If you grew up in the ’70s or early ’80s, there’s a good chance you knew about Gonzo the Great long before you heard of gonzo journalism. You mimicked Miss Piggy’s “Hi-ya!” battle cry before you ever saw a martial-arts film, and rocked out to Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem before you ever went to a show.
Kids of that era who grew out of “Sesame Street” by kindergarten often kept a soft spot for the Muppets, because the Muppets felt effortlessly relevant and real. Kermit was your mom’s soft-spoken postdivorce beau who went to all the seminars and support groups but secretly hated them. Miss Piggy was your suddenly flamboyantly feminist aunt. All those puppets winked at the audience and mocked tired variety-show conventions, making kids feel cool in the golden age of “Saturday Night Live.” But the Muppets never lost their soft, idealistic side — they were made of felty stuff, after all.
Actor Jason Segel is one kid who never grew out of the Muppets. So he grew up and, with writer Nicholas Stoller, pitched Disney on a new-generation Muppet movie. The result, directed by James Bobin, is a sweet comedy that could, given the right shared family sensibilities, entertain kids and parents equally. The Muppets breaks no new ground, but it’s no betrayal of Jim Henson’s legacy, either. Our heroes still express their feelings in the endearingly lumpy, twitchy way of hand puppets, not with the faux-human plasticity of computer animations. And that, paradoxically, makes them seem more human.
The story is, of course, totally meta. Segel stars as Gary, a small-town lad whose brother, for reasons never clarified, is of the Muppet persuasion. Walter, the Muppet boy who will never grow up, has the runty wanness of Michael Cera (puppeteer Peter Linz actually used the actor as a model). But he perks up when he starts watching old tapes of “The Muppet Show” and learns that Muppethood was once totally hip.
Gary, Walter and Gary’s long-suffering girlfriend, Mary (Amy Adams), make their way to Los Angeles, where they discover the run-down Muppet Theater about to fall prey to a ruthless developer (Chris Cooper). The Muppets, meanwhile, have scattered hither and yon, as cultural icons of yesteryear tend to do; Kermit is holed up in his mansion, Piggy working at Paris Vogue. It’s up to Walter, Gary and Mary to reunite the gang and save the theater by — what else? — putting on a show.
Classic Hollywood plot? Check. Guest stars with current cultural cred? Check. (Adult viewers will appreciate pop-ins from the likes of Zach Galifianakis and Sarah Silverman.) Silly slapstick gags? Check. Original musical and dance numbers, wittily staged? Check, though not enough of them. Laughs inexplicably wrung from the wordless rendition of an overexposed pop song by chicken puppets? Check.
The movie’s joy is infectious; Segel and Adams seem to be having the time of their lives. Still, in the filmmakers’ eagerness to give all the old characters their due, the pathos of Walter’s coming-of-age story gets a bit lost. His yearning to restore his idols to their former glory dovetails with Gen X viewers’ need to know their past still matters; kiddie TV sensations come and go, but Muppets endure.
But do they? Do today’s kids feel that shiver down their spines when they hear the opening notes of “The Rainbow Connection,” or do they just wish they were watching something involving squeaky-voiced CGI critters? Time, and the box office, will tell.