hiding somewhere in the scenery or dedicate several minutes to wondering how Henson, say, got Kermit the Frog and Miss Piggy to pedal around Central Park on bicycles without any human assistance.
Second, Henson infused his felt-skinned creations with the manic timing of vaudeville, as perfected by early Warner Bros. cartoons. Every minute of a worthy Muppet endeavor manages to fire off three different jokes—one broad laugh for the kids, one sly nod to the adults while the kids are busy laughing, then a clever sight gag in the background to catch on repeated viewings.
I'm pleased to report that Jason Segel, who cowrote and stars in The Muppets, absolutely understands the necessity of both sides of Henson's two-pronged approach. As they return to movie theaters for the first time since their five-film losing streak ended in 2005 with the unmemorable Muppets' Wizard of Oz, the Muppets are in very good hands (and very good hands are in the Muppets, too).
Segel reportedly talked new Muppet owners Disney out of a (gasp!) CGI approach—one can imagine the pair of programming schlubs on the Hollywood back lot who devoted years to perfecting the look of digital felt before the Mouse, with its infamous cold-bloodedness, finally pulled the plug on them. With CGI out of the picture, Segel went about enlisting the best talent he could to make a top-notch movie.
The riskiest move is in the script: Segel went meta, writing a plot in which he and his puppet "brother" Walter have to reunite the Muppets in order to save their old theater from a greedy businessman named Tex Richman (a delightfully game Chris Cooper). The beginning is a little too nostalgic and reverent—nostalgia and reverence are anti- Muppet—but once Fozzie and Animal and all the rest show up, the self-importance deflates and everything starts running smoothly.
I don't want to get into too many specifics, because The Muppets is packed with surprises, and you should absolutely experience it without spoilers. Segel stuffed the movie end-to-end with entertainment: Celebrity cameos abound, Flight of the Conchords' Bret McKenzie contributes genuinely catchy songs, and Segel and costar Amy Adams dance their hearts out. (Adams is as charming as she's ever been as the love interest, but she's not given a whole lot to do; The Muppets, it must be said, is a bit of a sausagefest.) There's a little CGI trickery—we're not supposed to see Muppet feet as often as we do here—but the best sequences are showcases of good old-fashioned puppet ingenuity, the Henson way. While the children laugh at a scene where Kermit and company have to sit on toilets at a plumbing factory, the adults are laughing because they're picturing the poor Muppeteers who have to lie on their backs and snake their arms through toilets to make the scene work.
Segel remembers that every Muppet movie has real emotional heft, too. In addition to the straightforward stick-it-to-the-businessman plot, the movie asks some serious thematic questions: Is it possible for an intellectual property to be bought by a huge corporation and still maintain the integrity that made it so worthwhile in the first place? Can a grown man cling to his childhood and still be a grown man? Does a fart joke belong in a Muppet movie?
The answer to that last one is a little tricky; some Muppet purists are already upset about it. And Frank Oz, the original actor behind Miss Piggy and Fozzie Bear, has been very vocal about his displeasure with Segel's script. Unfortunate as it is to imagine an upset Frank Oz, this is as it should be. Any entertainment property that lasts for 40 years (40 years!) survives by moving forward, and you can't move forward without leaving parts of the past behind. The Muppets is more than respectful of what has come before, and the new elements Segel inserts—jokes about the 1980s, a slightly more ADD-friendly directorial style, the aforementioned farts—are all part of the evolutionary process. (Nothing here is as jarring as the weird mid-'90s Muppets Tonight TV show, with its unlovable Jar Jar Binksian host, Clifford, for instance.) Anything less irreverent would have left the film with a strange trapped-in-amber quality.
The Muppets isn't perfect—Fozzie and several other Muppets at times sound like they have sore throats due to the new voice talent, and because of the up-with-Muppets tone of the film, there's not really any way for grousier elements like Statler and Waldorf or Sam the Eagle to get their moments in the spotlight—but it's pretty damn close to perfect. It introduces the Muppets to a new generation of kids while reminding the generation before exactly why they loved them so much. Hopefully, Segel will stick with this for a while longer; the next movie, which won't have to explain why we should give a damn about the Muppets, has the potential to live up to what Segel originally wanted to title this one—The Greatest Muppet Movie Ever.