THE MUPPETS: I Really Don’t Want to Go Back to Reno

The Muppets (2011) – Directed by James Bobin – Starring Jason Segel, Amy Adams, Chris Cooper, Rashida Jones, Alan Arkin, Jack Black, Emily Blunt, Zach Galifianakis, Donald Glover, Neil Patrick Harris, Dave Grohl, John Krasinski, Selena Gomez, Whoopi Goldberg, Jim Parsons, Judd Hirsch, Sarah Silverman, and Mickey Rooney.

Soaked in nostalgia and promising a new beginning, THE MUPPETS is very much a cinematic panacea for troubled times, suggesting that everything can be set right by refocusing on what – and who – is important in your life.

It is a resounding success, a pure triumph of pleasantness and simplicity, and if you don’t leave the theater with a smile on your face and a desire to reconnect with loved ones that you’ve let slip away, then you have less of a heart that the furry and fuzzy hand puppets that populate this film.

At times hilarious and at other times heartbreaking, THE MUPPETS is a sweet, sentimental prescription for the contemporary ills of America. It’s easy to say this film is awash in nostalgia (in part because it spends so much time reminding you that people have forgotten about the Muppets) but there’s more than that going on here; intended or not, THE MUPPETS offers a cultural critique for a nation that’s lost its way. Whenever anyone talks about how the Muppets have been forgotten, it feels like they’re talking about all of us, about the national collective that’s somehow come off its guiding rails so much that we’ve become something else and unwanted. Think of the Muppets as stand-ins for us and their once-beloved, now-decrepit theater as America. Tex Richman wants to tear up the Muppet Studios and dig for oil, but it doesn’t just feel like he’s being a dick to the Muppets (they’re not using the theater anymore, after all), but rather that he’s a stand in for political leaders who’ve sold out our country’s ideals in their insatiable quest for oil.

Lest one think the Muppets are free from this blame, they’re not, as they are consistently shown as being out of touch with modern America, toiling away at their own lives without concern for the larger whole. Kermit is holed away in his California house that Miss Piggy paid for, doggedly living in the past. He shares his dusty house with a 1980s robot that says anachronistic sayings like, “Gag. Me. With. A. Spoon.” When Kermit has ’80s Robot offer his guests Walter (a non-Muppet Muppet), Gary (Jason Segel), and Mary (Amy Adams) a drink, he brings out a tray of Tab and New Coke. While the film doesn’t push him into Howard Hughes territory, Kermit’s house is filled with large paintings of his Muppet colleagues; when he needs a moment to think, he walks down this painting-filled hallway, singing to himself and hallucinating his friends joining in to sing along with him to “Pictures in My Head.”

It’s a wonderful sequence and one of the best in the whole movie, displaying humor, sentimentality, imagination, and a really great song. Any qualms I had about the movie (and my hopes were actually rather high going in) were lost in this sequence and I could simply relax and enjoy everything that followed.

Kermit’s not the only Muppet shown as being out of touch. Everyone has gone their own way. (Well, everyone but Beauregard.) Fozzie is working with a Muppets cover band in Reno, Scooter is at Google, Gonzo owns a big shot plumbing business, Animal is taking an anger management course, Rowlf is hanging out on his porch, Sam the Eagle is a newscaster for a Fox News knock-off, Crazy Harry is busy blowing Abraham Lincoln’s face off Mount Rushmore, the Electric Mayhem Band is playing in the NYC subway, and Miss Piggy is a plus-size fashion editor at Vogue in Paris. I like that there’s a nice mix here, some of the Muppets have gone on to great personal success while others have fallen by the wayside; fitting in with the movie’s larger theme that American entertainment interests have shifted, it’s the Muppets who have stuck with entertainment (Fozzie, Electric Mayhem, Kermit) that are struggling the most.

The plot in THE MUPPETS sees humans Gary and Mary, and Gary’s Muppet brother Walter (no, this isn’t explained) visiting Los Angeles from their home in Smalltown, USA. Smalltown is the kind of place that’s semi-stuck in time – it’s simple, it’s old-fashioned, and there are few non-whites hanging around. Gary and Walter still share a bedroom and there’s a wonderful sense here that while the nation needs to revert back a bit, Walter and Gary need to move forward. Gary has been dating Mary for 10 years, but he’s a bit clueless in the ways that a teenage boy is clueless about why his girlfriend is mad at him – in short, because he simply doesn’t understand women. Gary and Mary are headed for LA for their romantic 10th anniversary and Gary thinks it’s a fine idea to bring Walter along so he can visit the Muppet Studios and see his heroes.

