Once upon a time — 1979, to be exact — along a freeway in the southwest, a car carrying the Muppets broke down. And their pursuit of a dream (“to make millions of people happy!”) came to a crashing halt.

So they built a campfire beside their broken-down car. Kermit the Frog walked into the darkness. Rowlf the Dog sadly played a harmonica. And Fozzie Bear pointed out the obvious: “We’re not going to make the audition tomorrow.”

Then the daredevil Gonzo stepped into the spotlight… or rather, the moonlight. Instead of performing a stunt, he looked up in awe at the stars. He forgot his troubles. The magic of the cosmos threw fuel on the fire of his deepest longings. He began to sing: 

“This looks familiar,” he half-whispered. “Vaguely familiar.” He went on to express his faith the he would someday be restored to a place of rightness, where dreams would be fulfilled, where he would know a sense of true belonging at last.

“You can just visit, but I plan to stay.
I’m going to go back there someday.”

And there I was, only nine years old, watching The Muppet Movie in the theater with my parents. Naive as I was, I believed I was having an experience that would change my life.

I was right.

The Muppets had been my companions, my entertainment, and my teachers on Sesame Street and The Muppet Show. But now they were on the big screen, embraced by audiences of all ages, celebrated as heroes. And instead of gloating, they were directing our attention to things that really mattered — dreams, humility, friendship, community, music, laughter, make-believe, and faith. Their story would influence the shape of the rest of my life.

•    •    •

As a kid, I didn’t have many friends around, so I invested countless hours in making up whole casts of characters who would keep me company.

Largely inspired by the imaginations of A.A. Milne, Walt Disney, J.R.R. Tolkien… and above all, Jim Henson… I drew pictures, wrote stories, and made puppets out of brown paper bags and yarn and crayons and cotton balls and glue. I wanted to bring worlds to life with simple materials the way Henson did. I vividly remember the days when my savings from a small weekly allowance enabled me to purchase a real Kermit puppet and a real Animal puppet. And I still have the sets and props from homemade puppet shows I performed for my brother and a couple of neighbor kids on a puppet stage that my grandfather built for me. (That desk has been remodeled, and now it’s my home-office writing desk, where I write fantasy novels.)

The day I first saw The Muppet Movie in the theater was as memorable and influential for me as the first time I sawStar Wars. The story it told seemed important. I made me want to answer a call, like Kermit the Frog did. If Kermit could leave the swamp, go to Hollywood, and inspire the world, maybe I could someday leave Northeast Portland, discover new worlds, tell stories, and give the world something that would make lives richer, hearts more joyful. If Jim Henson could make the world a better place with a song and a sock puppet, surely I could make a difference too.

I didn’t want to go on an adventure alone. I wanted to find a fellowship of diverse and colorful personalities — friends who would be drawn along by the same dream, the way Fozzie Bear, Dr. Teeth, and Rowlf the Dog followed Kermit.

I wanted to follow Kermit’s example and put on good shows. And I did, hosting talent shows in high school, and working with a team to produce talent shows in college. I wanted my own Electric Mayhem — and I found it in college, in an improvisational comedy rock band called The Garbage Chute Flyboys, with my fellow Muppet enthusiast Todd Fadel (who is still a Muppet-influenced rock star today).

The Muppets inspired me to love the stuff of artmaking — the materials and the conventions — as much as they entertained me.

But more importantly, they impressed upon me the importance of showing love and welcome to all kinds of people. They taught me to want to be a unifying presence, not a divisive one. They taught me that how I pursue my dream, and how I treat people during that journey, are as important as any achievement. Kindness and the tireless pursuit of imaginative excellence — that’s what I learned from them.

A poster-sized portrait of Jim Henson looks at me in my office every day, and Kermit the Frog is looking over his shoulder. “Think different,” the poster says.

•    •    •

Gonzo’s song follows me around, becoming more and more bittersweet as the years go by. Its meaning has expanded. It is still about the longing for heaven. But it is also about the Muppets themselves. In that world of personalities, colors, and magic, my own imagination, my own values, my own dreams took root and grew.

I haven’t been to that place since Jim Henson died, except by watching the productions he gave the world.

Don’t we all wish we could go back to that time and place?

It was a time when families could gather and enjoy the same television show, without subjecting themselves to corrosive cynicism, demeaning sarcasm, crass and lurid imagery, and a barrage of senseless stimulation. It was a warmer, happier, more joyful time, where even the sad songs were heartening in their earnestness and beauty. We had the sense that things were meant to be better… and that they could be better, with a little imagination.

But then again, no… it would be false to say that we all wish we could go back to that place. Some of us have never been there at all. Generations are growing up with no exposure to art and entertainment like the Muppets. The Muppets themselves haven’t been around for several years. In the decade after Henson’s death, his company tried to keep his characters alive with a few movies and television specials, but the characters’ personalities were fading, and the productions lacked the intelligence, humor, and personality that came so easily to the great comedy team of Jim Henson and Frank Oz.

