I was five years old when the original Muppet movie -- called "The Muppet Movie," oddly enough -- came out; I remember my parents packing all four of us Blomstedt kids into the car to go see it. Soon after, the cheery, quirky -- and even surprisingly poignant -- soundtrack was an essential part of our family's traveling music, too.
That movie was something rare, even then: an all-ages charmer that didn't condescend to the younger audience members, but also kept older viewers genuinely rapt.
I don't know what I expected to see going into the latest Muppet movie, titled simply "The Muppets." I mean, I know what I wanted to get out of it -- mostly a chance to re-experience the joys of gentle childhood memories with familiar characters, I think -- but I don't believe that I was looking for anything but an enjoyable time at the movies (like I usually do).
So imagine my delighted surprise at being, well, blind-sided. "The Muppets" is a movie brimming with heart and soul -- and tremendous joy, too -- but also with a depth of feeling that astonished me.
The story. Walter (portrayed by Peter Linz) and Gary (Jason Segel) are a pair of brothers from Smalltown, USA (yep, that's the name of the town), who grow up loving the Muppets -- especially Walter, who feels a strange connection to them. Well, maybe not that strange, seeing as Walter is a Muppet.
Gary has always supported his brother's obsession, so when he books a trip to Los Angeles for himself and his girlfriend of 10 years Mary (Amy Adams), he buys an extra ticket for Walter and accompanies him on a tour of the Muppet Studios. Once there, they discover that the dream factory they imagined they'd see is now dormant, having been abandoned long ago.
Walter, having wandered away from a tour, finds himself in Kermit the Frog's old office, which has visitors for the first time in what seems like forever. An oilman named Tex Richman (Chris Cooper) is meeting with some other businessmen (or are they business-Muppets?), explaining his plans to buy the studios and convert them to a museum.
Or so he says to the sellers. Once they've exited, Richman details his true plan -- he's going to destroy the studios to get at the untapped oil reserve underneath. And then, to underline his evilness, he offers a maniacal laugh. (And trust me, you've never heard a "maniacal laugh" delivered this way before; Cooper is simply marvelous here, and throughout the movie.)
Walter decides that he has to tell the Muppets so that they can save the studios. His first stop? Kermit's house. The frog's a tough sell, but eventually Walter convinces him to re-assemble the old gang for one last-ditch effort, which ends up being a two-hour telethon on a major broadcast network, with big-time movie star Jack Black as host (whether he likes it or not).
This being a film where most of the characters are made of cloth and fur, there is a genuine -- and not unexpected -- warmth and whimsy in the movie. It's a broad, wide grin of a production, to be sure, one that zips right along, firing all the witticisms it has in its arsenal right at you. (There's also a plethora of original songs here, too, usually performed with grand choreography; a couple of them even manage to be genuinely funny and heart-tugging at the very same time.) But there's something sad lingering beneath that eager-to-please veneer, and it's what elevates the movie from good to great for me.
For all their good cheer and go-get-'em spirit, the Muppet characters shoulder a shockingly heavy weight throughout -- the concern that their time is passed, that they have faded into obsolescence.
They acknowledge as much throughout the movie. Kermit (performed by Steve Whitmire, who inherited the role after the death of Muppet mastermind Jim Henson), early on, wonders in song if the world has completely forgotten about the Muppets -- and also questions if their loss of popularity was the organization's fault as much as it was the audience's decision to move on; later, a network television executive (Rashida Jones) flatly tells them they're not famous anymore. Richman even barks "You're dead!" at them later on.
Now, does the movie end on a down note, with the Muppets finally wheezing their last breaths before they vanish into the ether? No. (Duh.) But it's the acknowledgment that the Muppets have faded from pop-culture consciousness that gives the movie the juice it needs to be as triumphant and satisfying as it is.
If you loved the Muppets, and/or you have young ones who have never experienced them beyond "Sesame Street," "The Muppets" is a must-see. Four stars (out of four).