The Muppets currently has a 97% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, has been recommended to me by countless friends with varying tastes in cinema, and boasts Jason Segel as lead actor and co-writer. The signs were good that The Muppets would be a good time. And I hated it.
Well, hate is a strong word. There were short bursts of entertainment sandwiched between the spastic narrative and flat jokes, but I can only explain the overwhelming mass approval of The Muppets to myself by assuming that adults have been validating its flaws; either through some sort of Muppet nostalgia, or a forgiveness due to the false assumption that kids movies don't actually have to be good.
The film opens strong, introducing us to Gary (Jason Segel) and his puppet brother, Walter, both die hard fans of The Muppets, tracking through their adolescence. The establishment of human beings and puppets as equals (their familial relation) is a charming proposition, although the Sesame Street innocence of the characters became nauseating almost immediately. The gooey naivety of Jason Segel's character goes stale quickly. He communicates almost exclusively in uber G-rated dialogue and exaggerated excitement--"Gee golly, Walter! Isn't this going to be spectacular?!" Likewise, he has been dating Amy Adams for ten years, and is completely oblivious to her desire to become engaged, or even to spend time alone with him. This pander is presumably sarcastic, but obnoxious nonetheless, and contributes nothing to a film so focused on self-awareness, that winks and nods become the film's main focus.
Upon meeting Kermit, Walter, Gary, and Mary (Amy Adams), convince him to get the Muppets back together in order to stop evil oil tycoon, Chris Cooper from leveling the Muppet studios. Kermit, of course, has become a sort of hermit, longing for the good old days, yet unable to look at the picture of Miss Piggy he has hidden behind a curtain. His apparently (yet for vague and hardly explained reasons) broken heart briefly hinted that The Muppets would contain some sort of emotional relevance like 2009's Up thrived on. Unfortunately, this theme exists only in skeletal form, the structure of Kermit and Piggy's relationship and reconciliation is there, yet never develops.
The same is true of Gary and Mary's relationship. As the film progresses, they fade more and more into the backdrop of the film, appearing mostly as smiling, lobotomized faces floating behind Kermit as he convinces each of the Muppets to "get the band back together." Only once the gang is back together do they become relevant again, as Mary remembers that the trip they're on is supposed to be in celebration of her and Gary's anniversary. She gets cranky, and one starts to wonder if this story arc is all a ploy to squeeze a few songs out of Amy Adams and Jason Segel.
As for the Muppets themselves, there doesn't seem to be any real reason why they aren't together anymore. They all join up with relative ease, even Miss Piggy shows up just a day or two late. The Muppet retrieval is more or less mundane. Each muppet shows some initial resistance, then somehow it comes out that they miss the good old days too, wouldn't ya know? Yawn. Only the retrieval of Animal earns its laughs. It seems he has anger control issues, and is attempting to work them out in group therapy.
Once the team is assembled, the newly regrouped Muppets find that the television studios no longer consider them relevant. It seems that singing puppets aren't edgy enough for today's audience. They do manage to get TV time for their telethon, and the final third of the movie becomes a Muppet show in itself. The show, of course, convinces everyone to fall in love with the Muppets all over again, and a tear falls down everyone's eye as they long for simpler times. The final third comes complete with musical numbers, celebrity cameos, and good triumphing over evil. It's a weird mix of nostalgia and commercialism that's all supposed to be okay, because the character's break the fourth wall and make fun of it.
The film's high points come largely from the few musical numbers that are both entertaining and plot relevant. Muppet versions of various hits are fine and dandy, yet the stand out acts are the opening number, which comes complete with dancing in the street and various passerby interjections, as well as the song, "Am I a Man or a Muppet?" which is, by far, the highlight of the film.
Yet, for a film that asserts "kids are better and smarter than this junk," it offers little artistry. The narrative seems to jump back and forth between plot points, without really developing any of them. The self-awareness (why don't we cut to a montage to save time?) is amusing at points, especially when the song, "Fuck You" by Cee Lo is snuck into the Muppet's show by clucking chickens. More hidden jokes for adults would have been appreciated, instead the filmmaker's rely on celebrity cameos, which are cheap attempts to appeal to a larger audience. When Chris Cooper starts rapping, it's all over. There can be no coming back from that atrocity.
And so, despite behaving as kid's movies often do, it appears that the target demographic is much older. Whether it be specifically the Muppets fans of old, I'm not sure, but The Muppets lacks that spark that makes a film memorable. A kid doesn't care if Neil Patrick Harris shows up in a movie, he cares about plot, character, and entertainment. To them, the Muppets are out of context characters making snide remarks. Maybe instead of giving them the remnants of a lost dynasty, they deserve new characters to shape their childhood. But in the age of remakes and reboots, it doesn't seem as likely as it once did.