•    •    •

So when I started hearing news about a new Muppet movie, I didn’t think “going back there someday” was such a good idea.

In 1999, I’d been invited back to a galaxy far, far away… the Star Wars wonderland I’d loved as a kid… only to find flat, uninspiring storytelling and bland, forgettable personalities on a stage cluttered with gadgets designed to sell toys. (Yes, I’m still resentful, Mr. Lucas.) I didn’t want to see something else from my childhood drained of its original virtues, a bad imitation paraded out as if it were the real thing for the sake of merchandising potential.

Imagine you’d grown up with a perfect bunch of childhood friends — singing songs, drawing pictures, playing games, starting bands, imagining adventures, dreaming dreams, and laughing until you were sore. Imagine that you brought out the creative best in each other. Then imagine that something changed, and they were taken from your life. Maybe they moved away. Maybe they just disappeared. Now imagine that suddenly… after years of silence, years of sadness, and decades of adulthood, you suddenly received a letter saying that they’re coming to see you. Wouldn’t you be a little scared… scared that they’d turn out to be unfamiliar, changed, harder, cynical, messed up? Would the old joys still be possible? Or would you find smiles and laughs only in nostalgia?

•    •    •

But then I began to hope.

The long-running viral marketing campaign for this film was consistently encouraging. It showed sparks of that old, madcap Muppet imagination. It had enthusiasm. And most importantly, where the post-Henson Muppet movies gave us characters who looked like the original characters but didn’t act or sound like them, the Muppets in these viral videos seemed wonderfully familiar.

So, I entered the theater for The Muppets with some considerable anxiety.

And as I looked around at the theater packed with children, I realized that if the movie was going to be successful, it was going to have to do more than just prove to me that the heartbeat of the Muppets could be jump-started. It was going to have to inspire a whole new generation of youngsters who are accustomed to frantic entertainment.

Ten minutes into The Muppets, the audience — adults and children alike — were laughing and having a grand time. And I began to feel surprise, then relief, and then an increasingly giddy kind of joy.

I’m reminded of another line from Gonzo’s song: “There’s not a word yet / for old friends who’ve just met.” No, there isn’t. But if there was, I’d use it here. I felt I was enjoying something made by true kindred spirits. You can tell that these filmmakers grew up cherishing what was best about the Muppets. They’ve filled their movie with knowing references to The Muppet Show and The Muppet Movie. And while the voices of the original characters aren’t exactly right (how could they be?), their personalities and idiosyncrasies are impressively restored. Henson’s rare combination of generosity, soulfulness, kindness, creativity, and madness defined everything he made, and this is the first post-Henson Muppet production to strike the same balance. From the script to the colors to the body language, it all has Henson’s heartbeat.

“This looks familiar… very familiar…” indeed.

By the time the credits rolled, I was so satisfied that I couldn’t help but think, “This is what Star Wars fans hoped to feel when they lined up for the prequels. They wanted to go back to a world they loved, not because they’re merely nostalgic, but because they wanted to believe that the journey could continue, and that they could go to new places that would restore that sense of wonder, with adventurers whose company they cherished.

While the movie celebrates this homecoming by reviving Kermit’s beloved theme song “The Rainbow Connection”, I left the theatre thinking about Gonzo’s song. The Muppets took me back to a place I’d thought was gone, and showed me that there are new adventures to be enjoyed there.

•    •    •

Directed by James Bobin (of Flight of the Conchords), The Muppets begins by introducing us to a new Muppet named Walter and his human brother, Gary (Jason Segel).

We learn that Gary and Walter grew up as big fans of the Muppets. And the film’s opening scenes feature glimpses of the original Muppet Show, which are remarkably powerful in reminding us of the contagious, guilt-free joy of Henson’s world.

Soon, we’re off on a quest with Walter, Gary, and Gary’s girlfriend Amy to visit the original Muppet studio in Los Angeles.

Here, the movie brilliantly toys with our emotions, illustrating what many of us have felt — the void where Henson’s imagination once flourished. For Muppet Studios is run-down, falling apart, a shambles.

And yes — in a story as old as the movies — the beloved studio is about to be taken over by an oil tycoon named Tex Richman (Chris Cooper, in an endearingly self-effacing and enthusiastic performance).

So Walter, Gary, and Amy have to educate Kermit (brought back to life brilliantly by Steve Whitmire) about his seemingly doomed legacy, inspire him to round up the original gang, and put together a variety-show telethon that will raise the money to save both the studio and the Jim Henson legacy.

How they get the band back together, and what they do to put on a show worthy of Henson’s memory… well, that’s best left for you to discover.

But I can tell you that it is a consistently funny, surprisingly creative adventure full of celebrity cameos (like the original Muppet Movie) and catchy songs. There may not be a new song to compare with the fantastic melodies and lyrics Paul Williams brought to the original movie, but the film does bring back “The Rainbow Connection” in a way that doesn’t seem cheap or sentimental.

Like most Muppet movies, The Muppets has some ideas that work better than others.

