I really, really wanted to love The Muppets, the new big-screen attempt to bring Jim Henson's beloved characters some current pop culture cachet, and...well, I just couldn't.
Not that I hated it, mind you. This isn't a shameful misunderstanding of everything that makes the characters great, the Space Jam of the Muppet world. If anything, it's too reverent, tries too hard to evoke warm and fuzzy memories, attempting to coast on a sentiment it simply hasn't earned. It's made by fans, obviously--the primary fan, in this case, being co-writer and star Jason Segel, who has publicly stated over and over how much the Muppets meant to him--but as a result, it feels like glorified fan fiction. The real Muppet crew would never have made this.
That crew is scattered to the winds, of course. Jim Henson, Richard Hunt and writer Jerry Juhl are dead, Jerry Nelson has largely retired and Frank Oz...honestly, it's kind of hard to know what's up with Oz these days. Of the old guard, only Dave Goelz and Steve Whitmire are involved, and too many of the characters lack their old spark. Henson, Nelson and especially Oz were renowned for their ability to give their characters distinctive physical mannerisms, odd bits of business that brought them to life, but all too often, the characters now just seem to move from Point A to Point B without any real sense of life.
Then again, there's not much life to the script by Segel and Nicholas Stoller. It cleverly riffs on many beloved Muppet tropes and gags, and has some genuinely funny moments--the sight of Wayne and Wanda making out gave me great delight--but it just tries too hard. Most disastrously, the catalyst for the story is a new Muppet named Walter, who is blessed with not a single interesting feature. Favorites like Gonzo and Rowlf are given nothing to do so this character can go through a Screenwriting 101 Character Arc, and why? It's like making a new Peanuts movie and sidelining Charlie Brown and Lucy in favor of Shermy.
The most exasperating thing about Walter is that he's not remotely funny, but you know who else doesn't have a single decent laugh line in this movie? Kermit The Frog. Sure, he's the starry-eyed dreamer and all that, but Kermit's always gotten some of the best gags. But he spends the entire running time of The Muppets (that is, when he's not reminding the audience what an awesome new character Walter is) being mopey. And when he finally breaks into The Rainbow Connection...
Look, if you've spent any time at this site at all, you've seen countless vintage Muppet clips posted, you've read all sorts of stories about how my Mom cried for days on end when Jim Henson died, how Bein' Green was the one song she stipulated had to be played at her funeral, and, for crying out loud, I went through a period there where most of the titles of my posts were taken from Muppet Movie lyrics. All I have to do is hear the banjo-plucking intro to The Rainbow Connection and I immediately tear up.
And yet, its performance here did nothing for me. Instead of an Applause sign, it felt like the filmmakers were using a Sentimental Tears sign. The honest emotions that Jim Henson and company could evoke effortlessly just isn't there anymore. I wouldn't presume to say that the time of The Muppets passed with Henson, but it's been twenty-one years since the man's death, and the characters still seem trapped, unsure where to go. Despite the brilliant efforts of his fellow puppeteers, designers, scriptwriters and songwriters, maybe the only person who truly understood what made The Muppets work was Henson. We know it was probably magic.
The Muppets is an honest attempt to bring back that magic, but a failed attempt just the same. Still, if nothing else, it proves that audiences still have great love for these characters, and maybe next time they'll get where they're going. Or, as Gonzo so eloquently put it, they're going to go back there someday.