Who would ever put the enduringly lovable Muppets in a boxing ring and have them fight their way out? Why, Movie Smackdown, of course. In this bout, the Muppets’ new, eponymous movie will trade blows with another showbiz-centered movie featuring Jason Segel and some puppet cast members (albeit in cameos), 2008’s Forgetting Sarah Marshall. Despite their generally harmless nature, the Muppets have a few fierce battlers on their side, including the headstrong and beefy Miss Piggy and wildly temperamental musician, Animal. Their opponents can be scary too, as Sarah features the undead cast members of the main character’s puppet rock musical A Taste For Love. Who needs humans for a Smack? These creatures made of foam, cloth and wire should give us a pretty good fight.
Walter (voiced by Peter Linz) is a skinny young puppet who grows up idolizing the Muppets. He also idolizes his human brother Gary (Jason Segel, who also wrote the screenplay with Nicholas Stoller, from Jim Henson’s characters). Gary is so kind that, to the chagrin of girlfriend Mary (Amy Adams), he decides to bring his sibling along on a trip to Los Angeles. L.A., after all, was home to the Muppets for their many years of glory, and Walter will finally get to visit the troupe’s studio, theater and, naturally, theme park.
He’s in for a shock, however. Due to the Muppets’ long period of inactivity, the theater is shuttered and the studio is a nearly abandoned complex manned only by a bored tour guide (Alan Arkin). While exploring the grounds, Walter discovers to his alarm that the Muppets have inked a contract to sell the studio to a greedy tycoon, Tex Richman (Chris Cooper), unaware that Richman’s only ambition is to demolish the grounds to access the oil bubbling underneath. The three track down Kermit and convince him to get the long-dormant troupe back together and put on a TV telethon in an effort to raise enough money for the Muppets to buy out Tex’ contract and secure their property.
Easier said than done, as the team is hopelessly scattered throughout the world, with most well established in post-Muppet careers. Fozzie Bear, for example, anchors a second-rate tribute band called the Moopets, while Miss Piggy enjoys more success as the editor of the French edition of Vogue, and Gonzo rakes in the bucks as the head of Royal Flush, a big-time plumbing supplier. Not only will Walter have to help Kermit assemble the old team, he’ll need to contribute his modest talents to make the telethon successful.
Film composer and aspiring puppeteer Peter Bretter (yes, Segel again) is deeply in love with his pretty, successful actress girlfriend Sarah (Kristen Bell). His world crumbles when she breaks up with him, and he decides to escape the trauma by vacationing in Hawaii. Problem is, Sarah has decamped to the same island for her vacation. Worse, she’s staying in the same hotel. Worse still, she’s with her new lover Aldous Snow (Russell Brand), the skeezy front man of the popular English rock band, Infant Sorrow. Worst of all, it quickly comes to light that Sarah had started seeing Aldous during her relationship with Peter.
Made even more miserable by this awkward situation, Peter barely notices the interest of the fetching hotel receptionist, Rachel (Mila Kunis). Eventually, he crawls out of his pit of depression and slowly begins a romance with her. As Peter and Rachel ger closer, Sarah and Aldous start to argue, and their relationship quickly dissolves. This makes Sarah suddenly available again, and against his better judgment, Peter is tempted to reconcile. So once he’s back in L.A., it’s a question of which girl will end up being his V.I.P. guest at the world premiere of his long-awaited puppet musical.
It’s nice to have the Henson family’s beloved creatures back again. The Muppets keeps pretty close to tradition, with a light tone, friendly humor and good-natured bits of show business satire. All of the main Muppets are well featured in the movie, and the after-fame career trajectories of the team members are funny and appropriate. Plenty of celebrities pop up in cameos, including Jack Black, who becomes a Muppet kidnap victim (long story, don’t ask); and Dave Grohl, hewing to stereotype by playing the drummer of Fozzie’s rip-off band, The Moopets. What spoils this return to form a bit is the movie’s constant referencing of the Muppets’ classic TV show. Muppet humor is best when fresh and at least a little relevant; the Hensons and their collaborators always had a sharp eye for the absurdities of the entertainment world, and many of their most inspired gags were takeoffs on TV and movies. This film is nostalgic, which is a new approach for the troupe and not the best one. It alienates newer and younger fans who might not be familiar with the TV show that started it all, or any of the movies that came before. Even for those of us who grew up with the show, this approach feels like lazy filmmaking and leaves an audience wanting for the more inspired, original humor of the series and the first few movies.
Forgetting Sarah Marshall, unlike its rival, is an adult sex comedy and doesn’t suffer from the nostalgia flu at all. Segel is a likeable enough lead and he’s helped by memorable supporting players, particularly Brand, who’s pitch-perfect as the absurd, self-impressed Aldous. On the downside, the story is fairly predictable, and the main characters aren’t all that memorable in spite of their likability. There are some good, funny moments and a few enjoyably raunchy physical gags, but none are gut-bustingly hysterical or original. The final scenes with Peter’s vampire puppet musical present an opportunity for some good laughs (come on, it’s a vampire puppet musical). The script, however, steers away from what could have been much funnier scenes with the puppets. This reflects the overall movie: While competently written and executed and generally entertaining, Forgetting Sarah Marshall is ultimately rather forgettable.
The references come thick and fast in The Muppets, and they dampen the fun of the movie. The other films in the troupe’s—dare we say?—canon are fresher and funnier since their creators don’t weigh them down with that much history. Still, you can never really go wrong with these guys and there’s enough silliness and humor in this offering to provide plenty of entertainment. For almost every glance back at Muppet glory there’s a creative new gag (Gonzo as a toilet tycoon is a scream, for example).
Forgetting Sarah Marshall doesn’t have the benefit of Kermit and company; it would have been a more memorable film if it had. It’s a decent sex comedy with nice people and a funny turn by Russell Brand, but little more than that. The title characters in The Muppets always have a weight advantage in any contest due to their history and the talent behind them. Although this new film is not their best or freshest, it’s enough to take this Smackdown.