There are so many high points, I won’t come close to noting them all. Right now, I’m thinking of

  • Mary’s unusual elementary school classroom;
  • Kermit’s heartbreaking song about friends that now live only as “pictures in my head”;
  • the revelation of the “standard rich and famous contract” that Orson Welles signed in The Muppet Movie;
  • the montage in which Kermit and Fozzie track down the rest of their old friends in various locations and vocations, the best of which is their reunion with Rowlf the Dog (one of the first Muppets ever on television);
  • the hilarious identity crisis that Gary suffers as he sings “Am I man or a Muppet?”;
  • the enthusiastic cameos by Mickey Rooney, Feist, Alan Arkin, Jack Black, and others;
  • the unconventional performances of familiar rock and pop songs by Cee-lo Green and Nirvana.

The movie doesn’t really know what to do with its female human lead. As Mary, Amy Adams fits right into the Muppet world. The same winsome playfulness that made her the perfect leading lady in Enchanted makes her seem right at home in the company of Miss Piggy and Fozzie Bear.

In this story, she exists primarily to force a question for Gary: Will he follow Walter and dedicate his life to the Muppets? Or will he apply what he has learned from the Muppets to his own life? The movie suggests that the lessons and virtues of the Muppets’ storyline are perfectly relevant in the life of a grown man: Loyalty, kindness, reconciliation, big dreams. In a world where Muppets can defy the forces of cynicism and exploitation, maybe a man can find the courage to commit himself to the ideal of marriage.

But there can be no satisfying resolution without tension, and as the distance grows between Mary and Gary to create that tension, the movie can’t find anything interesting to do with her. She engages in a “Me Party” — a tangent of self-indulgence that I expected would become an over-the-top lampoon of self-centered individualism. (Wouldn’t it have been great if Beaker had shown us a MePhone, a MePod, and a MePad?) But it doesn’t… it’s just a superfluous song and dance number that draws a feeble connection between Mary and Miss Piggy.

Piggy, too, fumbles around in this storyline. Her on-again/off-again relationship with Kermit has always been played for laughs, but here it is taken a little too seriously.

The oil tycoon subplot is, alas, the film’s weakest thread. Cooper gives the role his all, and he’s a blast to watch. But after the storytellers establish him as a malevolent businessman, they don’t know what to do with him. He’s left fumbling for ways to disrupt the Muppets’ fundraising production. He stops looking scary and ends up looking kind of pathetic. The conflict’s resolution doesn’t compare well to the suspenseful showdown at the end of The Muppet Movie, which led to a hilarious climax.

But that’s the film’s one and only big problem — and it’s very easy to forgive, since Bobin, Segel, and company have achieved what seemed so impossible.

•    •    •

Jason Segel has been very open, all along the way, about his passion for this project. I’m grateful that a kindred spirit worked so hard to give back to the Muppets the qualities that made them such a wonder in the first place. They brought the beloved characters back in a way that seemed real.

I like the way Drew McWeeny at HitFix put it: “The sense of humor here is warm and playful and occasionally surreal, and there’s not a mean bone in its body.” That just goes to show that somebody learned good lessons from Jim Henson himself.

I also agree with my favorite film reviewer, Steven Greydanus, who points out, “The Muppets is not trying to be hip and edgy, or at least any hipper and edgier than the Muppets ever were. This is quite deliberately not a reboot or reimagining or any such thing. Perhaps we can call it a revisiting. Like this summer’s charming Winnie the Pooh(also from Disney), The Muppets is a happy throwback, very much of a piece with material that my generation grew up with, eclipsing the lameness of recent direct-to-video efforts. Who would have thought two classic family franchises that have lain fallow for so long would be reborn in the same year?”

Wonder of wonders — my old friends are back. They’re older, a little weatherbeaten, and maybe their voices have changed. But you could say the same thing about me.

If the Muppets can still put on a good show in a world as dark and broken as this, maybe a guy as disillusioned and cynical as me can get his act together too. I need all the hope and inspiration I can get.

My thanks to the filmmakers, screenwriters, and Muppet performers who have made another substantial contribution to the cause of the lovers, the dreamers and me.

And thanks as well for inspiring the little boy who sat next to me. All of five years old, he was wide-eyed, enthralled, throughout. And with about fifteen minutes left in the film, he declared to the whole audience, “This is my favorite show!”

I know exactly how he feels.

Director – James Bobin; writers – Nicholas Stoller and Jason Segel; director of photograph – Don Burgess; editor – James Thomas; music – Christophe Beck; choreography – Michael Rooney; production design – Steve Saklad; costumes – Rahel Afiley; producers – David Hoberman and Todd Lieberman. Starring – Jason Segel (Gary), Amy Adams (Mary), Chris Cooper (Tex Richman), Rashida Jones (Veronica), Jack Black (himself); and Walter, Kermit the Frog, Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear, the Great Gonzo, Animal, Statler and Waldorf, Swedish Chef, Dr. Bunsen Honeydew and Beaker, Sam Eagle, Rowlf the Dog, Scooter, and Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem Band.Walt Disney Pictures. 1 hour 38 minutes.