There’s a really nice sequence pre-LA that shows Walter and Gary growing up together; they start out the same size but as they age, Gary grows while Walter remains the exact same size. Gary cares deeply for his brother, always helping him out and making him feel included. When Walter is too short to get on a carnival ride, Gary blows it off and heads home with his brother as if that was the better option all along.

Mary clearly doesn’t want Walter to come, but isn’t willing to stand up to Gary and tell him, “No.” She clearly wants Gary to come to the realization on his own that she’s the most important thing in his life.

As Gary and Walter head to pick up Mary, they and the the town break out into a very catchy tune, “Life’s a Happy Song,” setting the tone for a nice sprinkling of musical numbers throughout the film. There’s old songs (“The Rainbow Connection,” “The Muppet Show Theme”), new songs (“Pictures in My Head,” “Life’s a Happy Song,” “Man or Muppet”), and non-Muppet songs (“We Built This City,” “Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard”). Director James Bobin sprinkles the songs perfectly through the film, and Bret McKenzie’s new songs deliver exactly what each scene needs.

When Gary, Mary, and Walter get to the Muppet Studios, they find it in complete disrepair. Admission only costs 50 cents, but even that seems a steep price given the decrepit condition. Walter sneaks into Kermit’s workshop and accidentally discovers that Tex Richman (Chris Cooper), his two Muppet henchmen (Bobo the Bear and Uncle Deadly), and Statler and Waldorf are conspiring to destroy the studios completely in order to dig for oil that lies beneath the property. If the Muppets want to keep the studios and the rights to their name, they’ve got to raise $10 million. The visitors from Smalltown head to Kermit’s house to let the depressed frog know what’s what, and convince him to reunite the gang in order to put on a show to come up with the cash.

Hopping in Kermit’s old Rolls Royce with ’80s Robot at the wheel, they start out on their trek. Their first target is Fozzie, who’s working in Reno. Now, I currently live in Reno and when the city was announced as the first destination and the signature Reno Arch made an appearance, the crowd offered up a knowing whoop and chuckle, a tangible sense of “Hey, that’s us!” and “Yes, this is where people circle the drain of life.” Fozzie is working with a Muppet “tribute” bad called the Moopets, who are rougher versions of the Muppets. (Dave Grohl has a cameo as Animool.) Fozzie has reworked “Rainbow Connection” into a casino jingle and there really isn’t anything more depressing than hearing a piece of the Muppet Show’s heart commodified in this manner. Fozzie puts up a fake protest during an earnest heart-to-heart with his friend, but he quickly joins Kermit on his quest. Gonzo follows, and then they realize this will take so much time they go to a montage to quicken things up.

It’s a knowing wink to the audience, and this kind of fourth wall acknowledgment is used throughout THE MUPPETS, which adds to the general pleasantness of the film. Miss Piggy is last on the list of Muppets to bring back into the fold, with Kermit actually willing to not go after her. The others protest and they’re off to Paris. When Mary tells Walter they can’t drive to Paris in a car, the Muppets tell her they can do it if they “drive by map,” and we see an image of a map pop up with the traditional hand-drawn route line taking us quickly from LA to France.

Piggy is working at Vogue and wants no part of the reunion because she’s bitter at how things worked out with Kermit, and just wants her ex to admit that he misses her and he needs her, but he can’t do it. They head back empty-handed to the States and hire Miss Poogy from the Moopets to fill in.

The film takes a sharp turn once the Muppets come aboard. For the first act, it’s a Gary and Walter movie, but once Kermit’s quest begins, the Muppets take center stage and the Smalltown residents hit the (literal) back seat. Full credit to Jason Segel, who’s growing star power was one of the driving forces to get this movie off the ground. Segel co-wrote the script, but he generously steps into the background once the Muppets enter the film; this is much more The Muppets with Jason Segel than it is Jason Segel and the Muppets. As an actor, I like Segel well enough; he has a sense of clumsy earnestness about him which makes me want to root for him. Amy Adams is completely endearing, and Chris Cooper seems to relish his one-note villain role.

