If you were nervous that Jason Segel (and co-writer Nicholas Stoller) would update the Muppets for the modern age in any sort of cynical, pop culture reference-laden way, rest easy. That is not what they've done with The Muppets. This new movie, the first Muppets film to hit the big screen since 1999's clunky Muppets from Space, is a sweetly wistful nod to some beloved old friends that doesn't seem all that interested in contemporizing this decidedly retro gang.
The basic plot of the movie involves Segel and his Muppet brother, Walter, traveling to Los Angeles (with Segel's sunshiny dope of a girlfriend, played sunshinily and dopily by Amy Adams), with a grand trip to the Muppets Studio in mind. Of course when they get there, the place is dilapidated and mostly abandoned. What happened to all our old Muppet friends? Well, we never really find out what caused the diaspora, but Kermit, Fozzie, Piggy and the rest are all scattered to the wind, performing lame gigs in dumpy Reno casinos, working as the plus-size editor for French Vogue (guess whose job that is), or wandering, Norma Desmond-esque, around a big old Bel Air mansion. Segel and Walter want to get the group back together so they can save Muppet Studios from an evil oil baron (a surprisingly game Chris Cooper) who plans to level the place, steal the Muppet name, and dig for oil. The only way to stop him? To put on a show, of course.
So the story bounces merrily along, with appearances from everyone's favorites -- there's Beaker & Honeydew, Rowlf and Animal, the Swedish Chef and some clucking chickens -- and some sprightly, if thin, musical numbers. There are some sly "for the grownups" jokes that mostly land, and blessedly few references to anything terribly current. Yeah, the chickens cluck along to Cee Lo's "Fuck You" (the joke is, I guess, cluck you) and Selena Gomez and the rotund kid from Modern Family pop up, but that's about it. Most of the really good pop culture jokes, in fact, are sad little winks to the adults in the audience who realize just how long it's been since the Muppets were big. There are mentions of President Carter, Molly Ringwald, Bob Hope, Dom DeLuise, and Carol Burnett. Segel and Stoller clearly still lovingly mourn for The Muppet Show of their childhoods and expect, rightly so it would seem judging by the healthy level of grownup interest in the film, that others do too. So there's an air of melancholy about the proceedings, but it's probably only picked up by the taller folks in the audience, the ones more attuned to the flash and fleet of time.
For the kids there's plenty of antic humor that's silly and broad (sometimes too broad; Fozzie Bear has fart shoes -- a joke that seemed, yes, a bit crass for The Muppets) and everything is shot in pleasing, soundstage-y bright colors. But I do wonder if there's enough original goofy stuff in this picture for little ones, who probably won't really understand all the harkening back to the old goofy stuff. The children in my audience seemed to get bored about three-quarters of the way through, and I don't blame ADD or anything so modern. In truth, the movie is a bit too long, with a climax and denouement that is overly dragged out, seemingly just to allow more room for celebrity cameos (Neil Patrick Harris! Whoopi Goldberg! James Carville?). That said, the movie stays relatively buoyant throughout, even though the slightness of Segel & Stoller's script comes as a bit of a surprise. Sure much of their career was spent in the old vaudeville variety theater, but the Muppets also had great capers and adventures! It would have been nice to see them stretch their legs (wires?) a bit in this movie, to Muppetly explore the bigger world.
Instead we get just the old gang getting back together for one last, ultimately unremarkable show. "The Rainbow Connection" is lovely and poignant as always, but that's just it, it's the same as ever. There's no real invention here. But maybe that's OK! Perhaps the Muppets really are best when they're simple, traditional, comfy. Maybe we should be grateful to Stoller and Segel for simply turning the lights back on, stepping away, and letting the Muppets do their thing. It's a great old thing, after all.