Desperately trying to appeal to not just the Gen Xers who grew up with Kermit, Miss Piggy, and Dr. Teeth, but also the tykes who’ve never even heard of Jim Henson, The Muppets has none of the easy confidence of the original TV show or the 1979 movie. Those Carter-era staples magically combined anarchic lunacy—how many ballroom-dancing scenes with Gonzo and Camilla, his hen sweetheart, ended in explosion?—with unapologetic squareness. Moldy talents such as Ruth Buzzi and Zero Mostel were the guest stars on The Muppet Show; Dom DeLuise and Milton Berle cameoed in The Muppet Movie. The original foam, fleece, and fur performers were assured showbiz veterans who never worried about being hip; their irreverent sensibility made them timeless. Unable to resist one of the more appalling trends in kids’ movies over the past decade, the reboot, in contrast, features Camilla and a bunch of backup chickens clucking to Cee Lo’s “Forget You.”
The Muppets is the first film by British-TV vet James Bobin (Da Ali G Show, The Flight of the Conchords); it is largely the labor of love of diehard Muppets fan Jason Segel, who co-wrote the script with his Forgetting Sarah Marshall director, Nicholas Stoller. Segel also stars as Gary, protective big brother of Walter, a sweet if dull new Muppet created for the film who is revealed in the opening scenes to be absolutely nuts about Kermit and associates, watching the TV show over and over. Although this sibling relationship remains faithful to one of the main tenets of Henson’s universe—that the Muppets always think of themselves as animate beings in the real world, not as puppets—it upsets the balance in the ecosystem: In the past, humans have been drop-in visitors in this world of fabric creatures, not peers.
Walter (voiced by Peter Linz), Gary, and Gary’s girlfriend of 10 years, schoolteacher Mary (Amy Adams), leave their Midwestern hamlet of Smalltown for a trip to Los Angeles, where the highlight is a tour of the decrepit, dusty Muppet Studios. The trio learns of a plot by tycoon Tex Richman (Chris Cooper) to tear down the building to dig for oil. They frantically seek out Kermit and convince him he must reunite his long-lost pals to save the studio. (A conceit not so far removed from reality: Disney, which, after a series of botches and setbacks, finally bought the Muppets in 2004, 14 years after Henson’s death, is hoping for new-franchise gold with this big-screen rejuvenation of the long-stagnating characters.)
Certain moments of Kermit’s quest recall the vaudevillian fun of its predecessors. The Muppets is most successful when devoted to gathering the old players and following the arc of its forebears by becoming a show about the frenzy of putting on a show—in this case, a telethon to raise the $10 million needed to buy back the studio. Fozzie is found doing stand-up in Reno with a lousy tribute act, the Moopets, who perform a reggae cover of “The Rainbow Connection.” Miss Piggy, sporting a Chanel suit and a Samantha Jones–like coiffure, is finally convinced—after a constitutional through the streets of Paris with Kermit—to leave her post as the plus-size editor for French Vogue to contribute her talents to the TV fundraiser. These characters, at least, have been sharply updated, without their 21st-century details seeming like lazy razzing of pop culture; Animal, retrieved from court-appointed anger-management sessions, doesn’t fare as well.
There was a charming meta-ness to the ’79 movie, which was structured as both a film-within-a-film and an origin story, and included a few sly winks to the audience. Straining for that same vibe, this Muppets overreaches, its characters constantly making references to the musical numbers they just completed.
In their heyday, Henson’s witty, smart-alecky weirdos, though of course popular with kids, also appealed to grown-ups. Terrified of alienating those who were raised on the originals, The Muppets panders to them instead, constantly blasting or restaging Top 40 hits from the past three-plus decades, continuing the cheap strategy that worked well on YouTube two years ago with the Muppets’ cover of “Bohemian Rhapsody.” The handful of serviceable new songs composed for the film by Bret McKenzie includes the requisite execrable rap. “I think kids are better and smarter than this junk,” Kermit tells Rashida Jones’s TV executive, who explains to him why the Muppets are no longer relevant in an era of Punch Teacher, her network’s most popular show. Adults are, too.