I will grant Jason Segel this: he wins a thousand good-people points for resurrecting The Muppets when there was little clamor in the market for another adventure film following Kermit and his gang. The wholesome-yet-wryly witty Muppets haven’t been on the silver screen since 1999’s Muppets in Space, and while there hasn’t exactly been a Muppet-shaped hole in the collective American heart, there is something nice about seeing the old Muppet pals doing their Muppet thing one last time, if only for nostalgia’s sake. Segel, fellow screenwriter Nicholas Stoller, and director James Bobin seem to know this and bank on it, because throughout The Muppets, they seem perfectly content to throw the gang on the screen, catch them saying “Wakka Wakka” and singing “Rainbow Connection,” and call it a day. The Muppets is something of a misleading title, really; more apropos of this unabashedly proud piece of sentimental gloop would be The Muppets Take a Victory Lap, which, while admittedly not as marketable as its current, benign title, would certainly be more apt at describing the 90 minute, self-congratulatory wink that is this soulless reboot.
Most everything about this movie serves to congratulate the Muppets on existing, and while reverence to Jim Henson’s puppet-phenomenon is appropriate, it need not be with the schlocky sense of self-importance oozing forth here. The entire story is predicated on The Muppets inherent cultural worth; Walter is the new personality-free Muppet boy who has been best friends (or brothers? No clear distinction, but I’m hoping the former so I don’t have to ponder the enigma of how one gives birth to man and Muppet) with Gary (Segel, playing a ham sandwich, granted, but a largely pleasing one). Walter realizes he is a Muppet when he discovers the wonder that was The Muppet Show (which, even if you never saw it, you’ll remember fondly because the movie will damn well make you), and he becomes obsessed with the franchise. Segel decides to let Walter play 3rd wheel on his 10th anniversary vacation with Mary (Amy Adams, a rather-too-sweet ham sandwich) when they go to see the Muppet studios in Hollywood. They find the place overrun and about to be bought by an evil oil tycoon (Chris Cooper, a bland, corporate ham sandwich, the kind served at staff-development meetings) who wishes to knock down the whole place for personal profit. The only way for the place to be saved is for the Muppets to put on one last show and raise 10 million dollars and if you’ve seen movies in your life, you can probably fill in how the rest of the film will play out.
The premise isn’t original, good, or interesting but this is supposed to be excused because everyone involved in the movie knows it, and you’ll know they know it every time they mug at the camera, which they do. A lot. The movie actively references how bad it is every few minutes, and while being self-aware and self-deprecating is natural and appreciated when you have your hand up a chicken-fetishizing quasi-alien by the name of Gonzo, the movie gets away with only so many in-jokes before it needs to provide a real reason for its existence, which it never does. It is, for all intents and purposes, a bad movie, who—so far, incredibly—has received favorable press simply by plucking the heartstrings on Kermit’s banjo.
Perhaps this is due to low expectations and a damn fine pandering to them, but there’s simply no heart in this thing. There’s an illusion of heart, sure; it’s obvious that Segel loves The Muppets dearly and their brand of sweet-but-smart comedy. But there was really no need for this. And by “this,” I don’t mean a Muppet movie. I mean The Muppets, the cameo-infested cheesefest with the series of irrelevant, uncomfortable musical numbers and the insufferably one-note protagonist and the saccharin tone and the irritating smirk. Later on in the film, there’s a series of characters introduced in the film known as Moopets. The Moopets are Muppet knockoffs who are just off in every way from their source characters, and as bad, cheap imitations, they’re uncomfortable to look at and hear. For a movie that’s so cripplingly self-aware, you’d think the creators might’ve recognized the irony in this, but this is nostalgia, dammit. Tear up and shut up.