Since it’s a reboot and nobody’s going to space or Manhattan, a room full of high-powered Disney executives needed to name the new Muppet movie. They chose The Muppets: boring, but signifies the film is about the idea of Muppets (and Muppetry, and Muppeteering) as much as it is a family friendly musical comedy. The essentials are present — the pun-fun and wordplayfulness, the hip self-aware irreverence, and most important to Disney, the sweet billions in collectable tin lunchboxes — but it’s refracted through the point-of-view of adult super-fans fully aware Muppets haven’t been relevant since the internet got cool. In fact, that’s the central conceit of the movie.
To show how awesome the Muppets used to be, we see the childhood of our non-Muppet protagonists, Walter (a puppet) and Gary (Jason Segel) saturated with Muppet movies and merchandise. Walter loves the Muppets because he’s a puppet, and the Muppets are one of the few positive media portrayals of puppet POV (time-out: wouldn’t it be weird if puppets were both cognizant and a disenfranchised minority?); Gary loves the Muppets because he’s a dork without much personality who’s just along for the ride (which makes the equally boring girlfriend, Mary, [Amy Adams] the perfect match). While lame, these characters set the impetus for a Muppet reunion after they hear an evil oil tycoon wants to bulldoze the Muppet theater for oil (typical Muppet dilemma: the drama isn’t in the reason for the show — the drama is the show itself). The show allows the Muppets to postulate what it takes to be popular in the ultra-fickle Internet Epoch by doing exactly what it takes to be popular in said epoch: like hiring obsessive Muppet fans who are musical and funny (remember Segel’s vampire puppet musical in Forgetting Sarah Marshall? Or did you know director James Bobin co-created Flight of the Conchords?); hiring cameos both broad and niche (including Chicago musician extraordinaire Andrew Bird in the final act, Jack Black in his funniest role since School of Rock and even The Guy With The Beard from The Hangover!); and an aggressive viral marketing campaign (Muppet parodies of iconic movie posters; viral videos and trailers; Miss Piggy).
The Muppets is quite “meta,” like the teens say. But, as evidenced by the bored four-year-olds sitting next to me, children always fail to realize the Muppets’ sophistication. Let’s not forget — the not-quite-mops, not-quite-puppets were media savvy and postmodern long before 2011 (The Muppet Show is a show about putting on a vaudevillian puppet show [much more interesting than actual vaudevillian puppet shows], for Henson’s sake!) The Muppets’ genius — the playful absurdism, the biting commentary on celebrity and even a type of moral altruism — is spoken through the mouth of a frog that plays banjo and a bear that wears a floppy hat. The screenwriters, directors and Disney recognize Muppet magic, and that’s how they make a great Muppet movie.