The Muppets

Fri, Feb 10, 2012, 00:00

Directed by James Bobin. Starring Amy Adams, Jason Segel, Chris Cooper, Rashida Jones, Jack Black, Walter, Kermit the Frog, Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear, the Great Gonzo, Animal, Statler, Waldorf G cert, gen release, 110 min

This celebration of the Muppets’ return is endlessly delightful and witty, writes DONALD CLARKE

JUST AS EASTERN European film-makers used to disguise political allegories as surreal comedies, Hollywood, aware of certain lurking prejudices, has taken to presenting traditional musicals as bawdy satires (the South Parkfilms), hen-party flicks ( Mamma Mia!) and family films (every second Disney picture).

This endlessly delightful, choke-on-popcorn funny disinterment of the Muppets is as perfect an example of the clandestine tuner as you could hope to see. A brief barbershop version of Smells Like Teen Spiritputs the hysterical Moulin Rouge!in its place. Less distracted than that annoying Baz Luhrmann picture, more cinematic than the drab Chicago, The Muppetsis a near-perfect tribute to – and gentle pastiche of – the Dream Factory’s indestructible traditions.

In a characteristically clever move, Nicholas Stoller and Jason Segel, the film’s writers, address the potentially troublesome issue of the Muppets’ antiquity in the film’s opening sections. Segel and Amy Adams play Gary and Mary, an improbably perfect couple from some sun-drenched corner of the interior.

For reasons that are never quite explained (and shouldn’t be), Gary’s brother, Walter, seems to have been created by the same God that delivered Miss Piggy, Kermit and Animal. The displaced Muppet has, not surprisingly, developed an obsession with the once-great, felt-covered vaudevillians.

To celebrate his coming nuptials, Gary brings Mary and Walter on a trip to LA where, all going well, they will visit the Muppets’ studios and meet the eccentric stars.

But time has moved on. The Muppets’ back-lot turns out to be a crumbling wreck. The talent has all dispersed to various corners of the world. Worse news follows. A sinister magnate named (deliciously) Tex Richman is planning to bulldoze the studio and drill for oil.

What happens in such circumstances? Why, we put on a show, of course. The three pals set out to get the old gang back together again.

As aghast readers may be aware, certain maniacs at Fox News have, noting the businessman’s immorality, accused the film-makers of peddling a left-wing agenda. You could not hope for a better illustration of that media organisation’s deafness to even the most blaring irony.

Hilariously played by Chris Cooper (he actually mouths the words “maniacal laugh”), Richman is clearly a walking parody of Hollywood’s tendency to place horns on any passing capitalist. Glance at this week’s largely awful Big Miracleand you will find Ted Danson essaying an evil oilman who plans to turn all Alaska’s whales into nuclear missiles (or something).

That outbreak of satirical whimsy is characteristic of a film that strikes a perfect balance between self-consciousness and open-hearted sentiment.

Hearing that James Bobin, the film’s director, was a co-creator of the Flight of the ConchordsTV show, the reader could be forgiven for fearing a vertiginous descent into knowing snark. Don’t forget, however, that the original TV series and spin-off movies always allowed the characters to break the fourth wall and comment on accumulating absurdities. The spirit of such late-1960s comic anarchists as Rowan & Martin energised the Muppets’ early activities and continues to colour their adventures.

All of which distracts us from cheering the gorgeousness of the characters and celebrating their largely unaltered natures. Dragged from her position as editor of French Vogue, Miss Piggy remains as egotistical and libidinous as ever. Fozzie Bear is still an ursine Max Miller. Kermit the Frog continues to offer a voice of reason. Animal is still Keith Moon.

If you never cared for Jim Henson’s immortal creations, then nothing here will win you over. If, on the other hand, you’re not a joyless maniac with a soul of anthracite then you will work hard to imagine how this project could have been better handled.

We have only one complaint. Why is the patriotic Sam the Eagle so criminally underused? Those pesky Hollywood liberals.