I really really wanted to like The Muppets. Jim Henson’s crew of wise-cracking anthropomorphic puppets brings back a lot of nostalgia for me. I think I was a fan of the Muppets even before I understood English. There’s something about those massive widely-spaced eyes: the Muppets seem to be in a perpetual state of wonderment.
The Muppets falls flat. It’s not terrible; it’s just not all that good. The big problem is the script, co-written by Nicholas Stoller (Yes Man, Fun With Dick and Jane, Get Him to the Greek—all recent comedies operating at a roughly similar level of mediocrity) and Jason Segel, who co-stars as one of the human leads. Segel is a huge Muppets fan himself, and his affection for the institution betrays him as a writer: we move through all of the same story beats from the earlier Muppets movies—a road trip, a need to raise large amounts of cash, a variety show–delivered earnestly but without a speck of inspiration.
For a fairly innocent endeavor like The Muppets to work for adults, some adult tension must be released beforehand. Everyone brings along a certain amount of cynicism into a cineplex, which you will hear expressed as sarcastic jibes from the audience, immediately following a particularly dumb or uninspired preview. PG-rated comedies kill that cynicism with affection. Imagine you are a wild dog and the movie is cautiously petting you—if it works, you will be panting and licking its hand by the time the credits roll.
The original Muppets Movie opens with a long shot of a swamp, slowly panning into Kermit the Frog sitting on a lily pad with a banjo, singing Rainbow Connection. Frog, banjo, lily pad, rainbows—affection is earned.
The new movie tries to pet you as well, but you come off feeling a little roughed-up. It’s as if the film expects you to be in a state of wonderment already, and doesn’t feel the need to try to take you there. I mean, it’s been 27 years since The Muppets Take Manhattan. You can’t expect me to just pick up like I’m ten years old again, can you?
Jason Segel is usually okay as a secondary character, but a sloppy mess of a leading man. He’s tall but withdrawn, and his mannerisms are so soft and unimposing that he can’t command the camera’s attention. He is fine as the best friend the lead has a heart-to-heart with; as the lead himself, he is a disaster. True leading men radiate a constant stream of energy—it’s an intensity that has a focus, which the audience can’t help but share. Segel is way too relaxed. You almost don’t know whether you’re supposed to take him seriously. (I wonder sometimes if height is a detriment for leading men in the modern era. The most camera-hungry actors of the past thirty years have been short—Tom Cruise, Sean Penn, Al Pacino, Kevin Spacey, Edward Norton, etc.)
This is a comedy, of course, and Segel’s shortcomings in the intensity department are not fatal. The movie picks up some steam in the final chapter. Some of the cameos are funny, especially Jack Black at the end. I don’t know if a Muppets movie can actually work in 2011. I wish the makers of this film had considered how to make it work, instead of assuming it would and rehashing old material.