A dozen years have passed since the Muppets last appeared on the big screen. Their founder, Jim Henson, died in 1990. Most Muppet characters, with the exception of the “Sesame Street’’ stable, were sold to Disney in 2004. All of which explains why the folks behind The Muppets -- Disney -- might have concerns.
One fear: that the Muppets might not be ready for 2011. Or that we’ve grown up and don’t need them anymore. And then there’s the reality of our evolved techno-savvy: To pass off the shared delusion that is the Muppets - to make a new generation of fans believe in a world where googly-eyed cloth puppets and humans overlap - would require a CGI Kermit interacting with a motion-capture Fozzie.
The Muppets, which opens nationwide on Wednesday, is their comeback story. Fans can rejoice: Their purity remains intact. As does their low-fi, sock-puppet technology.
And it's clear the movie-makers are aiming for the both the generation that grew up on the Muppets, and their offspring. The Muppets opens with the Wayback Machine set to Nostalgia.
In grainy, Super 8 footage, we get a montage of two boys, Gary (a human) and Walter (a Muppet) – yes, they're brothers -- growing up in the 1970s and '80s. Cub Scouts, school photos, and birthday parties.
Walter also happens to be obsessed with the Muppets. But as he comes of age, he realizes they exist only in reruns. He lives in a human world, and wants to meet his Muppet kind. Accompanied by his now grown-up brother, played by Jason Segel (Forgetting Sarah Marshall) and his girlfriend Mary (Amy Adams), Walter sets off for Los Angeles to visit Muppet Studios theme park, and commune with his people (er, Muppets).
But whatever happened to the Muppets? The "real" Kermit, Rowlf the Dog, Miss Piggy, and the rest? Have they changed? And how have we changed?
It's no wonder that The Muppets pushes our wistfulness buttons. Many of us were weaned on "Sesame Street," then honed our comic sensibilities on "The Muppet Show" during its five-year TV run (1976-81). In 1979, "The Muppet Movie" finally gave us the characters' backstories, and their lives meshing with the real world. And Kermit was real. I loved seeing Kermit literally step away from his puppeteer and the confines of the soundstage and into the great outdoors to ride a bike, dance, drive a car, and challenge Doc Hopper to a Western shootout. And follow his dreams.
Yet, after a series of increasingly lackluster Muppet theatrical and television movies, some assumed the Muppets were dead. They almost did disappear, after Jim Henson, Muppets founder and voice of Kermit, met his untimely death in 1990. His heirs sold the rights to the non-Sesame Street characters, plus our little green friend, to the House of Mouse. The last full-length Muppet feature, the made-for-TV "The Muppets' Wizard of Oz" (2005), was generally considered a failure. Frank Oz, voice and performer of Miss Piggy and Fozzie Bear, among others, retired.
In the new movie, Muppets still inhabit our world. But the larger question remains: Are they at odds with the current times? The old-timey villainy Tex Richaman (played by Chris Cooper) wants to raze Muppet Studios and drill for oil. “Those Muppets - they think they’re so funny,’’ Richman sneers. “We’ve all moved on. The world is a cynical place.’’ In the words of the jaded TV executive Kermit and Co. try to convince to give them airtime, “In this market, you guys are no longer relevant.’’
Maybe. Or maybe their sweet, dream-catching credo is just what our money-grubbing planet needs.
Can this new Muppet movie resurrect the franchise? That's what the filmmakers hope -- that the Muppets aren't obsolete. That their goofy, wholesome, G-rated, vaudeville and pun-driven slapstick still works for kids, if not their 30- and 40-something parents.
[read more about the Muppets in a related article. Also, a timeline of key moments in Muppet history.]