What do you do to revive a once-proud franchise that’s been on life-support for at least a decade? How do you breathe life into a brand that hasn’t produced anything really respectable since “Muppets Tonight” (1996-98) tried to recapture the magic of “The Muppet Show” that was such a cultural phenomenon from 1976-1981?
Well, if you’re the folks at Disney, you tackle it head-on by making a self-reflexive film whose plot revolves around that very problem. You show the Muppets studio and theater in shuttered shambles and depict the Muppets as has-beens living in relative obscurity, some worse off than others. Then you throw a problem at them that forces them to regroup, like the Blues Brothers, and try to put on one more show—even though people keep slamming doors in their faces because they’re nobodies now.
You introduce a new Muppet named Walter (Peter Linz) who’s not really a Muppet but just looks like them and thinks of them as the ultimate celebrities, so we can see the Jim Henson bunch through Walter’s adoring eyes and maybe remember what it was like when most of America felt that way. And you rely on the tried-and-true formula of having an evil oil man (Chris Cooper as Tex Richman) buy the studio and theater to “save it,” while really, after the contract is signed, he wants to raze it and drill for the oil that lies underneath.
It also helps if you can go beyond the usual bad punning of the Jim Henson Muppets by throwing in clever writing and background gags that audiences normally see in a Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker comedy, and if you can find two humans as cute and likable as their furry co-stars. Jason Segel (“How I Met Your Mother”) and Amy Adams (“Enchanted”) are perfect as a wide-eyed couple who’ve been dating for 10 years but who haven’t really gotten past first base because a) they’re not that kind, and b) Gary’s brother Walter is with them 24/7, so Mary doesn’t get much alone time with the love of her life.
Somehow, you convince A-list actors like Emily Blunt, Zach Galifianakis, John Krasinski, and Jack Black (who’s particularly funny) to play small but significant roles. Of course, you also round up as many of the recognizable old Muppets as you can: Kermit, Beaker, Statler and Waldorf, Rizzo, Link Hogthrob, Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear, Animal, Sam Eagle, Gonzo, Dr. Bunsen Honeydew, Zoot, Beauregard, Swedish Chef, Rowlf, Dr. Teeth, Pepe the Prawn, Bobo, Scooter, Sgt. Floyd Pepper . . . then throw in the equivalent of alternate universe Moopets who are a little more jaded and more in keeping with the times, and Alan Arkin as a tour guide.
And how do you know if the entertainment gods are smiling down on you? You enlist Brett McKenzie from Flight of the Conchords—a musical comedy duo from New Zealand—to write a song riffing on “What are you, a man or a mouse?” and the darned thing gets nominated for and actually wins an Oscar for Best Song (“Man or Muppet”).
With a strong script from Jason Segel and Nicholas Stoller and relentlessly whimsical direction from James Bobin (“The Flight of the Conchords” TV series), Disney’s “The Muppets” manages to recapture the exuberant spirit, campiness, and energy of the franchise in its hey-day. Not only do we get big production numbers where all the humans in the community break into song and dance along with Gary singing about his love, but after it’s over and Gary goes to Mary’s house and hands her bent and droopy flowers, he apologizes that they must have gotten bent during the musical number. Self-reflexive jokes abound, and there are clever allusions to the old Muppets show as well as to the process of filmmaking.
Rowlf the dog complains after a montage that shows Kermit rounding up the old gang, “How come you didn’t use me in the montage? I thought I was pretty interesting.” Then we DO see how Kermit found him—lying in a hammock. “Wanna get back together?” “Okay.”
Cooper is given some Wile E. Coyote moments, but he plays it just as straight as can be, even when the script calls for him to say, as a directive to his underlings, “Maniacal laugh . . . maniacal laugh.” That helps the comedy, too, because in less experienced hands it could have turned into an over-the-top Disney Channel adult. And even though Rashida Jones isn’t given much to do—it’s really all about Segel, Adams, Cooper, and the Muppets—she makes the most of her screen time as a TV producer who has a slot to fill at the last moment (“Punch Teacher” was abruptly cancelled because of a complaint by a teacher’s union).
Visually, there are plenty of bright colors, music, and action to capture the imagination of younger viewers, while those who remember the old “Muppet Show” will recognize all sorts of fun allusions and “updates.” The music is solid (well, except for a villain’s rap), the dancing and humor and Muppet acts are all fun, and Disney manages to bring the Muppets back from the virtual dead in the film . . . and in reality. That’s no small feat.
Wowsa, Wowsa, the video looks good. Colors are bold, objects and Muppets have a nice sense of 3-dimensionality, edges are strongly defined, black levels are spot-on, and there’s only a hint of grain to make you appreciate that you’re watching a film. The AVC/MPEG-4 transfer is an excellent one, with no visible problems. I expected some haloing or at least some color blurring when Animal was shown, but his bright red-orange fur held its detail. “The Muppets” is as perfect as video gets with today’s technology, and presented in 1.78:1 aspect ratio.
The audio is also flawless, an English DTS-HD MA 7.1 that blows you away even if you’re only running six tracks. It’s a dynamic presentation even at lower volume. Sound moves naturally and fluidly across the sound field, while the bass gets more action than usual in a family film and the rear effects speakers are constantly at work. Additional audio options are French DTS-MA 7.1, Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1, and English DVS Dolby Digital 2.0, with subtitles in English SDH, French, and Spanish.
This is the “Wocka Wocka Value Pack,” which offers, in addition to the Blu-ray, a DVD of the film, a Digital Copy, and a soundtrack of the film. The Blu-ray fits on one plastic spindle, while a Digital Copy disc and the DVD are stacked on top of each other on the other plastic spindle. To obtain the soundtrack you have to go online to Disney Movie Rewards and enter a redemption code to get all 15 tunes: The Muppet Show Theme, Life’s a Happy Song, Pictures in My Head, Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard, Rainbow Connection (Moopets version), We Built This City, Me Party, Let’s Talk about Me, Man or Muppet, Smells Like Teen Spirit, Forget You, Rainbow Connection, The Whistling Caruso, Life’s a Happy Song finale, and Mah Na Mah Na.
If you consider the extra discs and soundtracks as bonus features, it’s a pretty good deal. But beyond that, there isn’t a whole lot to impress. A commentary track from Bobin, Segel, and Stoller stoller is only average because of uneven content and a sense that sometimes these guys are trying too hard, while other times they’re not trying hard enough. The longest feature is also the best. “Scratching the Surface” (16 min.) is a making-of feature that tries to entertain you . . . and succeeds. Fans might also appreciate some 10 minutes of deleted scenes, though none of them will spark outrage (like, “Why isn’t this in the film!”). Other than these, there are around another 10 minutes of gag trailers featuring The Muppets: “Rise of the Muppets,” “Never,” “Green with Envy,” “The Fuzzy Pack,” “Being Green,” “The Piggy with the Froggy Tattoo,” and “Green with Envy, the Spoof Spoof Trailer.” Finally, there’s a nine-minute blooper reel and a three-minute script read-through with The Muppets that’s more clever as an idea than in principle.
Disney’s “The Muppets” is a solid family movie that breathes new life into an old franchise. Who’d have even thought that were even possible?