A version of this review appeared in The Age, January 12, 2012.
What's wrong with The Muppets is plain from the opening song-and-dance number – specifically, the simper worn by co-writer and star Jason Segal as he cavorts alongside his puppet pal Walter. His uneasy expression seems to say “I'm just a big kid at heart,” but also “Look at me acting like such a geek.” Such self-consciousness feels remote from Jim Henson's famous creations, with their winning simplicity and lack of embarrassment.
In fact this supposed comeback vehicle, directed by James Bobin, isn't really a Muppet movie; rather, it's a film about how much Segal loves the Muppets, a much less appealing proposition. The story posits that the old Muppet theatre in Hollywood has fallen into decay and is about to be sold off to grasping oil baron Tex Richman (Chris Cooper). It takes the insipid newcomer Walter to reunite the original troupe, with the aid of his human pals – an opportunity for Segal to pat himself on the back for restoring the Muppet “brand”.
Pathos was always part of the Muppet formula, but usually for only a couple of minutes at a time. Bobin and Segal aim so squarely for the hearts of Generation X cultists they seem to have forgotten about their main audience of children: there's a surplus of sickly nostalgia, nowhere near enough explosions and off-the-wall jokes. Even the stronger ideas – Kermit as a millionaire recluse in the mold of Howard Hughes, Fozzie Bear fronting a Muppet tribute band in Reno – are rarely developed to their full comic potential. Miss Piggy's new role as the Paris editor of Vogue doesn't seem half demented enough for her notions of glory: shouldn't she be running her own Oprah-style empire by now, flogging aerobics videos and pancake mixture?
Still, there are enough good moments to suggest the film that might have been. Amy Adams is a self-evidently perfect choice as leading lady; unlike Segal, she seems capable of accepting the Muppet universe on its own terms. And you can hardly go wrong with Animal, the crazed Muppet drummer, particularly when he's teamed with Jack Black.