I wrote lovingly in Radio Times about my childhood attachment to The Muppet Show which, like all good formative obsessions, has stayed with me into adult life. At 11 years old, I was the perfect age in 1976 to appreciate its colourful, all-singing, all-dancing, puppet-based mayhem – if not the subtle adult references, such as Statler and Waldorf being named after New York hotels, the resemblance of bandleader Dr Teeth to New Orleans pianist Dr John, and the rock ‘n’ roll heritage of guitarist Floyd Pepper’s compound name.
Because it was designed by creator Jim Henson to appeal to all ages, after the pre-school educational behemoth Sesame Street, it’s no surprise that it became an instant family favourite in our house. Though it was made by ATV (part of ITV) at our own Elstree Studios, it was all-American, especially in its choice of human guest stars, occasionally exotically foreign to our eyes and ears. Ruth Buzzi? Phyllis Diller? Juliet Prowse? Kaye Ballard?
With this, and the Collins family’s devotion to the soundtrack LP of The Muppet Movie, released in 1979, I was always going to be a captive audience for The Muppets – this year’s high-profile, lavishly promoted revival after 13 years away from the big screen. Since The Muppets from Space in 1999, the last Muppet movie to be theatrically released, there have been two made-for-TV specials (neither broadcast here to my knowledge), and since buying the brand in 2004, Disney has not done too much to exploit the property. Until now…
Before seeing the film, I was a little concerned it might be a postmodern reinvention. But I needn’t have worried. Led by co-writer and Judd Apatow graduate Jason Segel, it is actually a sincere and heartfelt revival, cleverly based on the precept of getting the old gang back together to save the derelict Muppet Theatre from being demolished by an oil baron. The universe it creates is one where the Muppets are past their prime, and in many cases down on their luck. (Fozzie is seen heading up a Muppets tribute act in a near-empty bar.)
There are one or two arch, metatextual references in the script (“If I didn’t know better, I’d say you were reciting some sort of important plot point”, “Wow, that was such an expensive-looking explosion, I can’t believe we had that in the budget”), but Segel and his co-star, Enchanted’s Amy Adams, treat the gooey storylines and lavish musical numbers with due care and attention, not to mention respect.
Frankly, if you’re not enchanted by it, or feel in any way uncomfortable that you’re watching an unashamedly old-fashioned family movie starring some puppets unassisted by CGI effects, then you’re either too young, or too cool. I’m neither. And nor were the jaded, middle-aged film critics I saw the film with, who were guffawing throughout.