When adults couldn't care less about the characters they loved when they were five, well, then you have a has-been.
When you have both, then you have The Muppets, or as this movie really should have been titled, The Return Of The Muppets.
Grown-up brothers Walter and Gary have enjoyed watching The Muppet Show together since they were young. In Walter's case, for some reason, he is still young - he has never grown up, or even got any taller. He is also still devoted to the series, unlike Gary who now merely enjoys it, among his other more grown-up interests, such as his long-term girlfriend Mary. She never actually says it, but it becomes clear that she doesn't really like the muppets that much.
The three go on a vacation to Los Angeles, including a tour of the old Muppet Studios. Hilarity ensues. And heartbreak. For all three. Did I mention how noone ever notices that the perpetually young Walter is himself a muppet?
It is hard to review these 103 minutes of near-perfection without referring to the fact that I am coincidentally midway through watching both seasons of The Flight Of The Conchords. Both comedies feature the actress Kristen Schaal. Both are saturated with songs and music supervised at least in part by Bret McKenzie. Both are directed by James Bobin.
And that last point is probably what really makes this muppet movie stand even further ahead of all the others that I've seen. Almost everything about this film positively excels. The direction, the pacing, the killer gags that just never let up.
Miss Piggy's Receptionist: "She has an opening in early September."
Walter: "Early September? But that's in six months!"
Fozzie: "That's nothing. I once waited a whole year for September."
Walter: "Wait, stop the car! I have an idea."
[cut to the trio eating some chili dogs]
Gary: "These are delicious! Great idea, Walter."
Walter: "But Kermit, you have to try! The Muppets are AMAZING! You give people the greatest gift that can ever be given!"
Walter: "No, the OTHER gift."
Kermit: "Ice cream?"
Walter: "No, no, after that..."
Walter: "YES! The THIRD greatest gift ever!"
Even the casting. When the song Man Or Muppet launches into yet another spectacular music video featuring Gary as a muppet, it's quickly evident that someone is going to have to play Walter as a human. As our muppet approaches the mirror, there's just no way of foreseeing whose reflection is going to gawp back out at him, and kudos to the inspired choice of actor for playing it exactly how we all wanted him to.
The original muppets, and indeed The Muppet Show, haven't dated a jot, and to prove the point, for a while in this we are actually indulged with several minutes of a brand new episode of that series, complete with full opening theme. Even the inclusion of potential replacements The Moopets - "A hard cynical act for a hard cynical world" - seems designed to make the point that updating beloved old shows is usually a terrible idea. To that end, it's a shame that we didn't similarly get to see this alternative group put on their own hard cynical episode for comparison. "It's The Moopet Show… yeah, whatever."
At least, I don't think we did. Please allow this fanboy to be hard and cynical myself for a moment...
I'm sorry to say it, but lead actor Jason Segel looks so embarrassed in the first half, and accordingly seems to perform his songs for crassness. Yes the muppet world is an impossibly happy place, and yes it is your job to believe in it so that we can. I obviously don't know what order his scenes were shot in, but as I say, he does get over this.
Perhaps the greater problem for me was the slightly confused muppet backstory. The implied premise here is that the muppets split up after the TV series The Muppet Show ended.
Gary: "The Muppets haven't put on a show together in years."
However you and I both know that they've never stopped working together. Initially I read this as meaning that only their Muppet Show TV series was being considered canon here, but then Kermit goes and refers to The Muppet Movie, implying that their other films happened too.
Kermit: "Didn't you see our first movie?"
Their scatterment across the globe here is all a far cry from, for example, Muppets Tonight and Muppets From Space, the latter of which even featured them all sharing a house together. Even in a story which contains multiple breaches of the fourth wall, I found this lack of clear premise confusing. I mean is Gonzo still an alien in this, or did that film not happen, and so is he back to being a turkey again? Or is he now an alien who never found out that he was an alien?
I could just acknowledge that Muppets From Space was 13 years ago now, giving everyone ample time to break up, but then we're left asking where the rest of the muppet chorus are, such as Clifford and Sprocket, and whether they're going to appear later. (they don't, even with a whole audience to fill) Bobo and Pepe make it in, just to confuse matters further. Rizzo only appears mute. I don't know, Gonzo without Rizzo just seems wrong now. Yes, Gonzo had been getting character development!
Not to mention the Sesame Street crowd, of whom I understand that Elmo was disallowed to appear because he's not owned by the same company. Groan, this was never a problem in the old days. It all bodes very badly indeed for latest new muppet Walter, poor kid. No point in becoming a fan of him then.
However in a film so bursting at the seams with genuine entertainment, there's just no raining on this parade, not even with a hose. Despite anything that you may have heard to the contrary, this is not a reboot, or even a reunion, it's thankfully just the next one, although apparently on the quiet.
Finally, The Muppets also does a great line in Henson warmth. The defeats that the characters suffer are handled just as sensitively as they have always been. Accordingly, there are plenty of themes running through this that I found inspiring.
Walter: [to Gonzo]"When I was a kid and saw you recite 'Hamlet' while jumping your motorbike through a flaming hoop, it, well, it made me feel like I could do anything."
Likewise, when Kermit made his whole "I believe in you" speech at the end, well, it made me feel like I would never be afraid of anything again. I could finish here by quoting that, but I think Gary may have put it even better.
Gary: "You always believe in other people, but that's easy. Sooner or later, you gotta believe in yourself, too, because that's what growing up is. It's becoming who you want to be. You have to try."
Oops sorry that readout was supposed to display 10/10.
(with thanks to Herschel)