There’s plenty of guest stars, too, popping in for quick appearances. It’s telling that Bobin and Segel draw on everyone from Mickey Rooney to Selena Gomez to give everyone in the audience someone to recognize, but the emphasis is definitely on the geeky-yet-hip set that’s in favor on TV right now: Segel, Neil Patrick Harris, that Sheldon guy from the craptacular Big Bang Theory, Rashida Jones, John Krasinski, Zach Galifianakis, Sarah Silverman, and their patron saint, Jack Black. When Selena Gomez shows up and admits to Kermit that, “I don’t really know who you are,” the same could be said going in the other direction, too. With all those hip comedians running around, it’s a pretty clear sign that Muppets fans from back in the day are the smart, in-the-know ones, but the film makes a point to bring in a wide-range of celebrities to remind us that the Muppets are for everyone.

Any film that can give celebrity guest shots to both Selena Gomez and Judd Hirsch wants to be for everyone. (And, you know, good on whomever decided to give Judd Hirsch a cameo; I love that guy.)

The Muppets convince TV exec Veronica Martin (Rashida Jones) to let them host a telethon; well, actually, they don’t convince her, but when a two-hour block conveniently opens up in the schedule, she lets them have the time as long as they can get a celebrity guest host.

That leads to a semi-sad moment where Kermit goes through his rolodex looking for that needed celebrity, but he’s so out of touch with the current landscape that he calls celebrities like President Carter and Molly Ringwald. When Kermit decides to give up for what seems like the 800th time, Piggy organizes a kidnapping of Jack Black. Jack was Animal’s sponsor for anger management (no one is allowed to say the d-word – drums – around Animal or he goes off) but he’s an unwilling participant in the telethon. He gets a good amount of laughs as the captive, tied-to-a-chair host during the show, insisting to the audience that he and Fozzie “are not a duo” as their laughter grows with each Fozzie bomb and Jack response.

The Muppet Telethon is pretty entertaining, containing humorous skits, but they fall short of their goal, and leave the theater having lost out to Richman. Outside, however, a huge crowd has gathered to welcome the Muppets back into the public consciousness. When they fell short of reaching their goal, there’s a sense of real disappointment, but when Kermit tells the gathered Muppets that they tried and that what’s important … it’s an incredibly touching scene.

There are several scenes like this in the movie which are surprisingly emotional and I’m not ashamed to say I could feel some tears starting to swell beneath my eyes a few times. If THE MUPPETS was simply nostalgia, it could be played just for laughs because the thing about nostalgia is that it comes with a recognition that those times are past. We might recapture faded glories for a moment or two, but they’re not coming back. MUPPETS is so much more than that because it’s not just an ode to what used to be, but an admission that important things were lost. THE MUPPETS really isn’t about making the Muppets popular again (that’s the understandable and external goal of Disney); it’s about scolding you for letting go of loved ones, and giving up on dreams. There’s a reason this film is out during the holiday season – it’s much easier to forget about disconnected friends and family in May or August, but not so easy during the Thanksgiving to New Year’s run. MUPPETS doesn’t just invite the Muppets back for one last nostalgia ride, but demonstrates how to get the important things in life back into your own life. There’s plenty of laughs and gags on the surface, but deep down THE MUPPETS is a film about recentering the self and the soul.

And fart shoes.

The cultural critique is there if you want to see it, but it’s perfectly easy to let all of the heavy stuff slide right past and just enjoy Kermit’s mix of self-doubt and optimism, Piggy’s egocentrism, Fozzie’s bad jokes, and the mere presence of all these Muppets back on screen. Gonzo, Rowlf (I’ll tell you about my Rowlf nightmare some day), Scooter, and the rest might not get as much screen time as you’d like, but they’re here and they’re contributing and it simply feels good to see them doing their thing again.

Clever, touching, funny … there won’t be many movies all year that make me leave the theater with a bigger smile on my face and spring in my step than THE MUPPETS.

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5 thoughts on “THE MUPPETS: I Really Don’t Want to Go Back to Reno

    • Thanks, Jenny. That’s very kind of you to say. Sorry to hear people were walking out of your showing; I was pleasantly surprised at how much the kids in my audience were really enjoying the show. A good number of them were still singing the final song in the parking lot afterwards.

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