Charting a course apart from the path of easy resistance, however, is the most remarkable element of The Muppets (2011). Writers Jason Segel and Nicholas Stoller saw fit to pack this film to the brim with bright and witty, and rippingly self-aware, writing. Very rarely does this film go more than a minute or two without a joke that will have you rolling or a self-aware stab at the film’s own plot trajectory that’s so rapid-fire that the meta never gets old. And if at any point the script isn’t downright hilarious, it’s bound to be tear-jerking or nostalgic for Muppets fans from the least caliber to the highest. The geniuses in charge of maintaining the value of the Muppets brand were sharply aware of how best to carry it into the new millenium: The appeal of a primitively-animated cast of puppets in colors of earthy brown and faded greens (totally not dressed for the times) isn’t inherent; it’s the massive, screen filling richness of each creature, it’s in the loveability and reliability of each and every one, and it’s in their capability to surprise us and make us smile at every turn.
So, from a minute-to-minute standpoint, The Muppets is guaranteed to keep you captivated and thoroughly entertained. But I have to take particular offense at the Disney’s choice of plots, and at the staleness of the movie as a whole. Of course, given how self-aware and intelligent the writing is here, the movie was going to mock itself no matter what direction its story took, but this film heads into territory that is neither particularly remarkable, nor fully appreciates the value of its timeless cast. We’ve seen Rizzo, Kermit, Beaker and the Swedish Chef in pirate tales, Christmas stories and heists, so they’ve more than proven themselves. The Muppets (2011), though, spends more time talking the talk than walking the walk. For anyone unfamiliar with the franchise, the first quarter of the film would be like listening to a giddy fanboy praising the Star Wars films rather than just simply watching them. We don’t need to hear about how great the Muppets are. We just want to watch a friggin movie with the Muppets in it.
Instead, we get something like half an hour of a film spent with a pretty boring non-Muppet puppet who wishes we was a Muppet. Why, you ask, you un-educated Muppet rube? Well, because he, like all the Muppet enthusiasts surrounding you in the theater, grew up watching the Muppets, and gosh-dang are they ever good. So the non-fans are bored rather than curious, and the fans get to agree with a boring character for far too much of the movie. This isn’t particularly enjoyable for anyone, and while it probably sounded good in concept, it’s a rather curious narrative choice. Not awful, just bland. Like Weird Al’s UHF, it’s a framework that supports a 1½ hour-plus runtime and allows for an astronomical amount of shenanigans, and it’s really hard to get particularly perturbed about it when the film mocks its own simplicity and convenience so brilliantly and continuously.
Don’t get me wrong, though, The Muppets really takes the intelligent humor to the next level, and when they are on screen, you’d be hard pressed not to be belly-laughing almost non-stop. I know I did. And, as usual, celebrity pop-ins are riotous, from Mickey Rooney to Jim Krazinski, and villain Chris Cooper makes muttering “maniacal laaaaugh, maniacal laaaaugh” far funnier than most could. As a production, the film is simple and un-ambitious, maintaining its single-minded focus on making sure you are laughing your head off at any given point in time, rather than distracting you with fancy special effects and elaborate cinematography. It’s a shame they did distract from the gold-mine of a cast with the coal-pit of a plot, but assuming you can get past that (and you definitely will), you couldn’t do better than The Muppets for simple good time at the theater this holiday season.