If the secret to great comedy is timing, The Muppets must be one of the greatest comic acts of all time. The original ‘Muppet Show’ first screened in 1976, when its unique combination of sweet, surreal and subtly satirical silliness was the perfect panacea for a country (it was shot in Britain, lest we forget) sliding hopelessly into financial meltdown. Now here we are, 35 years later, and The Muppets are back to distract us from another bout of economic misery through the simple application of soulful psychedelic songsmithery and rubber chicken gags (WACKA! WACKA!).
It’s all down to the efforts of two men. After the success of ‘Forgetting Sarah Marshall’, a romcom about a guy who puts on a puppet musical, rising comic star Jason Segel and his writing partner (and occasional director) Nicholas Stoller were clearly a strong, if not the most commercial, choice to reinvigorate this languishing franchise, and the way they’ve managed to feed Segel’s lifelong Muppet obsession into the resulting movie is nothing short of brilliant.
Segel plays Gary, a rosy-cheeked small-town optimist whose younger brother Walter happens to be, well, a puppet. Now that Gary is all grown up, he hopes to marry his childhood sweetheart, Mary (Amy Adams), and get out on his own, leaving no place for his furry, still-single sibling. So the three head for LA to seek out the only folks who know Walter’s pain: his heroes, the Muppets.
But times have changed. The old Muppet Theater is in ruins, sold off to an evil oil magnate (Chris Cooper). Its original residents are scattered: Kermit to his Hollywood mansion, Piggy to Paris Vogue, Animal to anger management therapy... There’s only one thing for it: they’ve gotta get the old gang back together.
What follows may be a predictable sort of putting-on-a-show hi-jinks, but in some ways that’s the point: this is cosy-blanket filmmaking, the very definition of that overused term, feelgood. Segel is a charming frontman, and if Adams is at times overshadowed by her co-star (not to mention a legion of limelight-grabbing fuzzy-felt extras), the relationship between them is beautifully sketched.
But the real stars are, of course, the Muppets themselves: Jim Henson may be gone (and Frank Oz’s voice talents are conspicuous by their absence), but ‘The Muppets’ is entirely true to their pioneering spirit, replete with beloved supporting characters, subversive asides, terrible puns and some of the most ludicrous, maniacal musical numbers ever committed to film – one throwaway showcase for a flock of singing chickens may well prove to be the funniest scene of 2012. The result is a film bursting at the seams with sheer, unadulterated joy: watch it, and the world seems just that little bit brighter...